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Event

World Rallycross Championship Round 1 – Barcelona

15th April 2017 — by Steve White

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Hola! Welcome to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain for the opening round of the 2017 World Rallycross Championship.

I have previously discussed the changes for this year’s Championship in my preview blog, so I will try not to get too bogged down with technical details here and instead focus on the track action. However before I do that, I would like to dwell on one subject from my season preview, specifically the new Volkswagen Polo being campaigned by Johan Kristoffersson and Petter Solberg.

The PSRXVW Polo isn’t the only new car on track this year but, after much uncertainty and internet discussion, the opening round finally answered a question that has been mooted since the unveiling of the car: Volkswagen Motorsport have indeed deviated from conventional rallycross Supercar design and opted to leave the entire engine cooling package in the front end of the Polo. Volkswagen Motorsport have a huge amount of experience with successful competition cars and I hope they will eventually divulge the reasoning behind the decision to ignore such an established design practise.

Any doubts over Volkswagen Motorsports design decision were quickly dispelled during the opening practice session of the weekend, where Johan Kristoffersson blitzed the track to post the fastest single lap time. It was an impressive start for the Polo and, although some of the other drivers may not have been pushing at this stage, there was little doubt that the new car was quick.

The only notable issue for the PSRXVW Polo seemed to be the launch of the car: it may have simply been the drivers experimenting with the best settings, but I watched Kristoffersson and Solberg abort more launches on the dummy grid than any other drivers.

With the practice session complete, the Touring Cars lined up on the grid for their first qualification race and, with rain beginning to fall, the 2017 Championship finally got underway.

During the opening day the running order for both qualifying rounds was Touring Cars, European Rallycross Championship Supercars and, finally, World Rallycross Championship Supercars. With the early precipitation abating during the first Supercar races, the circuit began to dry and thus got faster with each passing race. Consequently those World Supercar drivers racing at the very end of qualifying one were presented with the best track conditions.

Defending World Champion Mattias Ekstrom took second in his first qualifying race of the year, with his time good enough to place fourth overall. Solberg was over three seconds quicker than Ekstrom which netted him third, while second was taken by Ken Block.

Fastest race time in qualifying one was posted by Johan Kristoffersson. Notably Kristoffersson had run in the same qualifying race as Ekstrom, so both cars had competed in exactly the same track conditions. Johan seems to excel in damp conditions though, so at this stage the result wasn’t any real gauge of potential performance difference.

With the circuit continued to dry out during the second round of qualifying, it seemed like conditions would continue to favour those drivers running last – who were of course the quickest from qualifying one – but, with just two races of the round left, it began to drizzle. As grey clouds continued to amass overhead, Toomas Heikkinen went fastest in qualifying two with an overall time of 3:27.651.

As the downpour intensified, the circuit conditions began to change and, by the time the final Supercar grid had assembled, the grip levels around the track had fallen immensely. Mattias Ekstrom dealt with the wet conditions best, sliding his way to victory in the final race of qualifier two. Notably Ekstrom’s race winning time was over four minutes – 4:04.962 in fact – which was almost 38 seconds slower than Heikkinen’s race winning time and only good enough to place Mattias fifteenth in the second qualifying round.

Ekstrom wasn’t alone, with all of the fastest drivers from the opening heat placing poorly – and Andreas Bakkerud failing to even finish the race – the standings were really shaken up. Johan Kristoffersson managed to hang on to a top three overall position, but both Mattias Ekstrom and Petter Solberg tumbled down the order and fell to eleventh and twelfth respectively in the intermediate standings.

Heikkinen’s time was not only enough to win him qualifying two but, with it, head the overall standings at the end of day one. Toomas wasn’t the EKS driver I had expected to see topping the leaderboard, but his qualifying two race had been run just in time for him to avoid the deluge. With better weather forecast for the second day of racing, could Toomas hang onto that lead position on day two?

Day two began with clear skies and beaming sunshine, so conditions were much more pleasant for spectators. Crucially for the drivers, the warm weather also provided much more consistency from the track. Predictable circuit conditions saw Mattias Ekstrom and Petter Solberg ascend back up the standings, with Ekstrom and Solberg eventually placing second and fifth respectively in the intermediate standings.

However the hardest charger on day two was unquestionably Andreas Bakkerud. After finishing day one in eighteenth overall, Bakkerud rounded off the qualifiers with fastest time in qualifying four. That was enough to move him up to fourth in the intermediate standings and earn him a place on the front row of the second semi-final.

With the qualifiers done and the cumulative scores calculated, the top twelve competitors in each category rolled out to the dummy grid area in preparation for the semi-finals. Given the number of experienced rallycross drivers participating in this year’s World Rallycross Championship, it was rather surprising to see that it wasn’t one of the series veterans heading the World Championship table, but relative newcomer Timo Scheider.

Defending Touring Car Champion Ben-Philip Gunderson had a weekend to forget. With his car failing to pass scrutineering, he was unable to start any races during day one and posted just just a single qualifying time on day two. Consequently Ben-Philip failed to make the semi-finals or even score a single Championship point.

Philip Gehrman also made a poor start to proceedings, with a disqualification and retirement on day one. Bouncing back on day two Gehrman rounded up qualifying with a first. That pace continued into the semi-finals, with Philip winning the second semi-final and securing a front row spot for the Touring Car final.

Lining up alongside Kjetil Larsen, Gehrman took the lead from Larsen on the opening lap of the final. Leaving his joker lap until lap five, Philip briefly relinquished the lead to David Nordgard, however Nordgard slipped back down the order after taking his joker on the final lap of the race. The battle for second position was the real highlight of the Touring Car final, with Petter Brauten fending off the advances of Per-Magne Royras thoughout the second half of the race. Brauten held second position to the line, with Royras taking third just ahead of Nordgard.

I touted Robin Larsson as one to watch for this year’s European Rallycross Championship title and the results from day one certainly supported that prediction, with Robin taking a first and a second in qualifying one and two respectively. A disastrous third qualifier relegated Larsson to third in the intermediate standings, but that was still enough to place Robin on the outside of the front row for the first semi-final.

Lining up alongside Larsson was Anton Marklund. Many had expected Marklund to be quick, but his pace on day two was absolutely astonishing, with Anton securing fastest times in qualifying three and four.

As the cars left the line for the first semi-final Marklund and Larsson made contact, the result of which pushed Robin wide and onto the grass verge on the exit of turn one. Larsson quickly recovered, snatching second place back at turn two and immediately latching onto the back of Anton Marklund. Unfortunately the pursuit was short lived, as Larsson spun on the second lap, leaving Anton free to drive to victory.

Trailing behind Marklund, Henning Solberg held off Rene Munnich and Tommy Rustad to take second. Munnich and Rustad had a fantastic scrap right up to the finish line, with Rene just pipping Tommy to the post. It was a surprise to see neither Tommy Rustad nor Robin Larsson qualifying for the final and there were more upsets to follow in the second European Championship semi-final.

Thomas Bryntesson was one of several young talents who delivered on pre-season expectations during the Spanish qualifiers, placing second overall in the intermediate standings and taking pole position for the second semi-final. As with the first semi, there was contact off the line and, with Thomas holding the inside line, Hvaal nudged him into the tyre stack on the inside of the turn one. The resultant damage forced the immediate retirement of Bryntesson, who pulled over on the outside of the circuit with the front left corner of the car absolutely obliterated.

