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Event

World Rallycross Championship Round 5 – Lydden Hill

8th June 2017 — by Steve White

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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.

Event

World Rallycross Championship Round 4 – Mettet

25th May 2017 — by Steve White

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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!

 

 

Want to see more of the World Rallycross Championship at Circuit Jules Tacheny Mettet? Click here for a full image gallery.

Event

British Rallycross Championship Round 2 – Lydden Hill

2nd May 2017 — by Steve White

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After basking in the Spanish sunshine for the opening round of the World Rallycross Championship, it was back to the waterproofs again for my trip to Lydden Hill and the second round of the British Rallycross Championship.

Having perused the entry list before arriving at Lydden, it was notable that the numbers in the Supercar class are lower than in 2016. That may seem a rather negative note to open this blog with but, although a number of regular competitors have elected to sit this season out, there has also been an influx of new drivers, all of whom have bought competitive machinery to the Championship.

Former British Touring Car Championship driver Warren Scott is one of those who has made the move to rallycross for 2017, with Warren driving the LD Motorsport Citroen DS3 used by Dan Rooke to take the Supercar title last year. Sadly Rooke is one of the familiar names who hasn’t returned to the British Championship this year but, with a recently announced deal to race in RX2, rallycross fans will at least have a chance to see Dan in action at Lydden next month.

Scott is joined in the LD Motorsport garage by Jake Harris – in the DS3 formerly used by Steve Harris – and last year’s Suzuki Swift champion Nathan Heathcote. Heathcote will initially be utilizing the Citroen C4 driven by Pat Doran in last year’s Championship, before switching to a DS3 later in the season.

After being denied a podium spot at round one of the Suzuki Swift Championship from Croft, Simon Ovenden was clearly on a mission at Lydden. No one seemed able match the pace of Ovenden in the heats with Simon winning all three heat races. He went on to claim first in the opening Swift semi-final and then drove to victory in the final. Morgan Bailey and Christoffer  Lia completed the podium while round one winner Chris Woollett had to settle with fifth.

In the Swift Junior Championship Tom Constantine qualified top and took the pole spot for the final. It looked like Constantine might finally break Tom Llewellin’s undefeated streak, but Llewellin seized the lead on the opening lap of the Junior final and led all the way to the flag.

Victory at Lydden marked Tom’s sixth consecutive win in the Swift Juniors. I touted Llewellin as a favourite for the 2017 Junior title last year and, with his current winning streak, that’s looking a very strong possibility.

Chrissy Palmer was untouchable in the RX150’s last year and Palmer carried that dominance into 2017 with a win at the opening round. After topping the qualifying standings and winning the first RX150 semi-final at Lydden, Palmer claimed the pole spot for the final and seemed destined for another victory.

Tom Ward had other ideas though and, after starting from second position on the grid, pushed hard throughout the RX150 final. Following contact with Chrissy, Tom was able to seize the lead and finally oust Palmer from the top step of the podium.

One critique that I have made of the British Championship in the past is the grid size in some classes. Although no one wants to see any cars excluded from competition, the low numbers have resulted in some heats and finals running with just a handful of cars.

Consequently the decision has been made to amalgamate the Super 1600, BMW MINI and Hot Hatch races together in 2017. I applaud whoever is behind this move as, although the total number of races in the day has been slightly reduced, multiple races with near empty grids have been replaced by just a couple with full grids. Ultimately this is more entertaining for spectators and, while the drivers still have separate class titles to chase, there is the added bonus of inter-class battles that you wouldn’t get with separate races.

Having secured second place at the opening round, Craig Lomax had made clear his desire to stand atop the podium at Lydden and, with consistent times in heats one and two, challenging for the victory looked feasible. Unfortunately Lomax pushed a bit too hard in heat three and rolled his C2 coming through Chessons. After some hasty repairs, the team had the car back out again but, despite some very hard driving (and a couple of very sketchy looking moments coming through the chicane), Craig was unable to qualify for the final.

With Lomax out of contention, round one Super 1600 winner Paul Coney led the field, posting fastest times in heats two and three to win qualifying. The biggest challenge to Coney came from Darren Scott, who won the second semi-final and earned the grid slot next to Paul for the final.

Scott wasn’t far behind Coney, but never quite close enough to deny him the win. Second was still a fantastic result for Scott though on just his second outing in a Super 1600 specification car.

Tomasz Marciniak was the fastest Hot Hatch of the weekend, while Martin Hawkes headed the BMW MINI standings, taking maximum Championship points ahead of David Bell and Drew Bellerby. With wins at both Croft and Lydden Hill, Martin Hawkes has got his 2017 BMW MINI title campaign off to a perfect start.

