hen the news was announced at the start of 2016 that Elfyn Evans was joining the British Rally Championship, the rest of the crews must have groaned as the year was written off as no-hoper. The Dolgellau driver would surely walk away with it.
Instead, a young pretender from Karlstad, Sweden, launched himself onto the scene and leads the revived championship after three rounds. His name? Fredrik Ahlin. If anyone was born to be a rally driver, it was probably Fredrik. The 24-year-old has an unmatched lineage in the sport ( see below), winning a rally before he entered the world.
“My mother did one of her last seasons of rallying in the 1990s,” says Ahlin. “With me in her stomach. I was not even born before I got my first taste of champagne!”
However, it’s been far from a meteoric rise to the top for a driver who – with his family history – should really have had it easier.
To understand his rise-fall-rise career so far, you really have to go back to the beginning.the path started in his native Sweden on ‘youth’ rallies, for 16-year-olds without pacenotes. But after he got his driving licence at the age of 18, his performances in a Subaru Impreza N12 gave him the chance of a lifetime. A shot at a spot in the WRC Academy, now the Drive DMACK Trophy, through a subsidised drive from tyre manufacturer Pirelli.
“In 2010 I was selected from Sweden for the Pirelli Star Driver Shootout,” says Ahlin. “The first shootout was the northern-european one, where me, Craig Breen, Esapekka Lappi and Dave Weston Jr attended, and I won ahead of Craig and so we went through to the final. We won the final together with Craig and some other boys and won the free drive in the World Rally Championship in 2011.”
That’s right. Ahlin beat Finland’s hottest property Lappi and current Citroen WRC driver Breen. But it was too early for Ahlin. Having done only eight rallies on pacenotes, he wasn’t anywhere near experienced enough to take on the future stars of the WRC. Ahlin’s only two stage wins that year came on rallies he retired on, with an impressive podium in Italy the only fruit from a baptism of fire.
After showing speed in 2011, it was supposed to be his year in 2012. It started with leading the Portuguese season opener and taking three stage wins. But it all unravelled from there.
“On the first round, we were the quickest, took the most stage wins and we were leading the rally when I made a mistake,” adds the Swede. “From then on everything went spiralling downhill into a very dark period for myself. There was a lot of bad crashes, accidents and mistakes.
“It finished off with a very big crash in Spain where I broke some ribs and I still have memory loss from the accident. I can’t remember the day before or the day after. It was a very big accident.”
Accidents like that can put doubt in the mind, and any sane rally driver will tell you that driving on the limit with even a shade of doubt or hesitation is a recipe for disaster. It led the youngster to consider his future in the sport.
“That year was hard as we’d had a lot of crashes and when you have the biggest crash of your career you stop and start to think what you are doing, why you are doing it and whether you want to continue,” he adds. “I was only 20 years old but I was still thinking about stopping rallying.”
After the torrent of bad – or lack of – luck, Ahlin had to go back to basics. He decided to run a Ford Fiesta R2 on Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian rallies. The step down in relative competition relaunched his career in Sweden and Scandinavia, culminating in a one-off drive in a Skoda Fabia S2000 on the deciding round of the Swedish Rally Championship in 2013, where he finished second.
The next year he was back in the WRC and back on the podium on his native Rally Sweden in WRC2. Sporadic outings in WRC2 in 2014 and ’15 did not bring much success. There were mechanical issues, but Ahlin still continued to show his pace, especially in 2015.
“In Finland the alternator belt snapped, and on Wales Rally GB we broke a driveshaft and we restarted day two,” he explains. “On day three we were the only one matching Craig [Breen’s] times, I think we were second on all the stages. We showed the pace was there but we never got the whole package together.”
And onto 2016. A deal was penned early in the year at the Autosport show with CA1 Sport to run his Leovegas-backed Fiesta R5in the British championship, with Pirelli rubber and trusty co-driver Morten Erik Abrahamsen on the notes. And the Swede has really reaped the rewards.
