There’s no getting around it, making it in the cut-throat world of rallying takes tenacity, grit, a bit of luck, and of course, talent! The road to the top is a notoriously slippery one, meaning that only the finest young talents actually make it to the upper echelons of the sport, and that most certainly applies to Chris Ingram.
The 22 year old Englishman has spent the last few years carving out an enviable reputation for giant-killing performances on tarmac and gravel rallies across Europe, with the undoubted highlight being last year’s victory in the European Rally Championship’s two-wheel drive category.
2017 will him fighting to further his career, with a plum drive in the R2 Opel Adam being the best means to do just that. We caught up with Chris in the run up to this year’s campaign to talk about his career so far, his WRC ambitions and plans for 2017.
First up, congratulations on winning the 2016 ERC 2WD title. How did it feel and how difficult was it?
It felt amazing, it’s huge for my career, but also important as I was able to bring a European title back to Britain for the first time in many years. Consistency really was the key though; I worked hard to bank points at every round at it paid off, which should hopefully stand me in good stead moving forward.
The ERC contains a good mix of tarmac and gravel stages, which do you feel most at home on?
It’s probably 50/50 nowadays but I must admit I do really enjoy the challenge tarmac rallying represents. I’ve had my best results on asphalt but also some big crashes, so I don’t know what that says about me. Gravel poses its own set of challenges of course, mainly as there are so many different skills and driving techniques to master in order to be truly competitive, plus the fact that the Scandinavian and Baltic drivers are just so unbelievably fast on it!
How do you prepare both mentally and physically in the run up to your title defence? Do you feel the pressure more now that you’re a defending champion?
No extra pressure, no. I’ve got a lot of experience of rallying in Europe now so that’s important mentally, though of course there are 3 new events this year that I have no prior experience of but can’t wait to tackle. I’m well aware that there’s a strong field of competitors though – there’s always someone out to beat you.
How much scope is there for you personally to develop and put your own stamp on the Opel Adam R2? How has the car progressed over the course of the time you’ve been driving it?
The Adam was actually a fully developed car by the time I joined the team 2 years ago, so not much, really. It’s actually been more of a case of me honing my own driving style to better suit the Opel, as it’s a smaller car than my previous Peugeot 208 R2 and therefore demands a different driving style.
How have you found driving the 2WD cars like the Adam on the limit?
They say that if you’re quick in a front-wheel drive car then you’ll be quick in anything, and I like to think that’s a good way to look at it. It’s hard to describe quite how good modern front-wheel drive rally cars are, the Adam in particular – it’s so good that we can even give some of the R5 guys are run for their money on tarmac. The technology and the differentials really are something else, and it feels like they’re defying physics sometimes, so in a word, great.
Looking further ahead, are you planning on securing an R5 drive in 2018?
An R5 drive would be the ideal scenario, yes, but I’d like to do it with Opel if at all possible. It’s a fantastic team that I know well; they’ve guided me to a title already and are hugely experienced, plus it’s so important to have factory support nowadays.
The R5 specification cars and 2WD Opel Adam are hugely different, can you describe the differing approaches required to drive them?
They’re totally different, no doubt about it. I actually find the four-wheel drive R5 cars easier to drive on the limit as they have more power and traction. You can drive them at 95% all day everyday and still be in control and have something in reserve, it’s just extracting the final 5% that’s the tricky part.
Clearly a full time drive in the WRC must be your ultimate goal, do you have plan of how to get there?
That’s the end goal of course, but in truth it seems a long way ahead and I don’t think about it too much. The sport is littered with stories of guys who jumped up the career ladder too soon, to the R5 classes and above in particular, and found themselves lacking in experience and failed to make the grade as a result.
Are you excited about the prospect of getting behind the wheel of one of the new era WRC cars?
I’d love to try one but as I said, i’m fully focussed on the here and now, and that’s the ERC. That said, opportunity knocks at the most random of times – just look at Gabin Moreau, my old co-driver. He was invited to partner with Stéphane Lefebvre for 2016 and I don’t think either of us expected that back when we started, so you never really know what’s around the corner.
Are there any particular WRC or ERC events that you’re especially looking forward to trying? Finland and Sweden present unique challenges and have a reputation for being tough nuts to crack.
There are just so many, that’s the joy of competing in a sport as diverse and varied as rallying. I do wish that there were more tarmac rounds in both championships though, as I believe sealed surface rallies have the potential to really mix things up a bit, hence why I’d probably pick either the Monte or Corsica. I’d also love to have a go at Finland!
How would you rate the career path for aspiring rally drivers? Has the ERC’s Junior system worked?
The ERC is partnered with Eurosport and that’s definitely helped, especially now that there are cash prizes on offer for drivers that succeed; I’ll get a full 100,000 euros if I win the Under 27 Junior title this year and that will go a long way towards opening doors career wise, and that’s very important. If I’m able to win the ERC outright before I turn 28 then I’ll be rewarded with a one-off WRC drive in a WRC car, which is a fairly unique prize and one worth fighting hard for! I’m only 22 at the moment so I have time on my side but there are so many variables – it’s important to keep career momentum, to keep moving forward and to show to be improving all the time, and the current career path has helped me to do this.
You association with Andrews Heat For Hire is great for many reasons, it must be nice to be linked with one of the most iconic sponsors in British rallying?
They’ve been brilliant to be involved and associated with and their support has helped me so much. It’s definitely a privilege to be working with such an iconic name, and Russell Brookes (Former British Rally Champion and Group B legend) who was supported by Andrews for 17 years has been hugely helpful as well.
What was it like driving the ex-Russell Brookes Manta 400?
So, so much fun! I’m obviously too young to remember the Group B cars first hand but I was over the moon to be given the chance to drive the Manta. I was impressed with how tough it was and how much power Opel managed to get from its 2.4 NA engine.
Who do you consider to be your biggest threat in the ERC 2WD championship this year?
Opel have been very dominant in the ERC 2WD championship for the last few seasons, so that means that my biggest rival is, and has been for a while, my team mate! This year I have 2 new team mates, Tamara Molinaro and Jari Huttunen. They’re both very quick and have a lot of seat time, Tamara is backed by Red Bull while Jari is backed and mentored by Marcus Grönholm so they must be good!
Am I right in saying you’ll be contesting ADAC Rally Deutschland in August?
I’ve tackled Rally Germany before and it’s fun, yes. It’s also a challenge as there are so many flat out straights that end in 90 degree corners meaning it pays to have a lot of local knowledge. Opel are due to announce two additional events outside of the ERC to my schedule, and both will be excellent opportunities.
You’ve got one rally car from any point in history, on any stage, in any country – which do you pick?
The new Citroen C3 WRC in Finland. I’m allowed to say that now that PSA owns Opel!