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Event

World Rallycross Championship Round 9 – Loheac

22nd September 2017 — by Steve White

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Our last look at World Rallycross on Fueltopia came just after round 5 of the 2017 Championship, where Petter Solberg took victory at Lydden Hill.

At that time it seemed as though the Championship might be on the verge of a tipping point. After defending Champion Mattias Ekstrom had won the opening three rounds, rounds four and five had both been taken by a PSRXVW Volkswagen Polo. The Polo had looked fast from the outset of the season, but once the level of reliability matched it’s raw pace, it looked like Volkswagen Motorsport might have built a car to challenge the early dominance of the EKS Audi S1.

As the Championship headed back to Europe following round 8 in Canada, there was little doubt as to the capabilities of the Polo. After Solberg’s win at Lydden, PSRXVW team mate Johan Kristoffersson went on to secure a hat trick of victories in Norway, Sweden and Canada.

With defending Champion Mattias Ekstrom missing his home round in order to race in DTM, Ekstrom  relinquished his Championship lead to Kristoffersson, who held a comfortable 35 point lead over team mate Petter Solberg before the action began at round 9 in Loheac.

Although other drivers have challenged at individual rounds, none have seemed able to consistently match the pace of the lead trio. Given the rapid evolution of the front running cars, I haven’t been surprised to see the same competitors at the top of the leaderboard, however I had been expecting the M-Sport developed Hoonigan Racing Focus RS RX of Andreas Bakkerud to be among them.

Of the two Hoonigan Racing Division cars competing in France, it was Ken Block who made the best start. Sixth in qualifying one was followed by a third in qualifying two and Ken finished the first day of racing sitting in third overall. Block has had good speed at Loheac in the past and I hoped that this might be the weekend we would see him make his first final of 2017.

Although their driver line up and management are predominantly Swedish, Loheac was technically home ground for the Peugeot-Hansen team and they were obviously looking for a good weekend. All three team drivers were to deliver great results and all would eventually finish in the top ten.

British fans were disappointed to learn that Guy Wilks had vacated his seat in the ex-Kristoffersson Loco Energy Polo prior to Loheac, however the sting was partially taken out of the announcement when it was revealed that Alister McRae would be taking Wilks position.

With limited seat time Alister certainly threw himself in at the deep end and, although McRae wasn’t quite quick enough to make the semi-finals, his qualifying times would have placed him well inside the top ten European Championship drivers.

EKS had the greatest presence on track, with the three World Championship regulars joined by DTM driver Nico Muller in a fourth Audi S1.

Muller placed outside the top twenty in the opening qualifier but had much better pace in his second race of the day, taking ninth fastest. I suspect he might have been able to challenge for a semi-final spot if the conditions hadn’t deteriorated so much on the second day of racing, but seventeenth on his World Rallycross debut was certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

Last year was the first time I had seen wet racing at Loheac and I was surprised as to how much of a positive effect it had on the circuit. With a bit of moisture on the loose sections, there was no clean line swept into the dirt and there were far more passing options available to those drivers who were willing to take a wider line.

Standing in sunshine is generally preferable to getting soaked but, for the sake of good racing, I was hoping that we might get a bit of precipitation over the weekend…

…as the adage goes though, “careful what you wish for”: the rain started to fall before the first car hit the track on Sunday and, although it eased off at times, it never completely stopped. As a consequence the track was absolutely saturated, with standing water quickly accumulating around the curbs between races.

While the World Championship entry had a few obvious choices, guessing a winner in the European Championship entry was far trickier. Fresh from victory in Sweden, Anton Marklund was the Championship point’s leader, but he faced strong competition from a capacity grid comprised of both season regulars and local entrants.

Having failed to make the final in both Barcelona and Sweden, Robin Larsson was my top pick and I was certain he would be on the offensive from the outset.

