This is a blog I have been dreading writing. The news that 2017 would be the last year Lydden Hill would host a round of the World Rallycross Championship certainly isn’t new – in fact it’s been almost six months since the announcement – but with the Lydden weekend done and dusted, the sad realization that we will no longer see the biggest names and best cars in rallycross competing at Lydden has hit home.
12 months ago I wrote about the instrumental role Lydden Hill has played in both my introduction to, and long running obsession with, rallycross. Over the last decade I have seen Lydden bring the European Rallycross Championship back to the UK, garner significant interest on TV and aid in the growth of the World Rallycross Championship. With such success the loss of the World round here seems unthinkable but, if I’m brutally honest, the move to Silverstone doesn’t surprise me. Lydden has had proposed development work held in limbo by the local council for well over two years now and, with the rapid expansion of the World Rallycross Championship, it was impossible to ignore the fact that the paddock was bursting at the seams this year.
Still, I have already dwelled on the matter enough. The final World Rallycross Championship round at Lydden also coincided with the 50th anniversary of rallycross and for that reason, rather than mourning the departure of a Championship, I considered the weekend a celebration of the sport that was conceived at Lydden 50 years ago.
Just a fortnight ago PSRX Volkswagen Sweden broke the winning streak of 2016 World Rallycross Champion and current Championship leader Mattias Ekstrom, when Johan Kristoffersson claimed the win in Belgium. After several near misses, spectators finally saw the full potential of the new Polo GTI and the question everyone was asking was if they could repeat the performance at Lydden.
Timmy Hansen narrowly missed out on denying PSRX Volkswagen Sweden their maiden victory at round 4, when a puncture slowed him on the last lap of the final. With the Peugeot-Hansen 208’s looking stronger in 2017, Timmy led the teams charge at Lydden, placing higher in the intermediate classifications than teammates Sebastien Loeb and Kevin Hansen.
Four home drivers were vying for success at round 5, with World Championship regular Guy Wilks joined by European Championship competitor Ollie O’Donovan, British Championship rookie Oliver Bennett and British Touring Car driver Andrew Jordan who was making a one off appearance in the MJP Racing Team Austria Fiesta usually occupied by Timo Schneider.
Wilks is often spectacular to watch in the ex- Kristoffersson Polo, but I do wonder if his flamboyance is preventing him from topping the timesheets. Guy was certainly consistent at Lydden and fourteenth in the intermediate standings was a respectable finish but, sadly, it was just short of a spot in the semi-finals.
Ollie O’Donovan seemed intent on reducing his Christmas card list for 2017, as he traded paint (and an assortment of body panels) with other competitors. Ollie finished outside the semi-final positions, but he posted faster times than several of the permanent World Championship entries which is surely an encouraging sign for O’Donovan’s next European Championship outing.
Of all the home talent it was Andrew Jordan who fared best. Placing eighth in the intermediate standings Andrew earned a spot in the semi-finals and, although it was a real shame not to see him progress any further, it was still an astonishing drive from Jordan when you consider he arrived at Lydden with zero seat time in the car!
Although the entry list had been revealed several weeks prior to the event, there was a late surprise with regards to one of the cars. Rene Munnich has added yet another supercar to his stable, specifically one of the two PSRX Citroen DS3’s, which he will use in place of the Seat Ibiza he drove in Barcelona.
Although not an old car, this DS3 has quite a history, having been the first car the PSRX team built for Petter to use in the 2013 RallycrossRX Championship. The car subsequently went on to become the second team car in 2014, with Alexander Hvaal driving it for the first half of the season, before Sten Oja used it in Canada, Simon Romagna in France and Manfred Stohl made his rallycross debut at the final round in Argentina. Pleasingly Munnich seemed to have adopted a Solberg-esque driving style for his new toy, with some very sideways moments around North Bend.
It has been a PSRX Volkswagen Sweden Polo that has headed every opening practise session of the 2017 World Championship and Lydden would be no exception. Solberg not only went fastest but broke the previous lap record by over a second.
That could perhaps be partially attributed to the track conditions, with the loose sections of the track looking swept before the first cars had even touched the track but, based on the trend seen thus far, the Polo GTI looks to be pushing the envelope of Supercar performance.
Seemingly with the bit between his teeth, Petter blitzed qualifying one and two, posting fastest times in both. With team mate Johan Kristoffersson close behind, the Volkswagen duo finished the opening day in first and second position overall.
Given the strong start to proceedings many were already talking about the pair locking out the top two steps of the podium but, with Mattias Ekstrom sitting in third, I was unconvinced that Ekstrom wasn’t just sandbagging in order to preserve his tyres.
