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World Rallycross Championship – 2017 Preview

24th March 2017 — by Steve White

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Event

World Rallycross Championship – 2017 Preview

24th March 2017 — by Steve White

With the opening round of the 2017 World Rallycross Championship less than a week away and the stream of press releases beginning to abate, now seems the perfect time to recap the biggest stories from the off season and summarize everything you need to look out for in this year’s World Rallycross Championship.

Starting with the basics and, aside from a few tweaks, the fundamentals of the 2017 World Championship remain unchanged from 2016, with the Championship comprising of twelve rounds from around the globe. Notably Argentina has now been dropped and, in its place, the Championship will now conclude its season at Killarney race circuit in South Africa.

Surprisingly the biggest story concerning the circuit selection for 2017 wasn’t related to the arrival of this new location to the Championship, but the news that this year will be the last that Lydden Hill will comprise part of the World Rallycross Championship.

Lydden Hill is internationally regarded as the home of rallycross and, as discussed in my blog last year, the circuit was instrumental in both my introduction and long running obsession with the sport. In the short term I’m struggling to see any positives from this decision but, despite my personal feelings on the matter, I am trying to keep an open mind on the change of venue.

Reassuringly Lydden Hill owner Pat Doran was quick to dispel concerns about the future of the circuit and Pat reiterated that efforts to green light the proposed development of the track facilities will continue. The British Rallycross Championship will visit the circuit twice this year, so rallycross will continue to have a presence at the iconic venue. Lydden has won international events back before and I hope it will be able to bounce back and do the same again.

In addition to the World Rallycross Championship, the standalone European Rallycross Championship returns for 2017, along with the separate Super 1600, Touring Car and RX Lite titles.

As before each of these respective Championships will be fought out over select World Rallycross weekends. The European Rallycross Championship takes place over five rounds (Spain, Norway, Sweden, France and Latvia), Super 1600 over six rounds (Portugal, Belgium, Sweden, France, Latvia and Germany) and the Touring Cars five rounds (Spain, Belgium, UK, Norway and Germany).

Finally the RX Lites – which have been rebranded as RX2 for 2017 – are due to appear at seven rounds (Belgium, UK, Norway, Sweden, Canada, France and South Africa) of the World Championship.

The first whiff of team news for 2017 came as part of Audis announcement that they would no longer be participating in the World Endurance Championship. At the tail end of the WEC press release were a few words concerning future commitment to Mattias Ekstrom’s EKS team and also interest in electric rallycross car development.

Electric rallycross cars quickly became a hot topic during the off-season. Just days after the Audi press release Manfred Stohl’s research division STARD unveiled their STARD HIPER, the world’s first fully electric 4WD rallycross car. Confirmation soon followed from the US that the American Global Rallycross Championship would run a dedicated electric series in 2018  with a debut event to come in 2017. Is electric the future? I’m uncertain at present, the technology is unquestionably a perfect fit for rallycross and I don’t doubt that electric cars can match the performance of their combustion engine brethren, but can they provide the same spectacle?

Audi Sport waited until the new year before confirming their official support for EKS and, despite several posts on social media teasing a potential change, Toomas Heikkinen confirmed shortly thereafter that he would be returning to EKS in 2017.

After securing the 2016 team championship title with Topi, it makes perfect sense to retain the same line up. Heikkinen didn’t fare as well as I had expected in last year’s drivers Championship, but with increased seat time in the Audi S1 perhaps we will see him ascend further up the Championship standings in 2017.

Following a joint venture with Kristofferson Motorsport in 2016, Marklund Motorsport announced they would be contesting the 2017 European Rallycross Championship alone, utilizing a pair of Volkswagen Polos. As the son of the team principle, it was no shock to see Anton Marklund confirmed as the first of the teams two drivers. The real surprise in the Marklund line up came from the naming of their second driver.

After missing out on the 2016 Touring Car title by just one point, Magda Andersson was quite open about her desire to drive a Supercar this year. Andersson has had her wish granted by Marklund Motorsport and it’s going to be interesting to see how Magda fares with the difficult transition from Touring Car to Supercar.

Bigger VW news was to follow though. Johan Kristofferson remained tight lipped after the Marklund Motorsport announcement and a few weeks later it became apparent why. Johan revealed he had a new team mate for 2017, which was none other than double World Rallycross Champion Petter Solberg.

Rumours had been rife about Solberg even before the 2016 season had reached it’s conclusion, with talk of potential manufacturer backing from a major marque. As well as confirming the partnership of Kristofferson and Solberg, the announcement also verified that the official manufacturer behind the new driver pairing was Volkswagen. This new team will be run by Solberg, with cars provided by Volkswagen Motorsport in Germany and support from Volkswagen Sweden. Two of the biggest talents in rallycross sharing the same garage seems like a sure recipe for success in the team Championship: and the odds of the driver title ending up under the same roof are surely pretty good as well!