Larsson was clearly trying hard, but his weekend got off to a disastrous start with Robin placing 31st in both qualifying one and two. Due to the volume of Supercar entries, the European Championship ran their third qualifying last thing on Saturday and Larsson at least managed to finish the opening day of racing on a positive note, winning qualifying three and moving himself up to eighteenth overall.

With a semi-final position still a mathematical possibility, Robin again pushed hard when racing got underway again on Sunday morning. Fourth in the final qualifying round was a great result in the damp conditions but, although that elevated Larsson to fourteenth overall, he was still two places shy of the vital semi-final spots.

Larsson’s absence from the European semi-finals was the biggest shock of the weekend for me, as I felt sure he had the speed to challenge for the win. Whilst Robin had been struggling, Anton Marklund was unstoppable and he took the top qualification spot in both qualifying one and two.

One of the last races on Saturday was the third qualifying race for the quickest European Championship Supercars and, for me, it was one of the best battles of the weekend. There were multiple lead changes and, after several exchanges of paint, Marklund found himself bumped down the order and knocked off the top qualification spot. Third overall was still a great start for Anton and only a total disaster would prevent him for claiming a place in the semi-finals.

Although it was no real surprise to see Anton Marklund at the top end of the timesheets, I hadn’t expected to see Marklund’s team mate Magda Andersson place so highly. After finishing eighteenth in qualifying one, Magda then posted fourth and fifth respectively in qualifying two and three, placing her seventh at the end of the opening day.

Ninth at the end of day two was the best result of the year for Andersson and hopefully a sign that she is starting to adapt to the Supercars.

Of the considerable French contingent in the paddock Jonathan Pailler placed highest at close of play on Saturday, sitting in eighth overall.  Firmin Cadeddu was just behind Pailler and both drivers gained positions during a wet qualifying four to finish sixth and fifth respectively in the intermediate standings.

Firmin and Jonathan were joined in the semi-finals by Jerome Grosset-Janin and Patrick Guillerme, which gave the sizeable crowd of French rallycross fans plenty to cheer about.

Much like the Supercar regulars, Super 1600 leader Artis Baumanis had a number of local drivers to contend with in his bid to maintain his Championship lead.

For Championship regular Ulrik Linnemann, 2017 has seemed like another “almost” season. Victory in Spain  was followed by a retirement in Belgium  and, although Ulrik did at least leave Mettet with a decent chunk of points, a poor result in Sweden saw Linnemann with a widening point deficit to make up and, once again, dwindling hopes of a title win.

Loheac belonged to one Super 1600 driver this year and that was Kristian Szabo. Szabo won every qualification round, the first semi-final and the final, with victory in the latter races by a considerable margin from his rivals. Second position was taken by local driver Maximilien Eveno while Ulrik Linnemann completed the podium.

Victory for Szabo netted him maximum points and moved him ahead of Artis Baumanis in the Super 1600 Championship. The Super 1600 title will be decided at the next round in Germany and with another win in Latvia, Szabo is the man to beat.

Even with a capacity grid of Supercars and Super 1600 cars to handle, organizers had decided to shoehorn even more racing into the timetable, with the Rallycross Legend Show running a full set of qualifying races and finals over the course of the weekend.

Divided into separate classes for 2WD and 4WD cars, both sets of races were entertaining, however it was the Group B cars on the limit that provided the most memorable spectacle. I love watching the modern Supercars power round the last bend of the Loheac circuit and the classics were every bit as spectacular.

Cyril Raymond won the 2016 RX Lite title by just a handful of points, with three other drivers taking race wins throughout the season.

In 2017 Raymond has been the dominant force in RX2 and, aside from Sweden, he has claimed victory in every round thus far. The only consistent challenge to Cyril has come from 2016 British Rallycross Champion Dan Rooke.

Loheac was a make-or-break weekend for Dan Rooke. After crashing out in Canada, Rooke needed a win in France if he was to stand any chance of denying Cyril Raymond the 2017 title. Alas luck would not be on Dan’s side and, after a slow time in qualifying one, the opening day was rounded off with suspension damage in qualifying three.