Semi-final two would also be the last race of the weekend for Jerome Grosset-Janin, as he was unable to match the pace of the leaders and finished outside the top three. With so many talented drivers in this year’s European Championship it was inevitable that some big names would be eliminated at the semi-final stage, but I was surprised to see so many knocked out before the final.

Tamas-Pal Kiss made a rather shaky start on day one, but he seemed to find his form during qualifying three and four. That pace continued in the semi-finals, with Kiss taking the win in the second semi-final. Behind Tamas-Pal were the Irish due of Ollie O’Donovan and Derek Tohill. It was fantastic to see the pair not only qualifying for the semi-final but, but both finish in the top three and advance on to the final.

Semi-final winners Anton Marklund and Tamas-Pal Kiss lined up alongside each other on the front row of the European Rallycross final. Given how quickly Marklund had romped away from the field in his qualifying and semi-final races, he would need to be caught early in order to be stopped. However as the lights went green and the pack headed towards the second corner any hope Kiss had of mounting an early challenge against Marklund disappeared when Tamas-Pal ran wide and was passed by Ollie O’Donovan.

After several laps with Kiss on his tail, O’Donovan opted for his joker lap at the end of lap three, with Ollie snatching third from Rene Munnich as he merged back onto the main track. Although he was too far back to attack Marklund, Tamas-Pal managed to hold onto second position with Ollie O’Donovan staying in third.

Third was a fantastic achievement for O’Donovan and also a historically significant result as it marked the first time an Irish driver has secured a podium finish in the European Rallycross Championship.

Unchallenged out front, Anton Marklund chalked up his first win of the year and with it the lead of the 2017 European Rallycross Championship.

Barcelona certainly didn’t provide the ideal start to the season for the Peugeot-Hansen team. With Sebastien Loeb failing to qualify for the semi-finals – notably the first time he has failed to do so during his time in World Rallycross – team honours were left in the hands of Timmy Hansen and his younger brother Kevin. Sitting on the back row of the grid for the first semi-final, Kevin Hansen attempted a bold overtaking manoeuvre around the pack. Unfortunately the move didn’t pay off and Kevin found himself parked in the gravel trap on the exit of turn two. After digging himself out of the gravel, Kevin was too far back to trouble the top three and so missed out on a position in the final.

Timmy at least had more success in the second semi-final, finishing third and earning a spot on the back row of the final grid.

The front row of the first World Championship semi-final was occupied by Johan Kristoffersson and Timo Schnider. Qualifying first overall, Schnider held the pole position spot, but as the pack arrived at turn one it was Kristoffersson who slotted into first. Starting on row two Petter Solberg quickly found himself relegated to fourth as he was passed by Toomas Heikkinen who made a run round the outside of turn one to take third as everyone filed into turn two.

Sandwiched mid-pack, Solberg sensibly opted to joker at the end of the first lap. Emerging from the joker with clear air ahead of him, Petter immediately began to reel in fourth place driver Ken Block who was hanging onto the back of Toomas Heikkinen. As Heikkinen’s Audi S1 dramatically slowed just before the jump on lap three he was unceremoniously punted out of the way by Block who now had Solberg breathing down his neck. With Petter hanging on to the rear bumper of Ken’s Focus RS RX, Block relinquished his third position when he took the joker.

Timo Schnider briefly took the lead on lap four when Johan Kristoffersson took his joker lap, but Johan regained first a lap later when Timo went for the joker. With a comfortable gap to second position, Johan Kristoffersson won the first World Championship semi-final of 2017, with Schnider in second and Solberg third. It was a great result for the PSRXVW team, as they would be the only team to get two cars into the final in Barcelona.

Brilliantly Guy Wilks managed to secure himself a row two semi-final position in his first outing in the ex-Johan Kristoffersson Volkswagen Polo. Placing eighth in the intermediate standings, Wilks unfortunately found himself pushed out wide on the outside of turn one, dropping him down the order and leaving a significant chunk of ground between himself and the leaders.

An early joker enable Wilks to pass Jean-Baptiste Dubourg, but he was unable to pull in the lead trio and had to settle for fourth. Jean-Baptiste Dubourg eventually finished in fifth, seizing the position from Reinis Nitiss at the very end of the race.

Leading the second semi-final from start to finish, Mattias Ekstrom took the win with Andreas Bakkerud and Timmy Hansen in second and third respectively. While Bakkerud had been occupied by Hansen, Mattias drove aware from the pair to win by a comfortable margin. With Kristoffersson lining up alongside Ekstrom for the final, it looked like the defending Champion was going to have to quite a fight on his hands for the overall win.

Alas hopes of a race win – or even a podium finish – for Kristoffersson evaporated just moments into the final, as the Polo stalled on the line. After seemingly overcoming the day one launch issues, there couldn’t have been a worse time for Johan to encounter the problem again than the start of the final. After a few seconds delay Kristoffersson did manage to get away from the line and quickly caught the pack but, despite several laps of dogged pursuit, he couldn’t find a way past Timmy Hansen and so had to settle for sixth.

Sitting immediately behind Kristoffersson on the grid, Petter Solberg avoided his team mate by the slimmest of margins, swerving around the stricken Polo. As with the first semi-final, Petter once again found himself surrounded and, yet again, he dived off for an early joker at the end of lap one.

Up front the battle for first would be fought between the ex-DTM pair of Mattias Ekstrom and Timo Schnider. Ekstrom led the race from the first corner and, although Mattias never completely shook off Timo, Schnider never looked close enough to really challenge. Second for Schnider was a fantastic result though and a sign that the MJP Racing Team Austria Fiestas look even faster than last year. .

Behind the lead pair the best battle of the final was the superb fight for third. After taking his joker early, fourth place Solberg began to rapidly gain ground on Andreas Bakkerud. Sensing the imminent threat Bakkerud peeled off into the joker at the end of the third lap. As Petter and Andreas crossed the finish line to begin lap four, Solberg briefly took third before being passed by Bakkerud, who carried a huge amount of speed out of the joker and passed Petter around the outside of turn one.

Petter did seem to have the pace on Andreas, but he was unable to find a way past and, as the pair continued to duke it out, fifth place Timmy Hansen closed in from behind. With no way around Bakkerud, Solberg would spent the last lap of the race fending off Hansen to secure fourth.

And so first blood in the 2017 World Championship went to defending Champion Mattias Ekstrom. Is this an early sign of a year of dominance from the reigning Champion? Based on the evidence from Spain, I really don’t think so. Over the course of the weekend there were demonstrations of speed from both the old guard and multiple newcomers. Volkswagen Motorsport seem to have produced a competitive car and, if the bugs can be ironed out quickly, both Kristoffersson and Solberg should pose a serious threat to Ekstrom and EKS for driver and team titles. .

Equally the European Rallycross Championship looks like it will be as closely contested as hoped. Many of the Championship favourites did fail to make it through to the final, but all had the speed and I expect to see them chasing Marklund down at the next round of the European Rallycross Championship in Norway.

Thankfully we don’t have as long to wait for more World Rallycross action with the second round of the Championship taking place in Portugal next weekend. Fueltopia will be present at round four of the Championship next month, so look out for more World Rallycross Championship features in the near future and be sure to keep checking the official site in the meantime!

 

 

Want to see more of the World Rallycross Championship at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya? Click here for a full image gallery. 

Event

World Rallycross Championship – 2017 Preview

24th March 2017 — by Steve White

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With the opening round of the 2017 World Rallycross Championship less than a week away and the stream of press releases beginning to abate, now seems the perfect time to recap the biggest stories from the off season and summarize everything you need to look out for in this year’s World Rallycross Championship.