The 50th anniversary of rallycross was the central theme of round 5 and it was marked with a huge car display at the top end of the paddock. There were some stunning cars in attendance, with all eras of rallycross represented. Predictably it was the Group B monsters that drew the most attention and the iconic sound of Will Gollop’s bi-turbo Metro 6R4 once again echoed around Lydden.
Of the cars in attendance, my preference will be unsurprising to anyone who has read any of my previous blogs. This is the very car that lured me to my very first rallycross meeting back in 2006 and I never tire of seeing it return to the track: especially when Pat Doran is giving it a good thrashing!
Despite having the lowest entry numbers of any of the rallycross classes this year, the Touring Cars have provided some of the closest – and most difficult to predict – racing of 2017.
Defending Champion Ben-Phillip Gunderson has got his title defence off to a terrible start, with a disastrous weekend in Barcelona followed by a marginally less awful round two in Mettet. Gunderson was pushing hard during the opening qualifying races and was sitting second in the overall standings after two races. Quickest in both qualifying one and two though, Mettet winner Lars-Oivind Enerberg was the early pace setter.
Anders Braten wrapped up the first day with a win in qualifying three and, coupled with seventh in qualifying four, he took second position in the intermediate standings from Ben-Philip Gunderson who slipped down to fourth.
Lars-Oivind Enerberg looked to have dropped in pace slightly when racing got underway on day two, but he was clearly saving the best for last, finishing second in the second Touring Car semi-final before going on to win the final. Second for Steve Volders and third for Kjetil Larsen allowed Enerberg extend his Championship lead to nine points.
After a shaky start at the opening round of the RX2 Championship, Cyril Raymond staged an astonishing comeback during the second day to take victory in the final and tie on points for the Championship lead.
Simon Olofsson had looked capable of matching the raw speed of Raymond in Belgium, topping the intermediate standings and winning the first RX2 semi final. Unfortunately his challenge came to an abrupt end when he picked up a puncture whilst leading the final.
Although Olofsson placed as high as fourth in the third qualifier at Lydden, Simon was unable to match the pace of the front runners and eventually finished in sixth overall. Olofsson retains his third in the Championship, with Guillaume de Ridder snatching fourth from Glenn Haug by just a single point.
Dan Rooke got his 2017 RX2 campaign off to a fantastic start at Mettet and English fans were hoping for another strong performance from Rooke, especially as he was on a familiar track.
Even on his home turf, Rooke was unable to best Cyril Raymond. With considerable RX Lite seat time under his belt, Cyril drove to a flawless victory at Lydden, winning all four qualifying rounds, the first semi-final and the final.
A maximum haul of points sees Raymond move into the lead of the RX2 Championship with Dan Rooke now trailing by four points. Coupled with further RX Lite success in the Global Rallycross Championship Cyril looks the man to beat this year. Fingers crossed Rooke can find a fraction more speed to challenge Raymond for the 2017 title.
My biggest failing when covering motorsport events is neglecting to spend enough time in the paddock and that is especially true with regards to rallycross. There are some fantastic personalities in the sport, but the cars have always been the stars for me and I curse myself for failing to spend more time studying them in detail.
With the ever-increasing level of competition within both the World and European Championships many teams are now reluctant to allow cameras anywhere near the front of their cars when the bonnets are up, however most are still happy for shots in and around the cars when they are all buttoned up and sitting on the dummy grid.
I find it fascinating to note the differing approaches taken by the various teams when it comes to both the major and minor design elements. If I was building my own car though, the interior of the STARD Fiesta is how I’d want to do it: fingertip controls, a flocked dash and heaps of carbon fibre.
Pleasingly Lydden Hill was another marginal improvement for the STARD team, with both Janis Baumanis and Timor Timerzyanov making it to the semi-final stage. Alas neither made it through to the final, but as the cars – and results – become more consistent it is surely only a matter of time.
The PSRX Volkswagen Sweden duo continued where they left off when racing resumed on day two. Petter Solberg took qualifying three from his team mate, with those positions switching for qualifying four when Johan Kristoffersson led Solberg to the line.
I still had my doubts as to whether we were seeing maximum attack from Mattias Ekstrom, but after all four qualifying races were completed I was surprised to learn that Kristoffersson still had two new tyres in reserve while Solberg had three remaining, having used just one new tyre for qualifying three. Tyre preservation has unquestionably been an issue for Petter in the past, so to see him reach this stage of the weekend with three of his eight tyres untouched was quite a shock.
Ken Block posted his best result of the season in Mettet with eighth overall and, with both Hoonigan Racing Division drivers believing the Focus RS RX would be well suited to Lydden, it looked likely that he would be able to continue that form.
