After a fantastic weekend at the opening round of the 2017 World Rallycross Championship I had to be content with watching rounds two and three from afar. Thankfully the wait between rounds is minimal and I have returned to the Circuit Jules Tacheny Mettet in Belgium for round four.
A quick glance at the results from this year’s Championship and you could be forgiven for thinking that Mattias Ekstrom is dominating the 2017 season.
Although Mattias has won all three finals – and managed to pull out a significant lead in the Championship standings in the process – the wins have come as a result of smart driving in the closing stages of the weekend rather than though outright domination. The top qualifier at each of the three 2017 Championship rounds thus far has been a different driver: all driving different marques.
In terms of raw pace the new PSRX Volkswagen Sweden Polo GTI has been the car to beat. The Polo has topped the practise timesheets at every round of the Championship thus far and Belgium would prove no exception to that rule, with team mates Petter Solberg and Johan Kristoffersson placing first and second respectively.
Of course races are not won on a single lap time and it has been consistency – and arguably luck – that has kept overall victory out of reach for Kristoffersson and Solberg. Day one in Mettet would see the team perfectly combine speed and consistency, with Petter and Johan taking a qualifying win each. There was still a long way to the final, but could this be the weekend when the Polo GTI took its first overall victory?
Pleasingly the Peugeot-Hansen 208’s seem more competitive in 2017. Sebastien Loeb had failed to make the semi-finals at the opening round in Barcelona, but he looked much stronger at both rounds two and three, making it to the final at both and finishing as high as second in Portugal. Team mate Timmy Hansen also performed well in Germany, qualifying second at the intermediate stage and taking third – his first podium finish of 2017 – in the final.
Notably Timmy Hansen seemed far more aggressive with his lines at Mettet than I can ever recall seeing in the past. With his circuit racing background, Timmy has always been synonymous with smooth and tidy driving, but he was riding curbs and skimming – or even clipping – trackside furniture in Belgium. This resulted in several spectacular two wheel moments: and a number of smashed front bumpers!
Despite reaching the semi-final stage in both Portugal and Germany, Kevin Hansen is yet to reach a final in this year’s World Rallycross Championship. I had been expecting to see Kevin challenge – and perhaps even beat – his older brother Timmy, but the speed isn’t quite there yet.
Things got off to a promising start in Belgium, with two top ten times in the opening days qualifying races. Unfortunately any hopes of surpassing Timmy in Belgium disappeared in the third qualifier, when Kevin ran slightly off line on the ascent from the bottom of the circuit, clipping the banking and sending his Peugeot 208 into a violent series of rolls.
After a strong second half to the 2016 season, which included three overall victories, I touted Andreas Bakkerud as one to watch this year. Third in Barcelona was an encouraging start, but a semi-final retirement in Portugal was followed by a disastrous weekend in Hockenheim where Bakkerud failed to make it beyond qualifying.
Ken Block has at least delivered consistent results for Hoongian Racing Division, with Block qualifying for the semi-finals at rounds one, two and three.
Mettet would prove to be the best weekend of the year for Hoonigan Racing. Bakkerud placed fourth in qualifying one with Block in eleventh, then Block surprised many to take fourth fastest time in qualifying two. Ken continued that form in day two, with ninth in qualifying three and another fourth in the final set of qualifiers.
Sixth in the intermediate standings was the best qualification result of the year for Block and, with Bakkerud in fourth, both Focus RS RX qualified for the second of the World Championship semi-finals.
Unfortunately Block’s progress was again halted at the semi-final stage, as he retired on lap five of the race after an interaction with the scenery. Ninth overall was still his best result of 2017 and hopefully an indication that the American might be a finalist before the year is out.
Andreas Bakkerud fared better, chasing Petter Solberg to the flag and earning a spot on the second row of the Supercar final. After the disappointment of Portugal and Germany, it was fantastic to see Andreas back at the sharp end again.
While Mettet didn’t constitute part of the European Championship, it had a packed timetable with the second round of both Touring Cars and Super 1600 taking place, as well as the opening round of the 2017 RX2 Championship.