Starting with the basics and, aside from a few tweaks, the fundamentals of the 2017 World Championship remain unchanged from 2016, with the Championship comprising of twelve rounds from around the globe. Notably Argentina has now been dropped and, in its place, the Championship will now conclude its season at Killarney race circuit in South Africa.

Surprisingly the biggest story concerning the circuit selection for 2017 wasn’t related to the arrival of this new location to the Championship, but the news that this year will be the last that Lydden Hill will comprise part of the World Rallycross Championship.

Lydden Hill is internationally regarded as the home of rallycross and, as discussed in my blog last year, the circuit was instrumental in both my introduction and long running obsession with the sport. In the short term I’m struggling to see any positives from this decision but, despite my personal feelings on the matter, I am trying to keep an open mind on the change of venue.

Reassuringly Lydden Hill owner Pat Doran was quick to dispel concerns about the future of the circuit and Pat reiterated that efforts to green light the proposed development of the track facilities will continue. The British Rallycross Championship will visit the circuit twice this year, so rallycross will continue to have a presence at the iconic venue. Lydden has won international events back before and I hope it will be able to bounce back and do the same again.

In addition to the World Rallycross Championship, the standalone European Rallycross Championship returns for 2017, along with the separate Super 1600, Touring Car and RX Lite titles.

As before each of these respective Championships will be fought out over select World Rallycross weekends. The European Rallycross Championship takes place over five rounds (Spain, Norway, Sweden, France and Latvia), Super 1600 over six rounds (Portugal, Belgium, Sweden, France, Latvia and Germany) and the Touring Cars five rounds (Spain, Belgium, UK, Norway and Germany).

Finally the RX Lites – which have been rebranded as RX2 for 2017 – are due to appear at seven rounds (Belgium, UK, Norway, Sweden, Canada, France and South Africa) of the World Championship.

The first whiff of team news for 2017 came as part of Audis announcement that they would no longer be participating in the World Endurance Championship. At the tail end of the WEC press release were a few words concerning future commitment to Mattias Ekstrom’s EKS team and also interest in electric rallycross car development.

Electric rallycross cars quickly became a hot topic during the off-season. Just days after the Audi press release Manfred Stohl’s research division STARD unveiled their STARD HIPER, the world’s first fully electric 4WD rallycross car. Confirmation soon followed from the US that the American Global Rallycross Championship would run a dedicated electric series in 2018  with a debut event to come in 2017. Is electric the future? I’m uncertain at present, the technology is unquestionably a perfect fit for rallycross and I don’t doubt that electric cars can match the performance of their combustion engine brethren, but can they provide the same spectacle?

Audi Sport waited until the new year before confirming their official support for EKS and, despite several posts on social media teasing a potential change, Toomas Heikkinen confirmed shortly thereafter that he would be returning to EKS in 2017.

After securing the 2016 team championship title with Topi, it makes perfect sense to retain the same line up. Heikkinen didn’t fare as well as I had expected in last year’s drivers Championship, but with increased seat time in the Audi S1 perhaps we will see him ascend further up the Championship standings in 2017.

Following a joint venture with Kristofferson Motorsport in 2016, Marklund Motorsport announced they would be contesting the 2017 European Rallycross Championship alone, utilizing a pair of Volkswagen Polos. As the son of the team principle, it was no shock to see Anton Marklund confirmed as the first of the teams two drivers. The real surprise in the Marklund line up came from the naming of their second driver.

After missing out on the 2016 Touring Car title by just one point, Magda Andersson was quite open about her desire to drive a Supercar this year. Andersson has had her wish granted by Marklund Motorsport and it’s going to be interesting to see how Magda fares with the difficult transition from Touring Car to Supercar.

Bigger VW news was to follow though. Johan Kristofferson remained tight lipped after the Marklund Motorsport announcement and a few weeks later it became apparent why. Johan revealed he had a new team mate for 2017, which was none other than double World Rallycross Champion Petter Solberg.

Rumours had been rife about Solberg even before the 2016 season had reached it’s conclusion, with talk of potential manufacturer backing from a major marque. As well as confirming the partnership of Kristofferson and Solberg, the announcement also verified that the official manufacturer behind the new driver pairing was Volkswagen. This new team will be run by Solberg, with cars provided by Volkswagen Motorsport in Germany and support from Volkswagen Sweden. Two of the biggest talents in rallycross sharing the same garage seems like a sure recipe for success in the team Championship: and the odds of the driver title ending up under the same roof are surely pretty good as well!

Since his return to rallycross in 2013, Petter and his DS3 have been responsible for the vast majority of my favourite moments from the last few seasons. I’m going to miss the venerable Citroen, but I can’t wait to see what Solberg can do with the new Polo. Petter was quick to confirm that his new car will retain his trademark soft setup, so I am hoping to see his Polo travelling sideways this year.

Solberg officially unveiled the livery for the 2017 cars earlier this month, though I’m convinced that what was revealed to the public wasn’t a competition car. Early test photos showed a test mule that looked very much like the last Polo World Rally Car, with the typical Supercar rear radiator setup noticeably absent. With the livery launch car seemingly in the same configuration, there is a possibility Volkswagen Motorsport have broken convention and opted to keep the entire engine cooling package up front, however I think Volkswagen are keeping the final car under wraps. Still, irrespective of design, when Volkswagen Motorsport commit to a motorsport program, they don’t tend to do things by halves. Whatever the finished product looks like, I don’t doubt it’s going to be a very capable car.

Albatec Racing were actually the first team to officially confirm any plans for 2017, when they announced Finnish Rallycross Champion Jere Kalliokoski would be joining them for a full European Championship campaign. Kalliokoski will be joined by 2015 European Rallycross Champion Tommy Rustad who returns to Albatec for a second year. I thought Rustad had looked a little overwhelmed by the young blood early in last year’s season, though he was back to winning ways for the final round. While many of his competitors have switched cars in the off season, familiarity may provide Rustad with an edge at the season opener in Barcelona.

Hoonigan Racing Division are the only World team set to return with an unchanged driver line up in 2017. I was personally a little disappointed with Ken Blocks performance last year, as he has proved he has the pace in Europe in the past, but consistent results just weren’t forthcoming in 2016. I appreciate that he was severely lacking in time in the car at the start of the season though and, with more circuit mileage under his belt (plus a gymkhana video) at the helm of the Focus RS RX, I hope he will be able to challenge for more podium finishes this season.

I must confess I was one of the doubters when it was announced that M-Sport would be developing the Focus for rallycross. Beginning the season with a bare minimum of test miles in a car that many believed was unsuited for the task, Andreas Bakkerud had a slow start to the year and, after failing to even make the semi-finals in Belgium, I feared that the decision to move to Hoonigan Racing might be one he was regretting.

Affirmation of Bakkerud’s team choice – and proof of the rapid evolution of the Focus – came just two rounds later, when Andreas not only won his home event in Norway, but became the first driver in the history of the World Rallycross Championship to score a perfect weekend. Bakkerud went on to take wins in both Sweden and Argentina which saw him rapidly ascend up the Championship standings. With more seat time and more development in the off season Bakkerud is definitely one of my top tips for title contender in 2017.

