I have to begin this blog with an apology, as there is likely to be an air of nostalgia to what you are about to read. Ten years ago, with a shiny new driving license in my hand, I took a drive to a relatively unheard of circuit in Kent to watch a motorsport that the internet told me had died in the mid 90’s.
To say that day proved a revelation is somewhat of an understatement. Rallycross wasn’t a sport that was confined to archive footage on You Tube, it was something that was happening right now and, unlike rallying, at a circuit barely an hour away from home.
A decade has passed since that weekend and much has changed in that time. My passion for rallycross remains as strong as ever though and the sport currently has a greater presence in the mainstream conscience then it has for many years. Seeing the awnings of the World Rallycross teams packed into the paddock at Lydden Hill seems a far cry from the clubman competitors I first watched running their race efforts from the back of a Transit van.
Equally it seemed hard to believe the personalities present at the circuit. Ten years ago I was watching drivers who were well known to rallycross fans, but whose names meant nothing to anyone outside the sport. Solberg, Loeb and Block could all be reasonably considered to be household names and here they all were, at the sleepy little Kent circuit where my passion for the sport was first ignited.
Tanner Foust, fresh from victory at the first and second rounds of the Global Rallycross Championship, joined the other star names at Lydden Hill for his first European rallycross appearance of 2016.
I was honestly a bit disappointed with Foust at Lydden last year as, based on some of his past performances in the UK – which included victories in both 2012 and 2013 – he just didn’t look on the pace. Alas success was to elude Foust once again. Having been plagued by electrical problems on the first day, the issues persisted into day two and Foust was forced to throw in the towel before the third qualifying round began.
Johan Kristoffersson was another driver who doesn’t seem to have fortune on his side. In fact Kristoffersson seems to have encountered bad luck at every round of the 2016 season thus far, receiving bumps and breakages at the most inopportune moments.
Johan once again delivered the goods in the qualifying rounds at Lydden, but trouble in the second semi-final saw him fail to finish the race. I hope Kristoffersson gets a break soon, as he certainly isn’t lacking in pace, just luck!
In the time that has passed since my first trip to Lydden, I’ve tried to sample as many facets of motorsport as possible. However I’m still yet to find anything that provides the same sensory overload as a rallycross Supercar race. From the bassy rumble of anti-lag and the flutter of turbos, the soundtrack for a Supercar race is absolutely unforgettable.
It’s not just the sound of rallycross Supercars that I find so captivating, it’s the sheer aggression of these cars that always astounds me. Watching Supercars leave the line is an experience I’m fairly certain I’m never going to tire of, as the cars squat down on the line before leaping forward and scrabbling for traction under acceleration.
Hopes for home success in the Supercar class rested in the hands of three drivers, namely World Rallycross Championship regular Liam Doran and wildcard entrants Julian Godfrey and Guy Wilks. Wilks had been very competitive in the JRM MINI in 2015, but he didn’t look anywhere near as comfortable in the OMSE Fiesta.
Despite that Wilks was on the fringe of a semi-final position at the conclusion of qualifying three, however an issue with the car in the fourth qualifying round left him crawling round the circuit, eventually forcing Guy to pull off. With no score on the board, Wilks dropped down to seventeenth overall and outside of the all important top twelve.
The weekend wasn’t much better for Julian Godfrey, who made an uncharacteristic mistake during the opening qualifying race, ploughing straight into the barrier on the outside of Chesson’s drift. After a good hammering and a careful application of duct tape Julian was back out for his next race. Sadly he was unable to match the pace of the leaders and Godfrey eventually placed twentieth overall.
Liam Doran has always seemed to encounter difficulties at his home event. With the 2.0 litre engine he has been desperately waiting for finally available, hopes were high that Doran would now have a car capable of matching the power of the rest of the field.
Sadly, and despite the best efforts of the team, Liam was unable to give the significant crowd of British spectators something to cheer about. The preparation of the 2.0L variant of the JRM MINI seemed to be ongoing right up until the moment the car hit the track and the weekend panned out more like an extented shakedown for the car, as issues cropped up throughout the qualifiers. It was a shame to see Doran unable to challenge on home soil, but hopefully the time on track will help JRM quickly refine their latest iteration of the Countryman
It wasn’t all woes in the paddock. After a very testing weekend for Ken Block in Mettet, it was good to see him have at least a partial change of fortune for round 4. Sixteenth in the opening qualifying round wasn’t anything to get excited about, but eighth in qualifier two was much more respectable.