Since his return to rallycross in 2013, Petter and his DS3 have been responsible for the vast majority of my favourite moments from the last few seasons. I’m going to miss the venerable Citroen, but I can’t wait to see what Solberg can do with the new Polo. Petter was quick to confirm that his new car will retain his trademark soft setup, so I am hoping to see his Polo travelling sideways this year.

Solberg officially unveiled the livery for the 2017 cars earlier this month, though I’m convinced that what was revealed to the public wasn’t a competition car. Early test photos showed a test mule that looked very much like the last Polo World Rally Car, with the typical Supercar rear radiator setup noticeably absent. With the livery launch car seemingly in the same configuration, there is a possibility Volkswagen Motorsport have broken convention and opted to keep the entire engine cooling package up front, however I think Volkswagen are keeping the final car under wraps. Still, irrespective of design, when Volkswagen Motorsport commit to a motorsport program, they don’t tend to do things by halves. Whatever the finished product looks like, I don’t doubt it’s going to be a very capable car.

Albatec Racing were actually the first team to officially confirm any plans for 2017, when they announced Finnish Rallycross Champion Jere Kalliokoski would be joining them for a full European Championship campaign. Kalliokoski will be joined by 2015 European Rallycross Champion Tommy Rustad who returns to Albatec for a second year. I thought Rustad had looked a little overwhelmed by the young blood early in last year’s season, though he was back to winning ways for the final round. While many of his competitors have switched cars in the off season, familiarity may provide Rustad with an edge at the season opener in Barcelona.

Hoonigan Racing Division are the only World team set to return with an unchanged driver line up in 2017. I was personally a little disappointed with Ken Blocks performance last year, as he has proved he has the pace in Europe in the past, but consistent results just weren’t forthcoming in 2016. I appreciate that he was severely lacking in time in the car at the start of the season though and, with more circuit mileage under his belt (plus a gymkhana video) at the helm of the Focus RS RX, I hope he will be able to challenge for more podium finishes this season.

I must confess I was one of the doubters when it was announced that M-Sport would be developing the Focus for rallycross. Beginning the season with a bare minimum of test miles in a car that many believed was unsuited for the task, Andreas Bakkerud had a slow start to the year and, after failing to even make the semi-finals in Belgium, I feared that the decision to move to Hoonigan Racing might be one he was regretting.

Affirmation of Bakkerud’s team choice – and proof of the rapid evolution of the Focus – came just two rounds later, when Andreas not only won his home event in Norway, but became the first driver in the history of the World Rallycross Championship to score a perfect weekend. Bakkerud went on to take wins in both Sweden and Argentina which saw him rapidly ascend up the Championship standings. With more seat time and more development in the off season Bakkerud is definitely one of my top tips for title contender in 2017.

On the subject of the blue oval, the paddock will sadly be missing the Olsbergs MSE supercars in 2017. With official Ford backing shifting to Hoonigan Racing Division and their Honda project in the GRC it is no surprise to see that OMSE have elected to drop their World Championship campaign this year.

With no seat available at OMSE, Niclas Gronholm has instead opted for an M-Sport built Fiesta for a full World Championship campaign. I admit this particular snippet of news greatly pleased me as, of all the different Fiesta supercars out on the grid, I think the M-Sport variant is both the best looking and sounding.

Dedicated rallycross fans may recall the Kia Rio Supercar, which Gigi Galli debuted at Franciacorta back in 2015. Following initial talk of full participation in the 2016 World Championship, the flamboyant Italian only made sporadic appearances throughout last year and, with less than auspicious results for the Rio, I did wonder if that might spell the end of the Kia program.

However my fears were allayed when Hungarian driver Lukacs “Csucsu” Kornel unexpectedly announced his partnership with Galli for a full World Rallycross campaign in 2017. While Kornel will utilise a developed variant of the Rio first used by Galli in Italy, the GGRX team are busy assembling a second car in order for Gigi to join the Championship later in the year.

Team Austria drivers Janis Baumanis and Timor Timerzyanov were both blighted by bad luck throughout last year. Major changes have occurred at Team Austria during the off season, with the team now no longer receiving technical direction from Manfred Stohl and rebranding itself MJP Racing Team Austria for 2017.

With Baumanis and Timerzyanov opting to follow Stohl to his new STARD World RX team, the MJP Racing Team Austria roster has changed for 2017. After dipping his toes in the water, double DTM Champion Timo Scheider has signed to MJP for a full World Championship season, with Scheider joined by former OMSE driver Kevin Eriksson.