On the subject of the blue oval, the paddock will sadly be missing the Olsbergs MSE supercars in 2017. With official Ford backing shifting to Hoonigan Racing Division and their Honda project in the GRC it is no surprise to see that OMSE have elected to drop their World Championship campaign this year.

With no seat available at OMSE, Niclas Gronholm has instead opted for an M-Sport built Fiesta for a full World Championship campaign. I admit this particular snippet of news greatly pleased me as, of all the different Fiesta supercars out on the grid, I think the M-Sport variant is both the best looking and sounding.

Dedicated rallycross fans may recall the Kia Rio Supercar, which Gigi Galli debuted at Franciacorta back in 2015. Following initial talk of full participation in the 2016 World Championship, the flamboyant Italian only made sporadic appearances throughout last year and, with less than auspicious results for the Rio, I did wonder if that might spell the end of the Kia program.

However my fears were allayed when Hungarian driver Lukacs “Csucsu” Kornel unexpectedly announced his partnership with Galli for a full World Rallycross campaign in 2017. While Kornel will utilise a developed variant of the Rio first used by Galli in Italy, the GGRX team are busy assembling a second car in order for Gigi to join the Championship later in the year.

Team Austria drivers Janis Baumanis and Timor Timerzyanov were both blighted by bad luck throughout last year. Major changes have occurred at Team Austria during the off season, with the team now no longer receiving technical direction from Manfred Stohl and rebranding itself MJP Racing Team Austria for 2017.

With Baumanis and Timerzyanov opting to follow Stohl to his new STARD World RX team, the MJP Racing Team Austria roster has changed for 2017. After dipping his toes in the water, double DTM Champion Timo Scheider has signed to MJP for a full World Championship season, with Scheider joined by former OMSE driver Kevin Eriksson.

For me the biggest question mark hanging over both MJP Racing and STARD World RX is the cars themselves. Depending on the division of teams (specifically mechanics) MJP Racing could potentially be struggling with unfamiliar cars, while Stohl clearly has the technical knowledge, but will be starting the season with two new Fiestas. Both Baumanis and Timerzyanov deserved several podium finishes last year, so if Stohl can provide them with capable cars, I would expect to see the pair making regular appearances in the finals.

Another team set to join the World Rallycross paddock in 2017 is DA Racing. Having previously run cars in Europe for Jean-Baptiste Dubourg, DA Racing will field a pair of ex-Peugeot Hansen Peugeot 208’s this year. Jean-Baptiste Dubourg will contest the entire World Rallycross Championship while former WTCC driver Gregoire Demoustier will appear in the second 208 at select World rounds.

Furthermore the DA Racing team will also be running a Citroen DS3 for Andrea Dubourg, with Andrea vying for the European Rallycross Championship title in 2017. It’s an ambitious program for the team, but with previous experience in European rallycross and several successful Andros Trophy seasons to their name, I’ll be very surprised if they are not competitive.

As well as the new additions for this season, news also emerged of a team planning to join the World Championship in 2018. Guerlain Chicherit’s newly established team GCK have commissioned Prodrive to build three Renault Megane Supercars. With work already underway and a wealth of previous motorsport experience I have no doubt that Prodrive will be able to put together a competitive package for GCK.

The Megane is to make it’s first public appearance in Loheac in September, though we will have to wait until next year for the cars competitive debut.

In the interim Guerlain will be using the ex-Fabien Chanoine Renault Clio for select World Championship events in 2017. With mixed results in the JRM MINI over the last couple of years, track experience this year is going to be invaluable if Chicherit is to get the best out of the Megane in 2018.

Speaking of JRM, there has been no output from the team during the winter concerning the future of their rallycross programme. After the exodus of Liam Doran last year the team made sporadic appearances throughout the second half of the 2016 season, but they seemed to be struggling with the transition from 1.6L to 2.0L engine. I think it’s a real shame not to see them return in 2017, as the project seemed to have much promise and, as much as I detest the look of the MINI Countryman, there was no denying it was a unique shape on the grid.

Similarly Liam Doran has yet to verify any plans. Other than teasing the arrival of a third RS200 to the LD Motorsport garage in December, Doran hasn’t confirmed any competitive rallycross appearances for 2017. I had wondered if Liam might contest the British Championship this year (perhaps even in the “new” RS200) but, with the season getting underway at Croft a fortnight ago, it seems that Liam will not be participating it that either.

With Doran out of the running it looked like British fans would be left without a driver to cheer on in this year’s World Championship but, in yet another unexpected announcement, Guy Wilks revealed a full World Championship campaign for 2017. After sporadic appearances in the JRM MINI and an Olsbergs MSE Fiesta last year, Guy has now got his hands on the Volkswagen Polo previously used by Johan Kristofferson.

The car is a capable one and Wilks has looked very rapid when his steed has delivered, so fingers crossed Guy will be able to challenge the Championship’s best.

In addition to Wilks World Rallycross entry, Ollie O’Donovan confirmed his participation in the full European Rallycross Championship as well as select World Rallycross rounds and, along with Derek Tohill, UK fans should have at least one driver to cheer for at every Championship round this year.

After taking the European Championship title last year, many were expecting to see Kevin Hansen joining his brother Timmy in the World Championship. Peugeot-Hansen kept fans in suspense as they were among the last to confirm their plans for 2017. I hoped we might see four Peugeot-Hansen 208’s running in the World Championship, but a three car entry is the chosen approach for this season .

As pleasing as it was to see Kevin added to the World Championship entry list, there was a tinge of disappointment to the Peugeot-Hansen three-car announcement as Davy Jeanney was sadly absent from the press release. Although his results last year don’t support my opinion, I still maintain that Jeanney is one of the biggest talents in the rallycross paddock. I hope he manages to secure at least one appearance this year to try and prove me right!

Completing the line-up alongside the Hansen brothers, Sebastian Loeb returns for his second full season in the World Championship. With a full year of experience – which included his maiden World Rallycross victory – under his belt, Sebastian is sure to be strong from the outset in 2017.

However the biggest area of interest in Peugeot-Hansen – and potentially one of the most interesting battles in 2017 – is surely going to be between the two Hansen brothers. Timmy certainly has the edge in terms of experience, but Kevin’s progression was astonishing to watch last year and I can only imagine he will get faster as he continues to accumulate more seat time in the 208.

Just hours after Peugeot-Hansen had announced their three car plan for 2017, EKS confirmed that they would be running a third Audi S1 this season. Although the third entries will be ineligible for points in the team Championship, the additional numbers could potentially give both Peugeot-Hansen and EKS a tactical advantage.

That being said, I’m not a fan of the influence of team tactics in racing, so I really hope we see race results decided by driver performance on track and not by management decisions in the paddock.

As before the World Championship regulars will face the additional challenge of local entrants at each round. Several wildcard entries have already confirmed for 2017, including Andrew Jordan, who will take the helm of Timo Scheider’s MJP Team Austria car for the UK round.

Last time Jordan drove a Ford at Lydden – an OMSE Fiesta back in 2014 – he managed to place third overall, so it will be great to see if he can go one, or perhaps even two, better in the MJP Fiesta.

Magda Andersson isn’t the only driver to graduate to Supercars in 2017. 2016 RX Lite Championship runner-up Thomas Bryntesson will is set to drive a JC Raceteknik Ford Fiesta, with Bryntesson partnering with Scandinavian Supernational driver Ola Froshaug for full European Rallycross and RallyX Nordic Championship campaigns.

The additional seat time in the Nordic Championship is going to be absolutely vital for Bryntesson, as the 2017 European title is shaping up to be as hotly contested as the World Championship.