Rooke battled on and managed to claw his way back to seventh in the intermediate standings. Starting the first RX2 semi-final mid-pack, Rooke was unable to make his way into the top three and his weekend, along with his title hopes, ended there.

Without the challenge of Rooke to deal with, Cyril Raymond held off the advances of Guillaume De Ridder and Vasily Gryazin to take a clean sweep in Loheac. Maximum points in qualifying, semi-finals and the finals saw Raymond not only win his home round, but secure the 2017 RX2 crown.

After the tussles of qualifying three, Anton Marklund began day two with a much cleaner run to take second in qualifying four and move up to second in the intermediate standings.

Eighth in qualifying four was enough to keep overnight leader Thomas Bryntesson at the top of the standings and he would take the pole spot in the first of the European Championship semi-finals.

It was another successful weekend for the Irish, as both Derek Tohill and Ollie O’Donovan made it through to the semi-finals. O’Donovan’s weekend came to an abrupt end in the second semi-final, but Tohill made it through to the final where he went on to finish fifth ahead of rallycross veteran Tommy Rustad.

Tamas-Pal Kiss had placed well during the first day of racing, but he seemed to relish the wet weather and took first in qualifying four before going on to win the first European Supercar semi-final ahead of Thomas Bryntesson.

Kiss lined up on the front row of the European Supercar final alongside Firmin Cadeddu, who was the only French driver to make it through to the top six.

The battle for overall victory in the European Championship final would be fought between Thomas Bryntesson and Tamas-Pal Kiss, with Thomas eventually emerging as the winner. Firmin Cadeddu completed the podium with a superb drive in his Citroen C4.

There would be no trophies for Anton Marklund, but fourth was enough to give him a decent haul of Championship points, allowing him to take the European Rallycross title at the intermediate stage of the Latvian round last weekend. Although the World Championship has provided the quickest races this year, the European Championship has been the most competitive and I think Marklund has done well to emerge victorious from such a class field of drivers.

I’m not sure if the home soil was providing additional motivation, but the Peugeot-Hansen drivers clearly had the bit between their teeth and I thought the 2017 specification Peugeot 208’s looked quicker than they have all year.

In fact in the dry conditions the Hansen cars even looked a match for the PSRXVW Polo, with Timmy Hansen registering two top ten times in the opening qualifying races.

If the locals wanted to see one Peugeot-Hansen 208 deliver though, it was the number 9 car of Sebastien Loeb. Second in qualifying one was followed by a first in qualifying two, which placed Loeb first overall and, predictably, elicited a huge roar from the home crowd.

Loeb didn’t look quite as rapid in the wet conditions during qualifying three and four, but two more top four times was enough to secure him second overall in the intermediate standings.

And who do you think was in first? After taking a win in the wet at Loheac last year, Johan Kristoffersson again coped well with the rain and took third in qualifying three, before winning qualifying four to once again take the top qualification spot.

Following his podium finish in the opening round of the season many wondered if the World Rallycross Championship might have another ex-DTM front runner in the form of Timo Schnider. Timo is yet to better, or even match, his early success but he placed ninth in Loheac.

MJP Team Austria team mate Kevin Eriksson narrowly missed out on a spot in the semi-finals thanks to a DNF in the third qualifying race which dropped him to sixteenth in the intermediate standings.

It was a mixed weekend for the STARD cars as well. Janis Baumanis manage to crack the top ten in two of the qualifying rounds, earning himself tenth in the intermediate standings and a spot of the back row of the second World semi-final. Fourth in that semi-final wasn’t quite enough to take him all the way to the final, but it at least bagged him some Championship points.

In the second STARD Fiesta Timur Timerzyanov never seemed to really hit his stride and Timur didn’t register a single top ten time in any of the qualification races, leaving him on the outer fringes of the point scoring positions.