Seventeenth in qualifying three wasn’t the best way to start day two, but a brilliant battle with Robin Larsson in the fourth qualifying round saw him net tenth fastest time. Block leapt up the standings, finishing just outside the top twelve. It was a shame that Ken didn’t make the cut for the semi-finals, but pleasing to see him and the Focus RS RX delivering a much stronger performance than Mettet.
It was Block’s team mate Andreas Bakkerud who was to truly demonstrate the capability of the Ford Focus RS RX. Hoonigan Racing Division looked to have opted for an incredibly soft setup for the Focus at Lydden, as the car was really pitching on the turn in for the Devil’s Elbow.
It was at the chicane where the soft setup of the Focus was most apparent. The vast majority of Supercars tend to go light on the suspension here, but Bakkerud’s Focus RS RX was almost rearing up as it went through this section and rejoined the tarmac.
Clearly the setup was working for Andreas though. Top six times in the first three qualifying races was followed by a first in the fourth qualifier. Bakkerud even briefly stole the fastest lap time of the weekend from Solberg in the third qualifying race, however Petter promptly snatched that back later in proceedings.
Slotting into gaps in the timetable was stunt driver extraordianaire Terry Grant and drift demonstrations care of Fueltopia faves Luke Woodham and Steve “Baggsy” Biagioni. The was the first time I’ve seen Baggsy’s Nissan S13 since it’s LS3 transplant and the new powerplant seemed more than capable of smoking out the spectators on the outside of Paddock Hill Bend.
The star attraction in the paddock came care of the Retro Rallycross Championship. A regular fixture at the British Rallycross Championship rounds, the Retro team had truly outdone themselves for the World Round, gathering an array of Group B rallycross machinery for static and moving display.
The centre piece of the Retro Rallycross display was unarguably the former Will Gollop bi-turbo Metro 6R4, the very car that Will claimed the 1992 European Rallycross Championship title with. This car has been in the hands of private collector for a number of years and hasn’t seen the light of day for some time. I’m not sure how or what sort of a deal has been struck, but the beloved 6R4 of Gollop has now been fully restored and looked absolutely stunning out on track.
For me the presence of Pat Doran’s RS200, better known as “Rosie” was rather fitting, as it was this very car that convinced me to make that first journey to Lydden a decade ago. As keen as I am of some of the modern machinery, the RS200 is first rallycross car I had a yearning for and still the one that I most covet.
It was Ulrik Linnemann who won the final at the opening round of the Super 1600 Championship, but after a more consistent performance over the weekend it was Mario Barbosa who led the Championship coming to Lydden.
Barbosa’s weekend came to an abrupt end during the second semi-final when he clipped the curb on the inside of Chessons and spun his Saxo across the track. Ulrik Linnemann looked set to secure a top three place and qualify for the final until he, rather unbelievably, clipped the same curb and flipped his Peugeot through the air and on top of Mario’s stricken Saxo. With semi-final two red flagged and the result declared on the previous laps positions, Ulrik was technically third, however as he was the cause of the stoppage it was fourth place Christian Petrakovits who advanced to the final.
With the Championship leader and top qualifier out of the running, the assumed favourites for the win were second and third top qualifiers Krisztian Szabo and Artis Baumanis. Both drivers won their respective semi-finals and so sat side-by-side on the front row of the grid for the final.
Early contact between Ernestas Staponkus and Timur Shigabutdinov gave Krisztian Szabo some breathing space and, while Artis Baumanis kept Josef Susta and Christian Petrakovits at bay, Szabo pushed on. Despite the pressure from behind Baumanis was absolutely flying and, when Szabo opted for his joker on lap 5, the pair ran door-to-door for half a lap. Artis looked faster, but he couldn’t find a way past Krisztian on the last lap and so had to settle for second.
For me the Super 1600 class produced some of the best racing of the weekend. Where there is a certain among of reservation in the Supercars as machinery is preserved for the Semi-Finals, the Super 1600 drivers seemed to be absolutely on the limit from the get go.
Thomas Bryntesson has been the man to beat in RX Lites in 2016, winning the opening round of the Lite Championship and the second round in Belgium last month.