After two years with Albatec Racing double European Championship runner-up Jerome Grosset-Janin has switched to a Team Knapick run Citroen DS3. Kristoffersen Motorsport have prepared a Volkswagen Polo for Tore Kristoffersen
and Hedstrom Motorsport have confirmed a three car European Championship entry with Peter Hedström and Alexander Hvaal utilizing a pair of Volkswagen Polos and Joachim Hvaal at the helm of a Ford Fiesta.

In all 29 drivers will be vying for the European Championship title. There is unquestionably a lot of talent in the field but, for me, the favourite has got to be Robin Larsson. After fighting – and beating – the World Championships finest over the last few years, Robin has clearly got the pace and his Audi A1 is a well developed car.

With Championship line ups that deliver both quantity and quality, I’m expecting a close fought title race in both the European and World Championship.

Theoretically the fight for the 2017 Super 1600 crown should also be very tight, as both of last year’s title protagonists are set to return. Krisztian Szabo barely pipped Ulrik Linnemann to Super 1600 honours last year, with just two points separating the pair at the end of the season.

With the rest of the field trailing on points, these two are surely the ones to watch again this year. Linnemann has never been short on pace, but his results have often been erratic. With Szabo set to switch cars mid-season consistency could be even more crucial for Ulrik this year if he is to finally lay his hands on the Super 1600 title.

Ben-Philip Gundersen won the 2016 Touring Car title by just a single point and, with his closest rival now moving to Supercars, he is surely the favourite for 2017. Philip Gehrman and David Norgard were both race winners last season, so hopefully they can give Gundersen a run for his money. With just 10 permanent entries, simply surviving the qualifying races will guarantee Championship points, so self-preservation is likely to prove as vital as outright pace in the Touring Cars.

Last, but by no means least, is the RX2 class. 2016 RX Lite Championship Cyril Raymond will return to defend his title, however with the other permanent entries yet to be confirmed it would be rather foolish to make any sweeping statements about another potential title winners at this stage. One thing that can be said with absolute certainty though is, with Raymond’s race experience, it’s going to take a committed driver to keep Cyril from overall victory again.

So who is your money on? Every category has some obvious favourites, but for me the eighteen car World Championship entry is the most difficult to narrow down. In terms of overall numbers, there isn’t a great deal of difference to last year, but the names involved – and the machinery they will all be using – is arguably of an even higher calibre than ever before.

I cannot wait for the season to get underway and, with Fueltopia presence at the first round of the World Championship in Barcelona, expect a full report on the opening event in the coming weeks!

Event

Rear View Mirror 2016

14th December 2016 — by Steve White

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It pains me to admit it, but sometimes there are very rare occasions when motorsport isn’t the most important thing in life. I’m immensely proud of everything I have achieved this year but, in order to fit it all in, compromises had to be made with regards to the number of motorsport excursions I was able to make in 2016.

Knowing that I’d be unable to attend the quantity of events I wanted, my focus for this year instead shifted to ensuring that the quality of those outings I could make was as high as possible.

Despite the aforementioned compromises, I was at least able to get 2016 underway in the usual fashion: with rallycross of course! Round 2 of the British Rallycross Championship  also constituted part of the Belgian Rallycross Championship, so there were good entry numbers throughout the multiple Championship classes.

It was great to see the return of several British Championship stalwarts alongside a number of fresh faces. There was a notably high rate of attrition in the Supercar category, with several of the title favourites encountering difficulties throughout the day.

As the familiar names fell by the wayside, it was Supercar rookie Dan Rooke who made his way to the front of the field and went on to take the win. With Lydden marking his second podium finish in as many rounds, it was an early indication that Rooke was going to be one to watch.

From the mixed surfaces of Lydden, my next stop for 2016 was the hallowed tarmac of Brands Hatch for the first round of the British GT Championship. British GT seems to be in great health at the moment, with each round of the National Championship attracting large and varied entries. The presence of several BMW Z4’s on the grid at Brands really served as the icing on the cake, as I just can’t get enough of BMW Motorsports hardcore take on Barbie’s favourite Bimmer.

The opening British GT round gave me my first chance to see the GT3 variant of the Lamborghini Huracan in the metal and I liked it. I liked it a lot. The sound wasn’t quite on par with my beloved Z4 GT3 but, in terms of looks, the Huracan definitely gives the BMW a run for its money.

Barely a month had passed since my British GT outing when I found myself heading back to Brands to once again savour the sights and sounds of GT3 cars. The second round of the Blancpain GT Sprint Cup marked a rather significant milestone in the history of GT3 racing: it was 10 years to the weekend since the competitive debut of the class. The success of GT3 was reflected in the entry list, which was far greater in size than it had been on past visits to Brands Hatch.

As well as a packed main grid, the 2016 Blancpain round at Brands also boasted a much fuller support package than previous years. The Sport Club race was hugely entertaining, though it was the cars of the Hyperclub that proved the biggest draw to spectators. Not only were there a plethora of exotics present in the paddock, but many of them were taken out on track for a damn good thrashing.

Mettet would be one of three World Rallycross Championship rounds I was able to attend in 2016 and Belgium was the first occasion I could lay eyes on the M-Sport Ford Focus RS RX. I personally rate the M-Sport Fiesta as the best looking car in the current crop of rally and rallycross cars, so I was eager to see how the Focus compared.

Hoonigan Racing team mates Ken Block and Andreas Bakkerud were both plagued by technical gremlins but, amidst the problems, glimpses of the true capability of the car could be seen.

Few were surprised to see the big names at the front end of the field in the World Championship races, but it was the success of the younger drivers in the European Championship battles that caught many by surprise. Defending European Champion Tommy Rustad looked outpaced by the likes of Joni-Pekka Rajala and Kevin Hansen. Much like Dan Rooke, Kevin Hansen was a name that rallycross spectators would become very familiar with in 2016.

Round four of the World Rallycross Championship took place at Lydden Hill just a fortnight after Belgium. Andreas Bakkerud demonstrated how rapidly development of the Focus RS RX was progressing, with a surge of pace that saw him qualify on the back row of the final. Mechanical woes would prevent him from challenging for a podium spot, but it was a clear sign that Bakkerud was ready to enter the fray as a serious title challenger.

Petter Solberg just pipped Matias Ekstrom to victory at Lydden last year and it looked like he would do the same again in 2016, with Solberg falling just short of a perfect set of qualifying races and absolutely blitzing the field in his semi-final. Ekstrom is a wily opponent though and in the final he edged out Petter by the narrowest of margins to take his third successive win of the season.

There were a plethora of Americas finest to ogle at American Speedfest IV but, for the second year in a row, it was the brutal Formula 5000 machinery that stole the show for me. The raw simplicity of these cars illustrates everything that is wrong with the current crop of premier open wheel racing cars.

I was unable to get my Le Mans fix in 2015 and the withdrawal hit me hard, so I was desperate not to miss out again in 2016. Le Mans never fails to disappoint and there was close racing throughout the classes, however it was the fight in LMP1 that proved most memorable. 12 hours in and the top three were just seconds apart. In the latter stages of the race the number 5 Toyota managed to stretch out a slim lead and victory looked assured…

…but with just 6 minutes to go, the TS050 began to slow, before grinding to a halt by the pit wall. The ending of the 2016 24 hours of Le Mans was absolutely heart breaking to watch, where even rival teams expressed sympathy for the distraught Japanese manufacturer. Still, although Porsche may have stood on the top step of the podium, the unclassified Toyota is the car I’ll remember.