Barry Stewart made his first Retro Rallycross Championship appearance of 2017 at Lydden Hill, where he held off the challenge of round one winner Ray Morgan to claim first overall.

I have made mention of Vince Bristow in the past but, despite not being a title challenger or even a front runner, he still remains one of my favourite drivers to watch out on track. Bristow’s BMW is perhaps the most standard looking car in the Super National field, but with Vince at the wheel it’s always entertaining. I am of the opinion that Vince doesn’t really care where the rest of the field are as long as he is going sideways!

On the subject of the rest of the field, there are a number of strong contenders vying for the 2017 Super National title. In terms of raw pace though, Tristan Ovenden is undoubtedly the man to beat. Tristan had been very quick at Croft, but an overheating issue with his Clio V6 had slowed him at the end of the day and allowed Paige Bellerby to take victory in the final.

Ovenden absolutely dominated the heats at Lydden and won his semi-final by a ridiculous margin. After opening up a gap at the start of the final it looked like Tristan would romp to the win that eluded him at Croft. Luck was not on his side and, on the approach to the Devil’s Elbow, the left rear corner of the Clio gave way and Ovenden was forced to retire. Once again Bellerby was there to pick up the pieces and victory again went her way.

The relatively small Supercar entry actually made for a rather interesting event as several competitors experienced troubles throughout the heats but, thanks to the lower numbers, they were still able to qualify for the final. Ollie O’Donovan was the first Championship challenger to encounter a major issue when he clipped a barrier on the exit of Chesson’s during the first heat and smashed the front corner of his Focus.

The damage was so significant that O’Donovan was forced to miss the second heat, but he made it back out for heat three where he posted fastest time.

Nathan Heathcote had surprised many by winning the opening round of the 2017 Championship on his maiden outing in a Supercar. Hopes of repeat success at Lydden faltered in the first heat, before going up in flames in heat two. Thankfully the marshals were able to get to the car before the fire really took hold, but it was a disappointing way for Heathcote to end the day.

Kevin Procter topped the Supercar standings and it was his Fiesta that sat on pole for the final. After several abandoned starts the final finally got underway and it was Warren Scott who led the pack as they headed into Chessons for the first time. Mid-corner contact with Procter in turn one caused damage to the rear of Scott’s DS3 which, crucially, induced a rear puncture.

Ollie O’Donovan started the final on the back row of the grid and, after creeping slightly on the line, O’Donovan hesitated as the lights went green. Despite the delay, Ollie was a man on a mission and, after working his way through the field with a combination of passes and a well-timed joker, Ollie reeled in and passed Scott.

Warren looked like he might have to relinquish second position to Julian Godfrey, but Julian made an uncharacteristic mistake on the approach to the Devil’s Elbow when he collided with some trackside furniture. This resulted in significant damage to the right front corner of the car which sent Godfrey ploughing into the gravel on the outside of the bend.

Despite the shredded right rear tyre, Scott crossed the line less than three seconds behind O’Donovan. Third place went to Oliver Bennett who took his first podium of the year and fourth went to Jake Harris. It was surprising to see so many of the newcomers finishing above rallycross veterans Godfrey, Procter and Steve Hill, but I think it’s an encouraging sign for another good title fight this year.

It was a rather protracted day, but some cracking finals justified the wait. Despite the lower entry numbers the Supercars were as entertaining as ever, however with numerous battles throughout the field, the Super Nationals proved the highlight of the days racing. With several drivers still still getting to grips with new machinery and Tristan Ovenden yet to finish an event, I expect the class is going to continue to deliver this year!

 

Want to see more of the British Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill? Click here for a full image gallery.

Event

World Rallycross Championship Round 1 – Barcelona

15th April 2017 — by Steve White

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Hola! Welcome to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain for the opening round of the 2017 World Rallycross Championship.

I have previously discussed the changes for this year’s Championship in my preview blog, so I will try not to get too bogged down with technical details here and instead focus on the track action. However before I do that, I would like to dwell on one subject from my season preview, specifically the new Volkswagen Polo being campaigned by Johan Kristoffersson and Petter Solberg.

The PSRXVW Polo isn’t the only new car on track this year but, after much uncertainty and internet discussion, the opening round finally answered a question that has been mooted since the unveiling of the car: Volkswagen Motorsport have indeed deviated from conventional rallycross Supercar design and opted to leave the entire engine cooling package in the front end of the Polo. Volkswagen Motorsport have a huge amount of experience with successful competition cars and I hope they will eventually divulge the reasoning behind the decision to ignore such an established design practise.

