What is it they say about the best-laid plans? It haD been my intention to FIT A NUMBER OF World Rallycross events into MY CALENDAR this year, but THE UK ROUND wasn’t one of those ON MY ORIGINAL list.
After planned excursions to both Belgium and Norway went awry, a last minute opportunity to get to Silverstone for the second day of Speedmachine was impossible to decline.
Thankfully conditions were much more pleasant than my first visit to Silverstone earlier this year, when relentless snow and driving wind had prohibited me from using my camera for any more than a few minutes.
After spectating at the opening British round, my biggest critique of the new Silverstone rallycross circuit was that the average speed seemed rather low. The weather at the time had obviously contributed to that issue and blue skies this time around meant a dry track, the result of which was a noticeable increase in pace.
Consider the results from the first two rounds of this year’s World Championship and you could be forgiven for thinking that we were about to see another season of dominance from PSRXVW, however it was the exclusion of Mattias Ekstrom that had handed Johan Kristoffersson the win in Spain and appalling weather conditions – coupled with a tactical error from EKS RX – that had played into the hands of Kristoffersson in Portugal.
Peugeot Sport broke the PSRXVW winning streak at round three in Mettet, with Sebastian Loeb taking the win from Petter Solberg. Meanwhile Championship leader Johan Kristoffersson had to settle for fifth and, although his point lead remained unchanged, it was surely reassuring for the rest of the field to see that the young Swede could be defeated.
With victory the last time out and previous success at Silverstone earlier in the year, Peugeot Sport were my top pick for putting a driver on the top step of the podium at round four. The 2018 specification Peugeot 208 looks formidable, Loeb is a proven event winner, Timmy Hansen unquestionably has race winning pace and Kevin Hansen, despite having the disadvantage of using older machinery, has qualified in the top twelve at every round this year.
However, after finishing off the podium for the first time in almost a year at round three, everyone was expecting Kristoffersson to be on maximum attack at Silverstone.
It would be Kristoffersson’s PSRXVW team mate Petter Solberg who would fare best on the opening day of action at Silverstone, with first and third in qualifying one and two respectively placing him top of the overnight standings.
Fastest times in both qualifying three and four saw Kristoffersson rocket up the order and it was Johan who took the top qualification spot ahead of Sebastien Loeb and Solberg. As per the pre-race prediction, Kristoffersson was clearly on the offensive.
Both of the EKS RX drivers qualified well and, although neither Mattias Ekstrom or Andreas Bakkerud took a qualifying heat win, the pair were never outside the top eight.
I was very pleased to see Olsbergs MSE return to the World stage this year and, although they haven’t been languishing at the bottom of the timesheets, they haven’t been as close to the podium as I hoped. Robin Larsson has twice made it to the semi-final stage this year, but I didn’t think he looked at all consistent at Silverstone. Larsson placed as high as eleventh in qualifying three after a pitched battle with Tommy Rustad, but slower times in qualifying one and four left Robin thirteenth overall at the intermediate standings.
Kevin Eriksson seemed to find more speed throughout the weekend and fourth in qualifying four was enough to place him on the back row of the first World Championship semi-final. A major moment at turn three during the opening lap of the semi lost Kevin a chunk of time which he was unable to claw back. After his poorest result of the year in Belgium, ninth overall was at least a step back in the right direction, though still shy of what I believe the car and driver are capable of.
It was another “almost” weekend for Janis Baumanis. The STARD Fiesta is clearly competitive but, having narrowly missed out on the final at the last two rounds, an issue in qualifying three – a breakage which is rather apparent in the above image – dropped Baumanis just outside the top twelve and thus he didn’t even make it as far as the semi-finals at Silverstone.
As well as the World Rallycross Championship, Speedmachine also incorporated the inaugural round of the Americas Rallycross Championship. Yes, I know that Silverstone is not located in a US state but, as much as I questioned the logic in launching a new American Championship in the UK, I was rather glad of the decision as it allowed me to see the Andretti Autosport Volkswagen Beetle and Vermont SportsCar Subaru WRX STI up close.
I had originally been hoping to see these cars at the last round of the 2018 Global Rallycross Championship, which was due to be held at Lydden Hill in October, but with the GRC folding earlier this year the US Supercar contingent have found themselves a new home in the Americas Rallycross Championship.
Two Beetles and three WRX STI were joined at Silverstone by five European competitors, including Phillipe Maloigne behind the wheel of a G-FORS Renault Clio and a pair of Munnich Motorsport Seat Ibiza’s.
Of the European drivers it would be Timo Scheider and Liam Doran who would pose the biggest challenge to the American teams. Scheider was quick from the outset and even managed to post a respectable qualifying time when the bonnet of his Munnich Motorsport Seat Ibiza popped up mid-race.
Liam made a slower start to the weekend, missing the practise sessions and seemingly using the qualifying heats to iron as many creases out of his new DS3 as possible. By the time the cars lined up for the semi-finals, the LD Motorsport Citroen seemed to be behaving itself and Doran managed to earn himself a spot in the final.