My list of “must see” car shows has slowly dwindled over the years, but the Festival of Speed is one of the few exceptions. Even after a decade of attendance, I still cite it as an essential weekend for any motorsport fan. Virtually every discipline is represented in some form and, whatever your preference, I guarantee there will be at least one vehicle there to excite you.

As the car that ignited my passion for motorsport, watching Ryan Champion slide his Group A Impreza around the (critically underrated) Goodwood Forest Rally Stage was my personal highlight of the day. I’m sure many people in attendance were cursing the grey skies, but as the precipitation greatly reduced the grips levels on the rally stage, I was silently praising the wet stuff.

I considered myself very fortunate to get an invitation to the inaugural 6R4.net track day in 2015, so I was flattered to be invited back again in 2016. The formula of the event remained largely unchanged from 2015 but, given how much I had enjoyed that, I wasn’t complaining!

Heavy showers during the afternoon did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the drivers and the cars continued to run in the driving rain. It was a privilege to be able to watch the owners put these valuable classics through their paces and I was especially grateful to them for continuing to show off despite the slippery track conditions.

The August Bank Holiday round of the British Rallycross Championship has been a mainstay of my annual motorsport agenda for a decade now and, as long as it continues to deliver great racing, rallycross will always be my priority.

Proving that his win at round 2 was no fluke, Dan Rooke took a lights-to-flag victory in the Supercar final at round 6. Rooke maintained his form at the subsequent round of the Championship, where he claimed second place and, with it, the 2016 British Rallycross Championship. Dan is the youngest ever driver to take the British Championship and I hope we see him back to defend his title – and perhaps even challenge some of Europe’s finest – in 2017.

As the World Rallycross Championship passed its midpoint, the Championship battle was impossible to call. Petter Solberg arrived at round 8 in Loheac as the points leader, but he was unable to match the pace of his closest rival, Mattias Ekstrom, and by the end of the qualification stage Ekstrom had reduced the point deficit between the title rivals to zero.

Neither Ekstrom nor Solberg would set foot on the podium though. With Ekstrom failing to make it past the semi-final stage, Johan Kristoffersson fended off all challengers and led the final from start to finish. The damp conditions produced the best days racing I have seen at Loheac and made for a great conclusion to my World Rallycross Championship attendance in 2016.

World Rallycross weekends have consistently been the highlight of my motorsport expeditions over the last few years and I’m desperate to fit as many of them as possible into 2017.

As the summer drew to a close, it became apparent that my year had been rather lacking in two wheeled motorsport, but a trip to Swingfield in September was to rectify that. Not only was I able to check out some very sideways motorcycles, but the program at the European Grasstrack Final also incorporated two classes of sidecars as well.

The solo riders were fantastic to watch, but it was the sidecars that made the biggest impression. Watching a 1000cc sidecar tearing up a field is an incredible spectacle and I am certain that my first visit to a grasstrack event won’t be my last.

With the end of the season looming, I had just enough time left to sneak a visit in to my most local motocross track, Canada Heights, for the final round of the British Sidecarcross and Quad Championship. The sidecars here may not have been quite as rapid (or sideways) as their grasstrack counterparts, but what they lacked in speed they made up for with altitude.

However the highest fliers of the day were undoubtedly the quad riders. I briefly rode a quad on the flat and felt that a trip to casualty was an inevitability, so I have a great deal of respect for the British Quad Championship riders. Flinging a quad through the trees is a tricky task in itself: and that is before you factor in the other 30 lunatics all trying to do the same thing!

My final outing of the year was a slight deviation to the norm in that it concerned virtual, rather than physical, racing. Two years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to drop into Codemasters studio in Southam and I returned again in late November for another behind the scenes look at proceedings.  Much awesomeness was demonstrated and many cool things were seen: but that’s about all I’m legally allowed to tell you!

Despite containing far less motoring content than I would have liked, 2016 has definitely been a year where quality has triumphed over quantity. When compiling end-of-year reviews in the past I have often omitted events that have fallen short of my expectations, but everything I attended this year has seemed worthy of mention.

Typically I would bemoan the lack of motorsport over the winter, but I’m actually rather grateful for it this year: the more work I can do during the quiet spell now, the more events I should be able to fit into 2017!

 

Want to see more? Click here for the full albums from 2016.

Event

European Grasstrack Championship Final – Swingfield

30th September 2016 — by Steve White

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They say that variety is the spice of life and all of us here at Fueltopia are firm believers in trying something new.

There is a vast amount of awesome motorsport content to discover on the internet, but sometimes its good old fashioned word of mouth that points you in the direction of something different, and that’s exactly how I found myself watching an assortment of motorbikes tearing round a field in Kent.

My first introduction to grasstrack came during my last visit to Kent Kings speedway back in 2015. Whilst conversing with one of the marshalls he was insistent that, if I enjoyed watching speedway, I really should consider giving grasstrack a look as well. On the strength of his advice I did some research after returning home from Sittingbourne, but I hit a dead end when hunting for a local track.

Fast forward to the start of this year and, after happening to mention grasstrack during a pub conversation, I was sent a link to the Astra Grasstrack Facebook page. Astra run a grasstrack venue in Swingfield, situated just down the road from Fueltopia favourite Lydden Hill. Frustratingly I had just missed a big meet at Swingfield, but I noted that there was another major event coming later in the year, so I jotted it down in the calendar and kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t clash with anything else.

Having failed to fit any speedway events – or indeed any two wheeled motorsport – into 2016, I was keen to try and make amends before the end of the race season. The final round of the European Solo Grasstrack Championship provided me with the perfect opportunity to kill several birds with one stone.

Armed with the limited knowledge I had gleaned from the marshall at Sittingbourne, I arrived at Swingfield with very little idea as to what to expect. Thankfully the program did a good job of bringing me up to speed and, thanks to a qualification system that would be familiar to any long term rallycross fan, I soon got my head around the structure of the event.

As much as I hate turning up to an event completely clueless, I do like the freedom it gives when taking pictures. I’m not trying to photograph a favourite vehicle, competitor or team, I’m purely looking out for things which catch my eye.

So what’s grasstrack racing all about then? Fundamentally modern grasstrack is much the same as speedway in that bikes race around a large oval circuit, travelling very sideways at very high speeds. Grid numbers are higher in grasstrack, but the aim of the race is exactly the same: finish as high as possible in order to score points. Cumulate enough points and you’ll earn a better position for the final.

The machinery used is also broadly similar to speedway, though grasstrack bikes are slightly more refined in that they run full suspension and are often geared. Just like speedway, grasstrack bikes don’t have any brakes, so speed is regulated entirely by throttle and steering input.

Grasstrack events often feature several solo rider classes for different displacement engines, which differs to speedway, plus they also cater for sidecars as well.

I have previously watched sidecar racing on tarmac and motocross circuits. Whilst spectating both of those disciplines I rapidly came to the conclusion that sidecar crews must be utterly bonkers and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I would say exactly the same of the grasstrack sidecar teams.

Sidecars came in two flavours at Swingfield, specifically 500cc (for the borderline insane) and 1000cc (for the fully certified lunatics). Both classes were very rapid but, to my untrained eyes and ears, the lap of a 500cc sidecar seemed a lot smoother. The 500cc riders were obviously backing off the throttle prior to the corners, but the 500cc sidecars looked planted in the turns and seemed able to put the power down without too much drama.

