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World Rallycross Championship Round 9 – Loheac

22nd September 2017 — by Steve White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Words and Pictures: Steve White.

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