After a strong showing on the opening day, Ken Block eventually finished seventh in the intermediate standings. Sadly Block’s good run came to an end in the semi-final when Ken began to spin coming into the penultimate corner and, in an attempt to catch it, he planted his right foot.

In the dry he probably would have got away with it, but on the damp surface the power wasn’t enough and the Focus RS RX continued to rotate straight into the gravel trap, resulting in a rear right puncture.

Block did his best to limp to the finish line, perhaps hoping that the drivers ahead of him might encounter similar difficulties, but with the rest of the field having an issue free race, Block missed out on what would have been a well-deserved place in the final.

Third in the second World semi-final, Andreas Bakkerud started the final on the back row and he managed to fight his way up to fourth. I am still surprised that the Focus RS RX hasn’t claimed any wins this year, but at least Bakkerud is continually getting the car to the final.

It seems odd to write a World Rallycross Championship blog and make so few mentions of Petter Solberg, but he just didn’t seem to be at the sharp end in France. That isn’t to say he wasn’t fast – he made it through the semi-final stage with ease – but it’s unusual to see Petter not take at least one qualifying win over the course of a weekend.

For Solberg the final began badly before then turning to complete rubbish. Running wide at turn one, Solberg dropped to fifth and so sensibly opted for an early joker lap. Unfortunately Mattias Ekstrom had the same idea and Petter emerged from the joker dead last. As he began his pursuit of fifth place driver Andreas Bakkerud, it became apparent that he had a front left puncture.

Petter continued to lap the circuit, with the tyre slowly working it’s way off the rim and he eventually crossed the line in fifth position.

After winning the second World Supercar semi-final Timmy Hansen started the final from the front row of the grid. Slotting into second position ahead of Sebastien Loeb, Timmy looked just shy of the pace of the leader, but fast enough to finish on the podium. What appeared to be a mistake on lap two saw Hansen drop down to third, allowing Loeb move up to second, however the mistake turned out to be a mechanical issue, forcing Hansen to pull off on lap four.

To the delight of the French fans Loeb managed to hold off Mattias Ekstrom to finish second, though he was unable to close the gap to leader Johan Kristoffersson, who took a lights-to-flag victory. Where the rest of the cars finished the race caked in dirt and grime, the PSRXVW Polo was still gleaming!

Johan Kristoffersson continued his record breaking run with victory again at round 10 in Latvia last weekend. That win saw Kristoffersson secure the 2017 drivers title and team title for PSRXVW.

With the 2017 Championship now decided, attention has already begun to shift to 2018 and many are already asking the question, can anyone stop the PSRXVW Polo?

The dominance of PSRXVW clearly has the other teams rattled. Mattias Ekstrom initially made noises about EKS needing additional support from Audi, before putting four of their five cars up for auction last week, while Sebastien Loeb has hinted that Peugeot are reconsidering their participation in the Championship.

It is perhaps a little ironic to hear Loeb voicing such a compliant, as it was arguably his period of dominance with Citroen that killed a lot of interest in the World Rally Championship. That said, he is perhaps more aware than any other driver of the detrimental effect that single marque supremacy can have on a sport.

At present I am rather torn on the subject. On the one hand I want to see cars going as fast as possible – and I have a huge amount of respect for Volkswagen Motorsport for producing such a capable car – but as a sport that is at its best when the racing is close, having a pair of cars run away with things isn’t going to contribute to that.

With two rounds of the 2017 Championship left it’s going to be interesting to see if anyone is able to break Kristoffersson’s streak before the end of the season, especially with Petter Solberg seemingly out of action for at least one of those rounds.  Beyond that – and considering that the rumours have already started to fly about 2018 – I’m even more intrigued to know who we’ll be watching in next years Championship!

 

Words and Pictures: Steve White.

Want to see more of the World Rallycross Championship at Loheac? 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!

 

Want to see more of the World Rallycross Championship at Loheac? Click here for a full image gallery.