Although Liam managed to go door-to-door with and even pass Scott Speed on the opening lap of the final, Speed opted for a early joker lap and then closed the gap to get around Doran when he took the joker. Scott was unable to catch Tanner Foust though, who made a clean break off the line and went on to take an unchallenged win. Speed took second and Doran completed the podium.
Many rallycross fans, myself included, have long been curious as to how the Global Rallycross Championship Supercars compared to those in the World Championship. Although not racing side-by-side at Silverstone, the lap times indicated that the Andretti Autosport Beetles are very close to the top World competitors. With that in mind, it is no wonder that Beetles have been so difficult to beat in US competition.
Now none of the World Championship drivers are exactly sloppy, but the precision of the two PSRXVW drivers around the Silverstone rallycross circuit was especially astonishing. Check out the front left bumper of the car and it’s proximity to the tyre stack marking the corner.
If this was just on one lap I’d have said it was luck, but lap after lap both Solberg and Kristoffersson were brushing the tyres and other trackside furniture with the peripheries of their cars. Perfect control, even at race speed.
The precision of the PSRXVW duo was mightily impressive but, of the World Championship entrants, it was Tommy Rustad who was the standout driver for me. Silverstone was the first outing of the year for Rustad and, despite not driving a Polo for the last two years, he placed consistently through all four qualifying races and made it as far as the semi-finals.
I shouldn’t have been surprised really, as Tommy was involved with rallycross before many of the current World drivers were old enough to sit behind the wheel. I am also fairly certain (and I await correction here) that Rustad is the only current World competitor to have won an international event in a Group B car. Told you he’d been doing it a while…
Taking a break from providing race commentary for the World Rallycross Championship, Andrew Jordan swapped the microphone for the steering wheel of a MJP Team Austria Racing Fiesta. With MJP team principle Max Pucher working on other rallycross projects in 2018, his team are not a permanent participant in this year’s World Championship.
Unfortunately terminal issues in qualifying one and four demoted Jordan to twentieth in the intermediate standings, leaving him to watch the closing stages of racing from the sidelines. It was a real shame not to see Andrew make the semi-finals, but great to at least see him and the latest specification MJP Racing Fiesta out on track. Jordan will drive for MJP at two more rounds this year, with Toomas Heikkinnen set to appear in a second Fiesta.
Oliver Eriksson placed a respectable seventh at the opening round of the 2018 RX2 Championship, but he looked almost untouchable at Silverstone. Second in qualifying one was followed by first in qualifying two, three, four and the opening RX2 semi-final.
With Dan Rooke unable to secure the budget for the 2018 season, British fans hopes for success in RX2 rested solely on the shoulders of 2017 British Rallycross Champion Nathan Heathcote. Heathcote made an unfortunate start to his RX2 campaign in Belgium, when he rolled his Lite out of the competition at the semi-final stage.
Incredibly Nathan managed to make it two rolls from two events, parking the Lite on its roof coming off the jump during qualifying three. Coupled with technical issues during the opening qualifying heats, Heathcote was unable to crack the top twelve and so didn’t make it to the semi-finals. Fingers crossed that Nathan has luck on his side the next time as, when all four wheels were on the ground, his times were in the region of the top ten drivers.
Guilame De Ridder looked the strongest challenger to Eriksson in the qualifying heats, but when De Ridder retired from the second RX2 semi-final it was Sondre Evjen who took the race win and claimed the second slot on the front row of the final alongside Oliver.
When the lights went out for the final, Eriksson got an almost perfect launch, pulling clear of the pack well before it arrived at turn one.
From the outside of the second row Conner Martell also made a fantastic start, carrying a massive amount of speed into the first corner and almost managed to cut across Oliver and steal first position at the exit of turn one.
Martell was the only RX2 driver who would keep Eriksson in sight during the final, but Conner was never close enough to attack. The RX2 podium was completed by Sondre Evjen, who took a well-deserved third.
Victory for Oliver moves him to the top of the RX2 Championship standings, with Vasily Gryazin, Sondre Evjen and round one winner Ben-Philip Gundersen holding second-to-fourth positions respectively. The top four are separated by just nine points, so it’s still anyone’s Championship at this point.
Having qualified first and third respectively, Johan Kristoffersson and Petter Solberg lined up alongside each other on the front row of the grid for the first World Championship semi-final. With Andreas Bakkerud and Kevin Hansen sitting behind the pair, it was vital that they got to the first corner as quickly and cleanly as possible in order to fend off the challenge from behind.
When the lights went green Solberg made a fantastic start and, by the time the pack approached turn one, he had almost pulled clear of team mate Kristoffersson. The operative word there is “almost” as, when Petter edged over to the right, Johan contacted the right rear corner of Solberg’s Polo, throwing his car into the air. From this point Kristoffersson was a passenger and, after slamming down on the left front corner, the Polo plowed straight into the tyre wall on the inside of turn one. With tyres strewn across the track the race was immediately red flagged and the cars returned to the dummy grid.