The latter was a particular point of interest for me as, although the RX2 category (formerly known as RX Lites), has produced some good racing, the permanent class numbers haven’t been that high, so the overall Championship battle has often been fought out by just a couple of drivers.
With eighteen entries at Mettet, interest in RX2 looks very strong this year. Included among those entrants was 2016 British Rallycross Champion Dan Rooke who, after failing to secure a budget for this year’s British Championship, has managed to secure himself a drive in an RX Lite.
After recovering from a poor start, Philip Gehrman won the opening round of the Touring Car Championship in Barcelona and it was Philip who headed the Championship standings prior to racing getting underway in Belgium.
Defending Touring Car champion Ben-Philip Gunderson had a weekend to forget in Spain, but things got off to a much more promising start in Mettet. Second in the opening qualifying race was followed by another second in race two and two first places in qualifying three and four.
Lars-Oivind Enerberg had qualified top at round one, but finished outside the top three in his semi-final and thus missed out on the final. Enerberg was again quick in qualifying at Mettet, winning the first days qualifying races and placing well enough on day two to sit second in the intermediate standings. Winning the first Touring Car semi-final, Lars-Oivind claimed a front row spot for the final.
It looked like Enerberg would be fighting with Ben-Philip Gunderson for the overall win but, for the second time, Gunderson failed to make it through to the final. Although Ben-Philip at least managed to get some Championship points on the board in Belgium, failing to make it beyond the semi-final stage was a real blow to his title defence, with Gunderson now trailing the Championship leader by 29 points.
Enerberg carried his semi-final winning form into the final. Leading the pack out of turn one, the biggest threat to Lars-Oivind came from Anders Braten. Opting for an early joker, Braten pushed hard to close up the gap and, when Enerberg took his joker, Anders took the lead. When the joker staggered unravelled at the end of the race, it became clear that Lars-Oivind had done just enough and he took the win from Braten, with round one winner Philip Gehrman in third.
I had suggested in my pre-season preview that, if consistent , Ulrik Linnemann unquestionably had the speed to win both individual rounds and this year’s Super 1600 title.
Linnemann proved his race-winning pace at the first round of the Super 1600 Championship in Portugal, where he took overall victory, Unfortunately Ulrik couldn’t repeat the feat in Belgium, as mechanical woes forced his retirement during the final.
Top qualifier in the Super 1600 category at Mettet was Artis Baumanis. After setting fastest overall time in the opening race, Artis posted top eight times in the remaining races to pip Kasparas Navickas to the top spot.
After winning in the first Touring Car semi-final one, overall victory for Baumanis was looking ever more likely until, on lap four of the final, Artis clipped the tyre barrier on the outside of turn one. Obviously keen to make up any lost time, Baumanis charged into the joker section a bit too hot, rolling his Fabia in the process and handing the lead over to Janno Ligur.
With the damaged Fabia of Baumanis on the circuit, the race was immediately red flagged and, as Ligur was yet to take his joker lap, a time penalty was awarded which handed first position to Kasparas Navickas, who had already taken his joker.
Jussi-Petteri Leppihalme scored his best result of the year, with third in the intermediate standings, second in his semi-final and third in the final.
Kasparas Navickas now leads the Super 1600 Championship, with Ulrik Linnemann in second just five points adrift of Navickas. Artis Baumanis and Jussi-Petteri Leppihalme are joint third and Krisztian Szabo fifth. All five drivers are separated by just nine points and, with four rounds of the Championship left, I strongly suspect that the lead will change hands again before the seasons end.
In the RX2 category, it looked like defending Champion Cyril Raymond was making a measured start to the weekend, as he posted sixth fastest time in the opening RX2 qualifying race. However problems in qualifying two saw Cyril tumble down the standings.
With Raymond struggling, it was Simon Olofsson who set the early pace in RX2. The greatest challenge to Olofsson came from Dan Rooke, who demonstrated considerable pace against the RX Lite veterans. Rooke placed second in qualifying two, then went one better and won qualifying three.