Any doubts over Volkswagen Motorsports design decision were quickly dispelled during the opening practice session of the weekend, where Johan Kristoffersson blitzed the track to post the fastest single lap time. It was an impressive start for the Polo and, although some of the other drivers may not have been pushing at this stage, there was little doubt that the new car was quick.

The only notable issue for the PSRXVW Polo seemed to be the launch of the car: it may have simply been the drivers experimenting with the best settings, but I watched Kristoffersson and Solberg abort more launches on the dummy grid than any other drivers.

With the practice session complete, the Touring Cars lined up on the grid for their first qualification race and, with rain beginning to fall, the 2017 Championship finally got underway.

During the opening day the running order for both qualifying rounds was Touring Cars, European Rallycross Championship Supercars and, finally, World Rallycross Championship Supercars. With the early precipitation abating during the first Supercar races, the circuit began to dry and thus got faster with each passing race. Consequently those World Supercar drivers racing at the very end of qualifying one were presented with the best track conditions.

Defending World Champion Mattias Ekstrom took second in his first qualifying race of the year, with his time good enough to place fourth overall. Solberg was over three seconds quicker than Ekstrom which netted him third, while second was taken by Ken Block.

Fastest race time in qualifying one was posted by Johan Kristoffersson. Notably Kristoffersson had run in the same qualifying race as Ekstrom, so both cars had competed in exactly the same track conditions. Johan seems to excel in damp conditions though, so at this stage the result wasn’t any real gauge of potential performance difference.

With the circuit continued to dry out during the second round of qualifying, it seemed like conditions would continue to favour those drivers running last – who were of course the quickest from qualifying one – but, with just two races of the round left, it began to drizzle. As grey clouds continued to amass overhead, Toomas Heikkinen went fastest in qualifying two with an overall time of 3:27.651.

As the downpour intensified, the circuit conditions began to change and, by the time the final Supercar grid had assembled, the grip levels around the track had fallen immensely. Mattias Ekstrom dealt with the wet conditions best, sliding his way to victory in the final race of qualifier two. Notably Ekstrom’s race winning time was over four minutes – 4:04.962 in fact – which was almost 38 seconds slower than Heikkinen’s race winning time and only good enough to place Mattias fifteenth in the second qualifying round.

Ekstrom wasn’t alone, with all of the fastest drivers from the opening heat placing poorly – and Andreas Bakkerud failing to even finish the race – the standings were really shaken up. Johan Kristoffersson managed to hang on to a top three overall position, but both Mattias Ekstrom and Petter Solberg tumbled down the order and fell to eleventh and twelfth respectively in the intermediate standings.

Heikkinen’s time was not only enough to win him qualifying two but, with it, head the overall standings at the end of day one. Toomas wasn’t the EKS driver I had expected to see topping the leaderboard, but his qualifying two race had been run just in time for him to avoid the deluge. With better weather forecast for the second day of racing, could Toomas hang onto that lead position on day two?

Day two began with clear skies and beaming sunshine, so conditions were much more pleasant for spectators. Crucially for the drivers, the warm weather also provided much more consistency from the track. Predictable circuit conditions saw Mattias Ekstrom and Petter Solberg ascend back up the standings, with Ekstrom and Solberg eventually placing second and fifth respectively in the intermediate standings.

However the hardest charger on day two was unquestionably Andreas Bakkerud. After finishing day one in eighteenth overall, Bakkerud rounded off the qualifiers with fastest time in qualifying four. That was enough to move him up to fourth in the intermediate standings and earn him a place on the front row of the second semi-final.

With the qualifiers done and the cumulative scores calculated, the top twelve competitors in each category rolled out to the dummy grid area in preparation for the semi-finals. Given the number of experienced rallycross drivers participating in this year’s World Rallycross Championship, it was rather surprising to see that it wasn’t one of the series veterans heading the World Championship table, but relative newcomer Timo Scheider.

Defending Touring Car Champion Ben-Philip Gunderson had a weekend to forget. With his car failing to pass scrutineering, he was unable to start any races during day one and posted just just a single qualifying time on day two. Consequently Ben-Philip failed to make the semi-finals or even score a single Championship point.

Philip Gehrman also made a poor start to proceedings, with a disqualification and retirement on day one. Bouncing back on day two Gehrman rounded up qualifying with a first. That pace continued into the semi-finals, with Philip winning the second semi-final and securing a front row spot for the Touring Car final.

Lining up alongside Kjetil Larsen, Gehrman took the lead from Larsen on the opening lap of the final. Leaving his joker lap until lap five, Philip briefly relinquished the lead to David Nordgard, however Nordgard slipped back down the order after taking his joker on the final lap of the race. The battle for second position was the real highlight of the Touring Car final, with Petter Brauten fending off the advances of Per-Magne Royras thoughout the second half of the race. Brauten held second position to the line, with Royras taking third just ahead of Nordgard.