Surprisingly Bryntesson didn’t look anywhere near as dominant at Lydden, thus the result of the Lite races were to prove a lot tougher to call. Cyril Raymond posted fastest time in the opening qualifying race, a feat he went on to repeat in the third qualifier. Failing to finish the second race cost him the top qualification spot – claimed by a very consistent Simon Wago Syversen – but at the intermediate stage Raymond looked the quickest on paper.
Raymond went on to prove that point in the second semi-final, winning the race and posting a time four seconds faster than semi-final one winner Simon Olofsson. With Bryntesson back on form for the final Raymond looked like he might be beaten but, despite posting the fastest lap of the race, Thomas was pipped to the line by Cyril.
Although I had been expecting to see Guy Wilks wrestling with car setup in the unfamiliar OMSE Fiesta, I hadn’t been expecting to see the team regulars struggling. After running a relatively stiff setup in the past, the OMSE cars all looked very loose. Given the relative inexperience of the young OMSE driver pairing, I wonder if car setup is something that is dictated to them rather than chosen at this point.
Kevin Eriksson posted the best result of the OMSE Fiestas, placing ninth at the intermediate standings and going on to finish fourth in the first semi-final. It was a far cry from the results OMSE have acquired at Lydden in the past, but with such an experienced field in play the learning curve for the younger drivers must be incredibly steep.
In a mirror image of past events at Lydden, it was the Team Austria Fiestas who looked the most composed. The Fords of Janis Baumanis and Timur Timerzyanov looked balanced in both the corners and over the chicane curb, which was a far cry from the first time I saw this team appear at Lydden. Crucially both Team Austria cars made it to the semi-final stage and Timur went onto to finish fifth overall.
The Team Austria cars seem to be continually improving and with the consistency of the two team drivers, podium finishes are surely an inevitability now.
Petter Solberg continued his dominant form into the second day of racing. Petter made it three out of three by winning the third qualifier and he came close to a perfect qualification score by taking second in the fourth set of qualifiers. Setting off from the pole spot in the first semi-final, Petter led the race from start to finish. The drive was Solberg at his best: flat out and flamboyant.
Mattias Ekstrom had been conspicuous by his absence from the top spot of any of the qualifying rounds. Although Ekstrom had obviously been slowed by a puncture in the fourth qualifier, his car seemed to be running fine in the first three races. Was Solberg really that much quicker than Ekstrom, or was Mattias saving himself for the closing stages of the weekend? I suspected the latter, but it was only during the final when spectators would know for sure.
Victory in the second semi-final put Ekstrom alongside Solberg on the front row of the final. When the lights went out both drivers got a good launch and, as they arrived at the first corner, Mattias dived off into the joker lap whilst Petter remained on the normal line.
Petter certainly wasn’t hanging around but, unlike the first semi-final, it was notable that Solberg wasn’t gapping the cars behind him. The ever increasing stream of smoke from the rear end of the DS3 was also a strong indication that his tyres were rapidly approaching the end of their life.
Emerging from the joker lap with clear air between himself and Kevin Hansen in third, Mattias Ekstrom slowly began to reel in the lead trio. Up front Timmy Hansen continued to hang onto Solberg and, when Petter peeled off for his joker, Timmy took the lead while, crucially, Solberg re-joined just behind Ekstrom.
Petter held onto Mattias right up to the flag, but he couldn’t pull him in close enough to attempt a pass. When Hansen went for the joker on the final lap Ekstrom moved into the lead. With a little over a second between himself and second place Solberg, Mattias took the checkered flag to claim his third successive win of 2016.
Although the resultant points changed little in the overall Championship standings, when the dust had settled at Lydden it seemed hard to look past Ekstrom as the Championship favourite for 2016. Still, as we have seen in past seasons, fortunes can quickly change and the development of cars is an endless process.
Cementing the above point, Andreas Bakkerud subsequently claimed round five of the Championship in Norway with a dominant (and record breaking) performance following victory in all four qualifiers, semi-final and final. The win signifies that Hoonigan Racing are hitting their stride with the Focus RS RX and, if the car can consistently deliver on its potential, it seems likely that the two horse Championship race we have seen so far will be interrupted.
With the Championship approaching its midpoint, first and second position are now separated by just five points, while third to fifth are only two points apart. At this stage the scene is set for the closest World Championship title fight yet and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the season pans out. Expect more World Championship content on Fueltopia later in the year and, in the meantime, be sure to keep tabs on the latest news updates on the official World Rallycross website!
Want to see more of the World Rallycross Championship at Lydden? Click here for a full image gallery.