As marshals rebuilt the tyre wall on the inside of turn one, PSRXVW mechanics scrambled to inspect the Polos of Johan and Petter for damage. Despite the heavy landing and tyre wall impact suffered by Kristoffersson, it was Solberg who seemed to have come off worst as his right rear tyre was punctured.
After ripping off most of the wheel arch and surrounding bodywork from the offending corner, the wheel was replaced, a generous amount of duct tape applied and the Polo was good to go. Petter was only slightly slower off the line on the restart, but he got swamped at turn one and found himself relegated to fourth by turn three. Despite the traffic ahead of him Solberg still looked in the fight but, just two laps into the semi-final, Petter pulled off the circuit.
Retirement for Solberg was obviously massively disappointing for PSRXVW but, thankfully for the team, there would be no such problems for Johan Kristoffersson. Taking the lead at turn one, Johan was chased to the line by Andreas Bakkerud, but neither Bakkerud nor third place finisher Kevin Hansen could find a way past.
Kristoffersson had barely crossed the finish line when his car rolled to a stop and his Polo R had to be towed back to the paddock. The immediate concern was that Johan had also sustained terminal damage during the semi-final collision, would he make it back out of for the final?
The second semi-final would be less dramatic but no less significant as Timmy Hansen, who had posted the quickest qualifying time of the weekend, retired with a puncture. I really felt for Timmy, as he has had race winning pace from the outset this year, he just seems to be blighted by absolutely rotten luck.
The only minor consolation for Hansen was that the second semi-final was won by his team mate Sebastien Loeb.
Jerome Grosset-Janin narrowly missed out on a place in the final, with a last minute pass in the semi leaving him just one place shy of the all-important top three. However tenth overall was still his best result of the year.
Given his previous Supercar experience I had been expecting Grosset-Janin to be the stronger driver in the GCK roster and I hope the improvement in his results is an indication that he is getting to grips with the Megane RS RX.
Although looking a little worse for wear (in fact it’s the first time I can recall seeing a PSRXVW Polo on the grid looking anything other than pristine), Johan Kristoffersson pulled up to the pole position spot for the final with no assistance, allaying fears that whatever had caused his car to stop after the semi-final was a terminal issue. With Loeb sitting alongside him, the front row of the grid was occupied by the only drivers to win any rounds this year.
Despite the threat of Loeb on his outside and the EKS pair of Mattias Ekstrom and Andreas Bakkerud sitting immediately behind him, Kristoffersson made clean start. Conversely Sebastien seemed to go backwards, allowing Bakkerud to slot into second and Ekstrom in third.
While Johan kept Bakkerud at bay up front, Loeb was clearly desperate to make up for his terrible launch. Taking the joker on lap three, Sebastien posted the fastest time on lap four to snatch third position from Ekstrom as he emerged from his joker.
Notably both the EKS RX Audi S1’s looked able to match the pace of Kristoffersson – and Silverstone was easily the strongest performance of this season for Bakkerud – but as the race went on, the precision of Johan allowed him to slowly creep away from Andreas and Mattias in the latter stages of the race.
Yet again I found myself questioning the joker strategy employed by EKS, as splitting the drivers earlier in the race would surely have left Ekstrom in a stronger position to deny Loeb third.
For the second time this year, Niclas Gronholm made the back row of the final and Niclas went on to finish fifth ahead of Kevin Hansen. Of all the non-works entries in the 2018 World Rallycross Championship, GRX Taneco have been the quickest and most consistent.
Although Gronholm had more involvement with the development of the Hyundai i20 I am surprised not to see teammate Timur Timerzyanov posting similar results yet. That said, Timerzyanov has made every semi-final of the year thus far, so he certainly isn’t far behind.
Although the weekend ended prematurely for Solberg, another victory for Kristoffersson has further extended the lead for both PSRXVW in the team standings and Johan in the driver’s Championship. I don’t think that Kristoffersson is unassailable at this point, but the other drivers really need to start posting consistent results before he starts to run away with proceedings.
And what of Speedmachine? Well, as much as I mourned the loss of the World round from Lydden Hill , I can’t deny that the round at Silverstone was very well organised and there was a significant amount of additional content stuffed into the paddock. That said, despite some improvements made since the British round, my biggest gripe remains with the circuit itself which still seems slow and not at all conducive to overtaking. I don’t think the track is beyond rescuing though and, with the first World event now under their belt, I hope that Silverstone will consider revising the layout for next year.
The World Championship makes it first Scandinavian stop this weekend, with round five taking place at Hell in Norway. Loeb, Bakkerud and Solberg will surely all be vying to beat Kristoffersson but, as much as I would like to see Petter take a win on home turf, it’s the luckless Timmy Hansen I will be rooting for. Be sure to keep an eye on the official World Rallycross website to see who claims victory and expect more rallycross content on Fueltopia later in the year!
Words and Pictures: Steve White
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