I touted Robin Larsson as one to watch for this year’s European Rallycross Championship title and the results from day one certainly supported that prediction, with Robin taking a first and a second in qualifying one and two respectively. A disastrous third qualifier relegated Larsson to third in the intermediate standings, but that was still enough to place Robin on the outside of the front row for the first semi-final.

Lining up alongside Larsson was Anton Marklund. Many had expected Marklund to be quick, but his pace on day two was absolutely astonishing, with Anton securing fastest times in qualifying three and four.

As the cars left the line for the first semi-final Marklund and Larsson made contact, the result of which pushed Robin wide and onto the grass verge on the exit of turn one. Larsson quickly recovered, snatching second place back at turn two and immediately latching onto the back of Anton Marklund. Unfortunately the pursuit was short lived, as Larsson spun on the second lap, leaving Anton free to drive to victory.

Trailing behind Marklund, Henning Solberg held off Rene Munnich and Tommy Rustad to take second. Munnich and Rustad had a fantastic scrap right up to the finish line, with Rene just pipping Tommy to the post. It was a surprise to see neither Tommy Rustad nor Robin Larsson qualifying for the final and there were more upsets to follow in the second European Championship semi-final.

Thomas Bryntesson was one of several young talents who delivered on pre-season expectations during the Spanish qualifiers, placing second overall in the intermediate standings and taking pole position for the second semi-final. As with the first semi, there was contact off the line and, with Thomas holding the inside line, Hvaal nudged him into the tyre stack on the inside of the turn one. The resultant damage forced the immediate retirement of Bryntesson, who pulled over on the outside of the circuit with the front left corner of the car absolutely obliterated.

Semi-final two would also be the last race of the weekend for Jerome Grosset-Janin, as he was unable to match the pace of the leaders and finished outside the top three. With so many talented drivers in this year’s European Championship it was inevitable that some big names would be eliminated at the semi-final stage, but I was surprised to see so many knocked out before the final.

Tamas-Pal Kiss made a rather shaky start on day one, but he seemed to find his form during qualifying three and four. That pace continued in the semi-finals, with Kiss taking the win in the second semi-final. Behind Tamas-Pal were the Irish due of Ollie O’Donovan and Derek Tohill. It was fantastic to see the pair not only qualifying for the semi-final but, but both finish in the top three and advance on to the final.

Semi-final winners Anton Marklund and Tamas-Pal Kiss lined up alongside each other on the front row of the European Rallycross final. Given how quickly Marklund had romped away from the field in his qualifying and semi-final races, he would need to be caught early in order to be stopped. However as the lights went green and the pack headed towards the second corner any hope Kiss had of mounting an early challenge against Marklund disappeared when Tamas-Pal ran wide and was passed by Ollie O’Donovan.

After several laps with Kiss on his tail, O’Donovan opted for his joker lap at the end of lap three, with Ollie snatching third from Rene Munnich as he merged back onto the main track. Although he was too far back to attack Marklund, Tamas-Pal managed to hold onto second position with Ollie O’Donovan staying in third.

Third was a fantastic achievement for O’Donovan and also a historically significant result as it marked the first time an Irish driver has secured a podium finish in the European Rallycross Championship.

Unchallenged out front, Anton Marklund chalked up his first win of the year and with it the lead of the 2017 European Rallycross Championship.

Barcelona certainly didn’t provide the ideal start to the season for the Peugeot-Hansen team. With Sebastien Loeb failing to qualify for the semi-finals – notably the first time he has failed to do so during his time in World Rallycross – team honours were left in the hands of Timmy Hansen and his younger brother Kevin. Sitting on the back row of the grid for the first semi-final, Kevin Hansen attempted a bold overtaking manoeuvre around the pack. Unfortunately the move didn’t pay off and Kevin found himself parked in the gravel trap on the exit of turn two. After digging himself out of the gravel, Kevin was too far back to trouble the top three and so missed out on a position in the final.

Timmy at least had more success in the second semi-final, finishing third and earning a spot on the back row of the final grid.

The front row of the first World Championship semi-final was occupied by Johan Kristoffersson and Timo Schnider. Qualifying first overall, Schnider held the pole position spot, but as the pack arrived at turn one it was Kristoffersson who slotted into first. Starting on row two Petter Solberg quickly found himself relegated to fourth as he was passed by Toomas Heikkinen who made a run round the outside of turn one to take third as everyone filed into turn two.