Contrast that with the 1000cc sidecars, which looked absolutely lethal. Many of the bikes sounded completely off-throttle as they approached the corners and, when the slightest amount of power was applied, things seemed to rapidly turn very sideways up front…

…and get very muddy out the back! Both the solo and sidecars were spectacular but, for me, the 1000cc sidecars were the absolute highlight of the day.

Incidentally – and you may have already noticed in the pictures – but,  for reasons I was unable to ascertain on the day, the right hand 1000cc sidecars ran the course anti-clockwise, whereas the 500cc left hand sidecars ran the course clockwise. Hopefully a grasstrack expert can clear that mystery up for me!

Despite a severe lack of knowledge with regards to the solo Championship, I did at least recognize one name on the entry list. I had previously seen James Shanes riding speedway at Sittingbourne  and I subsequently discovered that Shanes was not riding just for the event win, but for the European title.

Battling against a mechanical issue in heat one and exclusion in heat two, Shanes still managed to qualify for the “B” final. Second in the “B” final was enough to earn him a spot in the “A” final where he was able to take first place and, with it, the European title.

After several hours of sideways bikes (and a couple of impromptu mud showers), I found myself silently expressing my gratitude to the chatty marshall at Sittingbourne. Grasstrack is every bit as entertaining as speedway, plus it has the added bonus of sidecars as well.

I was also surprised by just how relaxed the atmosphere was for a European Championship event. Spectators had unrestricted access to the paddock area and the crowd line was situated just a few feet back from the edge of the track.

Amusingly when I returned to my car at the end of the day there were a handful of flyers tucked under the windscreen wiper informing me of multiple events occurring other tracks in Kent: seems that there are plenty of grasstrack venues in the area, I just did a poor job of finding them!

With the 2016 race season all but done I suspect I am going to run out of time to fit anymore grasstrack in: however I already have speedway and grasstrack lined up for my itinerary in 2017!

 

 

Want to see more of the European Grasstrack Championship at Swingfield? Click here for a full image gallery.

 

Event

World Rallycross Championship Round 8 – Loheac

22nd September 2016 — by Steve White

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The last time we featured the World Rallycross Championship here on Fueltopia, the focus had been on round 4 of the Championship where Mattias Ekstrom had seen off double Champion Petter Solberg to claim his third successive victory of 2016.

Ekstrom’s winning streak cited him as the dominant force in this year’s Championship. However motorsport is rarely a foregone conclusion and, with three more rounds completed since Lydden Hill, the terrain has shifted again. Solberg reclaimed the overall lead in Canada, but while Petter and Mattias have been driving tactically and accumulating as many safe points as possible (if there is such a thing in rallycross), the rest of the field have been significantly reducing the gap to the Championship leaders.

Rapidly gaining on the lead pair of Solberg and Ekstrom is Hoonigan Racing driver Andreas Bakkerud. Following a slightly erratic start to 2016, Andreas quickly closed the divide thanks to wins in both Norway and Sweden, followed by a second in Canada.

After a trough in his results at rounds four and five, Johan Kristoffersson also scored well in both Sweden and Canada. Like Bakkerud good results have propelled Johan to the upper echelons of the points table and, as a consequence, what had previously looked like a two horse title race early in the season is now much more open.

I had high hopes for Ken Block at round 8. Two years ago I watched Block make his second European Rallycross appearance at Loheac when he absolutely flew in the M-Sport Fiesta. In fact Ken set the fastest lap time over that weekend by a considerable margin, which was mighty impressive given that it was his first visit to the track.

Although Block has seemed to struggle with the transition to the Focus RS RX, there were definite signs of improvement in Canada and I hoped that, on a familiar circuit, Ken would continue that trend.

Pleasingly those hopes proved well founded, as Block delivered one of his most consistent performances of the season. A slightly tentative start in practise was followed by four top eight qualifying times, resulting in a spot on the front of the second semi-final grid. Block went on to make the back row of the final where he eventually finished sixth, narrowly losing out on fifth position to Reinis Nitiss in the closing stages of the race.

It was interesting to see that Hoonigan Racing had a third Focus RS RX present at the circuit. This Focus has recently shot to fame in Gymkhana 9 and I understand the car is to be employed by the team to both increase driver seat time and further develop the RS RX so, in theory at least, there should be even more to come from Block, Bakkerud and the Focus RS RX in the latter half of the season.

Notably – though perhaps unsurprisingly given the location of round 8 – the Peugeot 208 was the most common car to be found in the Supercar class. Albatec Racing were one of several teams who arrived at Loheac in force with 2015 European Champion Tommy Rustad and Albatec team principle Andy Scott joined by French driver Philippe Maloigne in a third Peugeot 208.

OMSE also deployed French reserves, with the team running a third Fiesta for Yann Le Jossec. Although not quite as popular as the Peugeot 208, the Fiesta was another common shape in the paddock with several privately entered cars competing alongside the Fords of Championship stalwarts Olsbergs and Team Austria.

It’s odd how the situation seems to have reversed between OMSE and Team Austria: I can distinctly recall a moment at Lydden last year when I watched a Fiesta from each of the teams cornering round North Bend: the OMSE car looked planted and controlled, whereas the Team Austria car was pitching all over the place to the extent where it looked absolutely undriveable. 18 months down the line and the Team Austria cars are not only on par with the OMSE Fiestas, but arguably even stronger. Were it not for a string of bad luck, the team would have surely had several podium finishes this year.

With Liam Doran no longer competing for JRM, the teams recently completed 2.0 litre MINI Countryman had been unused since Doran’s last drive at round six in Sweden. The car was placed in the hands of Guerlain Chicherit in Loheac, with Gurelain making the first of three planned outings in the MINI.

Unfortunately Chicherit’s weekend was to be short one, with JRM announcing the retirement of the car before the end of the first day of racing. With only a fortnight between Loheac and round nine in Barcelona it seemed like the team had insufficient time to address the engine gremlins, as both of the JRM cars suffered issues again in Spain. With another short window before round ten, I really hope the team are able to identify the defect and get the cars back up to speed.

Petter Solberg got his weekend off to a flying start with an absolutely incredible move around the outside of turn one. Alas the manoeuvre was to be wasted as, just a lap into the race, the red flag came out and the racing was halted due to the presence of a stricken car on track.

The car in question belonged to Team Austria driver Timur Timerzyanov who found himself the victim of bad luck yet again. Contact during the first corner resulted in the Team Austria Fiesta being spun around, where it then slid backwards across the track before slamming into the barrier on the outside of turn two. The impact sounded horrendous, but with the huge cloud of dust kicked up from the pack it was hard to gauge just how severe the crash had been…

…it was only when the dust cleared that the extent of the damage became clear. Even from the front you could immediately tell that the rear end of the Fiesta had been absolutely obliterated. With significant damage to the structure of the car, the weekend was over for Timerzyanov. After showing such promise in qualifying I had really hoped Loheac would be the race where Timur could make his long overdue return to the top of the podium, but it wasn’t to be.

With the damaged Fiesta removed from the circuit, the qualifying race was restarted and Solberg once again attempted another bold overtaking move through the opening corners. Alas things didn’t go the way of Petter second time around and he found himself stuck in traffic. Solberg still managed to post a respectable time, but it was only good enough for sixth overall and surely frustrating for Petter based on his position before the stoppage. Adding salt to the wound was the news that his main Championship rival had posted the fastest time of qualifying one.