Predictably, Elfyn Evans opened up an early lead in Mid Wales, the opening round of the BRC. But Ahlin stuck with him and even grabbed the lead on Saturday morning before an all-out blitz by Evans gave him the win on one of his favourite stages, Hafren/sweet Lamb. Ahlin settled for second, sensing the Welshman was untouchable.
The real test for the Swede was the Circuit of Ireland, having not driven a four-wheel-drive car in anger on asphalt, and not on the surface at all since his WRC Academy days. However, Brc-leading times in the absence of Evans, who retired with a snapped alternator belt, should have allowed him an easy win. The pace shown by the gravel/snow specialist was quite out of the ordinary and surprised a few of the Irish Tarmac Championship regulars competing on the event.
However, perhaps his inexperience of fighting for a championship shone through. A small mistake on Friday, which bent the front left, was followed up with a shunt on Saturday, ruling him out of the rally.
“Ireland was really good, I was maybe just going a bit too quick because of my lack of driving experience on asphalt,” explains Ahlin. “That’s normally the problem, when you have the pace in your body but not the experience, it can go wrong. It’s just one of those things.”
CA1 team boss Martin Wilkinson has dealt with a few drivers who have pushed the car over the limit before (Colin Mcrae for one) but believes that Fredrik’s pace is not only undeniable, it’s on par with the seemingly supreme Evans.
“Fredrik has a long way to go,” says Wilkinson. “If you compare the experience Fredrik has to the experience Elfyn has it’s night and day. It’s almost like a club driver comparing himself to a WRC driver. Elfyn has been there and proved his speed on certain events, look at his pace on Corsica [in 2015], it was unbelievable. Fredrik hasn’t got anywhere near the same experience. When we went to Ireland that was Fredrik’s first proper drive on Tarmac in a four-wheel-drive car. You can’t compare him to Elfyn on experience. But one thing you certainly can compare him to Elfyn on at the moment is speed.”
With that in mind, and Elfyn back flatchat on the next round, Carlisle, the battle resumed. With three rounds gone, it’s a battle that looks set to define the season.
A puncture on day two made sure Elfyn couldn’t challenge, and an issue with the bogey times being beaten meant the Welshman was unlikely to take second either. The Swede did struggle to understand how he’d taken six seconds out of Evans but beaten the bogey and therefore tied on times. A rogue sandwich was thrown into the trees in frustration.
But, it was more valuable points for Ahlin. Not only that, but when the cars arrived at the finish he was first on the leaderboard, boosted by playing his double-points joker. The championship lead is his.
However, the job is far from done. With Evans dominant on asphalt, three of the remaining four rounds of the BRC feature tar, which is why Fredrik has chosen to miss Rally Finland to test and improve on the pace shown in Ireland.
So, has the Swede turned a corner? Has he shaken off his cruel nickname in Sweden? “In the end I’m just driving for myself and I’m not too bothered what people think or don’t think,” claims Ahlin. “I’ve had a very rough career and those who have followed me through it know I’m called ‘Fredrik bad luck’ in Sweden. I’ve made my mistakes but I’ve had a huge amount of bad luck in my career. A lot of people called me [after the Pirelli Carlisle] saying finally your true potential is coming out. I think you need to look at the whole package and at the minute we have that package and that’s why we can deliver top results.”
That is undeniable: car, driver, co-driver, team and tyres are working in almost perfect harmony. Going on to take the 2016 British Rally Championship crown will be a tough order. For one, the finale – Rally Isle of Man – is a double points-scoring round. So a DNF there will almost certainly cost you the title.
But in some respects, the job is already done. Ahlin has matched arguably the best driver in an R5 car anywhere in the world in Evans, so a step up on to a bigger stage surely beckons. A full season in WRC2 next year? Who knows. But there’s unfinished business in the BRC, and Ahlin fancies the title.