Sandwiched mid-pack, Solberg sensibly opted to joker at the end of the first lap. Emerging from the joker with clear air ahead of him, Petter immediately began to reel in fourth place driver Ken Block who was hanging onto the back of Toomas Heikkinen. As Heikkinen’s Audi S1 dramatically slowed just before the jump on lap three he was unceremoniously punted out of the way by Block who now had Solberg breathing down his neck. With Petter hanging on to the rear bumper of Ken’s Focus RS RX, Block relinquished his third position when he took the joker.

Timo Schnider briefly took the lead on lap four when Johan Kristoffersson took his joker lap, but Johan regained first a lap later when Timo went for the joker. With a comfortable gap to second position, Johan Kristoffersson won the first World Championship semi-final of 2017, with Schnider in second and Solberg third. It was a great result for the PSRXVW team, as they would be the only team to get two cars into the final in Barcelona.

Brilliantly Guy Wilks managed to secure himself a row two semi-final position in his first outing in the ex-Johan Kristoffersson Volkswagen Polo. Placing eighth in the intermediate standings, Wilks unfortunately found himself pushed out wide on the outside of turn one, dropping him down the order and leaving a significant chunk of ground between himself and the leaders.

An early joker enable Wilks to pass Jean-Baptiste Dubourg, but he was unable to pull in the lead trio and had to settle for fourth. Jean-Baptiste Dubourg eventually finished in fifth, seizing the position from Reinis Nitiss at the very end of the race.

Leading the second semi-final from start to finish, Mattias Ekstrom took the win with Andreas Bakkerud and Timmy Hansen in second and third respectively. While Bakkerud had been occupied by Hansen, Mattias drove aware from the pair to win by a comfortable margin. With Kristoffersson lining up alongside Ekstrom for the final, it looked like the defending Champion was going to have to quite a fight on his hands for the overall win.

Alas hopes of a race win – or even a podium finish – for Kristoffersson evaporated just moments into the final, as the Polo stalled on the line. After seemingly overcoming the day one launch issues, there couldn’t have been a worse time for Johan to encounter the problem again than the start of the final. After a few seconds delay Kristoffersson did manage to get away from the line and quickly caught the pack but, despite several laps of dogged pursuit, he couldn’t find a way past Timmy Hansen and so had to settle for sixth.

Sitting immediately behind Kristoffersson on the grid, Petter Solberg avoided his team mate by the slimmest of margins, swerving around the stricken Polo. As with the first semi-final, Petter once again found himself surrounded and, yet again, he dived off for an early joker at the end of lap one.

Up front the battle for first would be fought between the ex-DTM pair of Mattias Ekstrom and Timo Schnider. Ekstrom led the race from the first corner and, although Mattias never completely shook off Timo, Schnider never looked close enough to really challenge. Second for Schnider was a fantastic result though and a sign that the MJP Racing Team Austria Fiestas look even faster than last year. .

Behind the lead pair the best battle of the final was the superb fight for third. After taking his joker early, fourth place Solberg began to rapidly gain ground on Andreas Bakkerud. Sensing the imminent threat Bakkerud peeled off into the joker at the end of the third lap. As Petter and Andreas crossed the finish line to begin lap four, Solberg briefly took third before being passed by Bakkerud, who carried a huge amount of speed out of the joker and passed Petter around the outside of turn one.

Petter did seem to have the pace on Andreas, but he was unable to find a way past and, as the pair continued to duke it out, fifth place Timmy Hansen closed in from behind. With no way around Bakkerud, Solberg would spent the last lap of the race fending off Hansen to secure fourth.

And so first blood in the 2017 World Championship went to defending Champion Mattias Ekstrom. Is this an early sign of a year of dominance from the reigning Champion? Based on the evidence from Spain, I really don’t think so. Over the course of the weekend there were demonstrations of speed from both the old guard and multiple newcomers. Volkswagen Motorsport seem to have produced a competitive car and, if the bugs can be ironed out quickly, both Kristoffersson and Solberg should pose a serious threat to Ekstrom and EKS for driver and team titles. .

Equally the European Rallycross Championship looks like it will be as closely contested as hoped. Many of the Championship favourites did fail to make it through to the final, but all had the speed and I expect to see them chasing Marklund down at the next round of the European Rallycross Championship in Norway.

Thankfully we don’t have as long to wait for more World Rallycross action with the second round of the Championship taking place in Portugal next weekend. Fueltopia will be present at round four of the Championship next month, so look out for more World Rallycross Championship features in the near future and be sure to keep checking the official site in the meantime!

 

 

Want to see more of the World Rallycross Championship at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya? 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!

 

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