Rooke was second only to Olofsson in the intermediate standings which was a superb way to get his RX2 campaign underway.
Bouncing back from the disappointment of qualifying two and three, Cyril Raymond won the fourth qualifier and the second RX2 semi-final, placing him alongside Simon Olofsson on the front row of the final grid. When the lights went green Olofsson was able to fend off Raymond to take the lead and it looked like the challenge to Simon would instead come from Dan Rooke. While Rooke and Olofsson battled, Raymond took an early joker and, when Simon picked up a puncture, Dan found himself second to Cyril after taking his joker.
Victory in the RX2 final was a remarkable reversal of fortune for Cyril Raymond. From fifteenth overall at the end of day one to an overall win at the end of day two. Cyril left Mettet with an equal point haul to Dan Rooke and the pair currently share the lead of the RX2 Championship. With the next round of RX2 taking place at Lydden Hill, Rooke will have circuit knowledge on his side, so fingers crossed he will stand on – or perhaps even atop – the podium at round 2.
Timo Scheider has seemingly been unable to duplicate his round one podium success. Kevin Eriksson was the MJP Racing Team Austria Fiesta to watch at Mettet, with Kevin making it all the way to the back row of the final. Eriksson might have made posed a challenge for a podium spot, but a puncture relegated him to the back of the field where he eventually finished fifth.
I was expecting a breaking in period for the pair of STARD Fiestas, but I thought we might see them posing more of a threat for final positions at this point in the season. Janis Baumanis barely managed to finish the top 16 where he netted a single Championship point. Team mate Timur Timerzyanov got a little further but, for the third time this year, his weekend came to an end in the semi-finals.
I believe both drivers have the talent to be challenging the front runners and I hope it’s not long before we see them up there.
With such a strong performance throughout the weekend and cars on the first and second row of the grid, the odds of a maiden victory for PSRX Volkswagen Sweden seemed good. After the lights had gone green it was Petter Solberg who led the pack into the first corner and down towards the lower section of the track. Timmy Hansen slotted into second and, after a brief moment of contact with Andreas Bakkerud, Johan Kristoffersson snatched third.
Petter would retain the lead until the end of lap two, when Timmy Hansen got fantastic drive out of the inside of the final corner and ran alongside Solberg as they turned into the first turn of lap three. Petter tried to hold off Timmy, but instead ran wide, grazing the tyres on the outside of the first corner. As the Polo GTI snapped back onto the racing line, Solberg collected the hapless Focus RS RX of Bakkerud and fired him into the tyre barrier on the opposite side of the track.
Andreas managed to limp on for another half a lap before retiring at the side of the track. With Kevin Eriksson struggling with a puncture and Kristoffersson opting for an early joker, Mattias Ekstrom was elevated to third. The position of Ekstrom was to prove critical to the final result as, although he was several seconds behind the race leaders, both Johan and Petter would end up behind Ekstrom after taking their joker lap.
As Kristoffersson and Solberg tried to find a way past Ekstrom, Hansen had a clear track ahead and could focus on putting in the quickest laps possible. It looked like Timmy might have stretched out enough of a gap to joker and retain the lead, until the final lap of the race when it became apparent that his Peugeot 208 had picked up a left front puncture. With Ekstrom also opting to take his joker on the final lap, the finishing order was decided on the last corner.
Despite being held up by Mattias Ekstrom, Johan Kristoffersson had done enough and he took the maiden win for the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden Polo GTI. Undeterred by the puncture, Timmy Hansen had the throttle absolutely pinned as he emerged from the joker and, although it looked like Petter had crossed the line first, Timmy claimed second place by a hundredth of a second.
Finishing fourth Mattias Ekstrom retained first place in the World Championship standings, however his lead has been slashed, with just three points to second place Kristoffersson and fourteen to third place Solberg. With Ekstrom’s early Championship lead severely eroded, the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden pair will surely be aiming to catch and pass Mattias next time out.
The fifth round of the Championship takes place at Lydden Hill this weekend. Fueltopia will be in attendance, so be sure to check back for full event coverage in the coming days!
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