In fact the first day of racing would belong to Mattias Ekstrom, who dominated both qualifying one and two with quickest time in both races. Andreas Bakkerud sat in second overall with the local favourite Sebastien Loeb in third. Tenth in qualifying two left Petter Solberg languishing in seventh overall and, although he was still in line for a spot in the semi-final, Ekstrom already looked poised to eliminate the narrow Championship point gap.

Complementing the Supercars and Super 1600 classes over the weekend was the French Twingo R1 cup. Much like the Suzuki Swift Championship here in the UK, the cars are all identical specification and, despite not being the quickest thing on track, they provide some great racing with big pack battles.

Slotted in between the racing the track was handed over to the V8 pairing of the French Xtreme Show and Vaughn Gittin Jnr., the latter of whom proved that professional drifters aren’t just limited to tarmac.

It was all change for day two as, for the first time in four visits to Loheac, the skies turned grey. Rain began to fall before the morning practice session started and, once cars hit the track, it didn’t take long to realize that the circuit conditions were clearly very different to those from the first day of action.

Aside for the obvious reduction in traction, it was also notable that the damp conditions were keeping the loose surface in place. Having never seen racing at Loheac in anything other than dry, sunny, conditions, I have been used to seeing the loose surface being quickly swept aside and a fast line appearing. That most definitely wasn’t the case this year, and it was only towards the very end of the day when a line began to clear.

Much like the Supercars, the 2016 Super 1600 title fight has been a close one. Ulrik Linnemann led Krisztian Szabo by just a single point after the third round in Sweden and both were looking to gain the upper hand at round four of the Super 1600 Championship in France. Entry numbers in the class were high, so both drivers had their hands full with the Championship regulars and numerous local entrants all vying for positions.

Surprisingly neither Linnemann or Szabo looked that strong in the opening qualifying round, with the fastest time being secured by Kaparas Navickas. Navickas went on to deliver a stellar performance over the course of the weekend, qualifying second overall and finishing second in semi-final two. A close race with Enzo Libner and Maximilien Eveno in the final saw him miss out on a podium position, but it was still a great result for Kaparas and his distinctive Fabia.

With Ulrik Linnemann having a disastrous qualifying three, Krisztian Szabo was free to claim the top qualifying spot and, with Linnemann only able to secure fifth, Szabo scored enough additional points at the intermediate stage to take the Championship lead.

Racing together in both the first semi-final and the final Krisztian and Ulrik had their own battle out front, a duel which Szabo eventually won. First by just over half a second, Krisztian took maximum points and with it the Super 1600 Championship lead.

Linnemann and Szabo continued their scrap in Barcelona last weekend, with Ulrik taking the overall win and snatching the Championship lead back in the process. The Super 1600 Championship concludes in Germany next month and I have no doubt that there will be another close fight between the two drivers for both race victory and the Championship title.

The first days qualifying races had unquestionably belonged to Mattias Ekstrom, but on day two a new contender came to the fore. After scraping into the top ten on day one, Johan Kristofferson absolutely blitzed qualifying three and four, setting fastest time in both races and leaping up to second in the intermediate standings.

Mattias Ekstrom was very slightly off the pace set by Johan in qualifying three and four. That’s not to say he was slow, but second and third in qualifying three and four respectively was still more than enough to enable him to top the intermediate qualification. With Petter Solberg placing fifth, he was awarded four less points than Mattias and, as the drivers lined up for the semi-finals, the Championship point gap between those two had been reduced to zero.

Completing the top 12 Supercars was Albatec Racing principal Andy Scott. Given the presence of both the reigning European Champion Tommy Rustad and local talent Philippe Maloigne in the team, Andy was the last Albatec driver I expected to see in the semi-final. Scott seemed much better suited to the damp conditions on Sunday though (which was not entirely surprising given his nationality) and it was great to see a British driver make it to the semi-finals.

With Ekstrom starting on the front row of the first semi-final his place in the final seemed assured. A stunning drive from Andreas Bakkerud saw Mattias having to settle for second but, with Petter behind him, it looked like Ekstrom would still score an additional point over his rival and thus take the Championship lead.

However with just two corners to go it became evident that Ekstrom had a puncture. As Mattias drastically slowing before the final corner, Petter plowed into the back of him, causing Ekstrom to run wide. With the door open fourth place Reinis Nitiss tucked in behind Solberg, passing Ekstrom and snatching third – and the last grid slot in the final – from Mattias.

Round 8 of the Championship marked the last occasion that Reinis Nitiss would drive the Munnich Motorsport run Seat Ibiza. Pleasingly Nitiss would leave the team on a high, posting his best result of the season with fifth place in the final.

Without Ekstrom to worry about in the final, the biggest threat to Johan Kristoffersson looked to come from Andreas Bakkerud. Lining up together on the front row of the grid Andreas ideally needed Johan to bog down in order to make a move around the outside. Bakkerud would have no such luck though, as Kristoffersson made a perfect start, cleaning moving to the head of the pack as they swept through the opening corners.

As Johan made a break for it, a massive scrap unfolded behind him with Bakkerud, Loeb and Solberg all fighting for second place. As the trio exited turn two for the first time Solberg and Bakkerud began trading paint. With the Norwegians tangling with each other and drifting wide in turn three, Loeb moved to the inside and passed them both in one fell swoop. If you hadn’t seen the move then the roar from the French crowd told you exactly what had just happened.

When Loeb first announced his move to circuit racing, many questioned how well Sebastien would be able to deal with traffic. Although there may have been some hesitation in his first races, watching Loeb in the final showed those days were long gone.

Loeb opted to take the joker on lap three and seemingly had no qualms about collecting Bakkerud en route. The manoeuvre ended up working in favour of Andreas as he passed Loeb in the joker and manage to merge back onto the circuit just ahead of Solberg who had taken his joker on lap two. With Block yet to joker the entire pack stacked up behind him as the field crossed the line for the third time.

With an increasing amount of smoke pouring from his left rear tyre, Solberg looked like he was struggling to fend off the advances of Loeb. Petter was given a brief respite as Sebastian had to brush off Ken Block after the joker merge but, on the last lap of the race, Solberg’s defense finally faltered. Petter ran deep into the bottom hairpin corner and Loeb didn’t hesitate, sneaking up the inside, snatching third place and once again sending the French contingent of the crowd into overdrive.

At this point in the race Loeb was too far back to challenge Bakkerud, who in turn was too far away from Kristofferson, and so that is the way the order remained for the last few corners. Although Johan had gone largely unchallenged the mid-pack battle had been fantastic to watch and easily made for the most entertaining final I have spectated at Loheac.

Kristofferson’s victory, coupled with Bakkerud’s second position, also had an interesting effect on the title standings: Johan climbed to third in the standings, with Andreas just one point behind him. In fact the top four competitors in the Championship left Loheac separated by just 24 points.

Round 9 in Barcelona last weekend saw the balance shift yet again, as Mattias Ekstrom took victory while Solberg failed to make it past the semi-final stage. As a consequence Mattias retook the Championship lead from Petter, with Solberg now trailing by 10 points and third place driver Kristoffersson 26 points adrift. That is the biggest the point gap has been for several rounds but, with three rounds left, the Championship race is clearly far from over.

Round 10 takes place next weekend at the brand new Bikernieki rallycross circuit in Latvia. As I am sadly unable to be there, I shall be glued to the TV seeing how it pans out: I would urge you to do the same!

 

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