Seventh in the intermediate standings placed Block on the second row of the first semi-final. Although Ken would finish just one place shy of the all-important top three positions, fourth in the semi netted him seventh overall, topping his finish in Belgium.
As the weekends racing began to near its conclusion, Andreas Bakkerud emerged as the greatest threat to the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden Polos. With a string of bad luck early in the season Bakkerud was clearly desperate for a win and with the Focus RS RX performing as well as hoped, Andreas looked likely to challenge Solberg and Kristoffersson for the top step of the podium.
Despite the talk, it was only when the racing reached the semi-final stage that I truly believed the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden cars could dominate the entire weekend. Knowing that Solberg had three new tyres on his Polo for the first semi-final, I was expecting Petter to lead the pack into the first corner and that’s exactly what happened. Starting alongside Solberg, Timmy Hansen dived into an early joker while Andreas Bakkerud slotted in behind Petter to take second.
Typically the lead driver will hold off on the joker until the last lap of the race but, in a break from the norm, Petter relinquished the lead in favour of the joker at the start of lap two. The gamble paid off, as Solberg emerged in the middle of the field with clear track ahead of him and no one to harass him from behind. As the cars ahead peeled off one-by-one for their joker, Solberg ascended back up the order until he found himself leading again.
In the second Supercar semi-final Johan Kristoffersson was joined on the front row by Mattias Ekstrom. With both cars fitted with a single new tyre (interestingly on opposing sides of the front), they ran side-by-side off the line and, given his placement on the outside of the track, Ekstrom sensibly opted to take his joker on the first lap of the race.
Sebastien Loeb moved into second as the pack headed into turn one and Loeb began pursuing Kristoffersson for the lead. Sebastien never lost sight of Johan, but as each lap passed Kristoffersson stretched his lead a little more.
Exiting the joker with a clear track ahead of him Mattias Ekstrom had clear air to try and reduce the gap to the lead pair but, like Loeb, he was unable to match the speed of Kristoffersson. Notably the EKSRX Audi S1 didn’t look anywhere near as composed on the loose section at the bottom of Paddock Hill as either the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden Polo or the Peugeot-Hansen 208.
Ekstrom looked like he was on the absolute limit and it was unusual to see wisps of smoke from his rear tyres. Nevertheless Mattias still managed to cross the line in third, earning himself a spot on the back row of the grid for the final.
With a semi-final win apiece it was an all Polo GTI front row for the final. Predictably the Volkswagen pair split off the line, with pole position sitter Petter Solberg opting for the normal lap while Johan Kristoffersson headed for an early joker.
As with the first semi-final Solberg chose to joker at the end of the first lap and, exactly as before, he emerged with a clear track ahead of him and a comfortable gap between himself and the car behind, which in this case was his team mate Johan Kristoffersson.
While Bakkerud led, Mattias Ekstrom found himself battling for second as he fended off the advances of Timmy Hansen. Hansen opted to joker on lap three, joining the race behind team mate Sebastien Loeb. Timmy didn’t stay there for long though, as a left rear puncture sent him pirouetting into the tyre wall as he applied the brakes on the approach to North Bend.
As Ekstrom slowly lost touch with leader Bakkerud, Solberg was closing in from behind, reducing the gap to Mattias to just over a second before Ekstrom took his joker. With only Bakkerud ahead, Petter continued his charge and when Andreas took his joker on the last lap, Solberg and Kristoffersson moved into the top two positions with just half a lap to go. Bakkerud re-joined in third to complete an all Monster Energy top three.
Exiting the joker behind Sebastien Loeb, Mattias Ekstrom suffered exactly the same fate as Timmy Hansen, with a left rear puncture putting paid to any hope he had of taking fourth from Loeb.
Mattias eventually limped over the line in fifth. After opening the year with three wins, it was surprising to see Ekstrom off the podium for the second round in a row. The drama certainly made for an exciting final though and it was a fine spectacle to conclude the 50th anniversary weekend with.
Victory for Solberg has slashed his Championship point deficit to Ekstrom, while second overall was enough for Johan Kristoffersson to take the Championship lead. Are we on the tipping point of a season of dominance from PSRX Volkswagen Sweden? I still think it’s too early to jump to conclusions, but with the team managing to pair their single lap speed with consistency they look to be the team to beat. Can Ekstrom, or anyone else in the field, extract more speed to match them?
Thankfully we don’t have a long wait to find out, with Round 6 of the Championship taking place in Norway this weekend. Stay tuned to the official World Rallycross Championship website for the latest news and and expect more World Rallycross content on Fueltopia later this year!
Want to see more of the World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill? Click here for a full image gallery.