For me the biggest question mark hanging over both MJP Racing and STARD World RX is the cars themselves. Depending on the division of teams (specifically mechanics) MJP Racing could potentially be struggling with unfamiliar cars, while Stohl clearly has the technical knowledge, but will be starting the season with two new Fiestas. Both Baumanis and Timerzyanov deserved several podium finishes last year, so if Stohl can provide them with capable cars, I would expect to see the pair making regular appearances in the finals.

Another team set to join the World Rallycross paddock in 2017 is DA Racing. Having previously run cars in Europe for Jean-Baptiste Dubourg, DA Racing will field a pair of ex-Peugeot Hansen Peugeot 208’s this year. Jean-Baptiste Dubourg will contest the entire World Rallycross Championship while former WTCC driver Gregoire Demoustier will appear in the second 208 at select World rounds.

Furthermore the DA Racing team will also be running a Citroen DS3 for Andrea Dubourg, with Andrea vying for the European Rallycross Championship title in 2017. It’s an ambitious program for the team, but with previous experience in European rallycross and several successful Andros Trophy seasons to their name, I’ll be very surprised if they are not competitive.

As well as the new additions for this season, news also emerged of a team planning to join the World Championship in 2018. Guerlain Chicherit’s newly established team GCK have commissioned Prodrive to build three Renault Megane Supercars. With work already underway and a wealth of previous motorsport experience I have no doubt that Prodrive will be able to put together a competitive package for GCK.

The Megane is to make it’s first public appearance in Loheac in September, though we will have to wait until next year for the cars competitive debut.

In the interim Guerlain will be using the ex-Fabien Chanoine Renault Clio for select World Championship events in 2017. With mixed results in the JRM MINI over the last couple of years, track experience this year is going to be invaluable if Chicherit is to get the best out of the Megane in 2018.

Speaking of JRM, there has been no output from the team during the winter concerning the future of their rallycross programme. After the exodus of Liam Doran last year the team made sporadic appearances throughout the second half of the 2016 season, but they seemed to be struggling with the transition from 1.6L to 2.0L engine. I think it’s a real shame not to see them return in 2017, as the project seemed to have much promise and, as much as I detest the look of the MINI Countryman, there was no denying it was a unique shape on the grid.

Similarly Liam Doran has yet to verify any plans. Other than teasing the arrival of a third RS200 to the LD Motorsport garage in December, Doran hasn’t confirmed any competitive rallycross appearances for 2017. I had wondered if Liam might contest the British Championship this year (perhaps even in the “new” RS200) but, with the season getting underway at Croft a fortnight ago, it seems that Liam will not be participating it that either.

With Doran out of the running it looked like British fans would be left without a driver to cheer on in this year’s World Championship but, in yet another unexpected announcement, Guy Wilks revealed a full World Championship campaign for 2017. After sporadic appearances in the JRM MINI and an Olsbergs MSE Fiesta last year, Guy has now got his hands on the Volkswagen Polo previously used by Johan Kristofferson.

The car is a capable one and Wilks has looked very rapid when his steed has delivered, so fingers crossed Guy will be able to challenge the Championship’s best.

In addition to Wilks World Rallycross entry, Ollie O’Donovan confirmed his participation in the full European Rallycross Championship as well as select World Rallycross rounds and, along with Derek Tohill, UK fans should have at least one driver to cheer for at every Championship round this year.

After taking the European Championship title last year, many were expecting to see Kevin Hansen joining his brother Timmy in the World Championship. Peugeot-Hansen kept fans in suspense as they were among the last to confirm their plans for 2017. I hoped we might see four Peugeot-Hansen 208’s running in the World Championship, but a three car entry is the chosen approach for this season .

As pleasing as it was to see Kevin added to the World Championship entry list, there was a tinge of disappointment to the Peugeot-Hansen three-car announcement as Davy Jeanney was sadly absent from the press release. Although his results last year don’t support my opinion, I still maintain that Jeanney is one of the biggest talents in the rallycross paddock. I hope he manages to secure at least one appearance this year to try and prove me right!

Completing the line-up alongside the Hansen brothers, Sebastian Loeb returns for his second full season in the World Championship. With a full year of experience – which included his maiden World Rallycross victory – under his belt, Sebastian is sure to be strong from the outset in 2017.

However the biggest area of interest in Peugeot-Hansen – and potentially one of the most interesting battles in 2017 – is surely going to be between the two Hansen brothers. Timmy certainly has the edge in terms of experience, but Kevin’s progression was astonishing to watch last year and I can only imagine he will get faster as he continues to accumulate more seat time in the 208.

Just hours after Peugeot-Hansen had announced their three car plan for 2017, EKS confirmed that they would be running a third Audi S1 this season. Although the third entries will be ineligible for points in the team Championship, the additional numbers could potentially give both Peugeot-Hansen and EKS a tactical advantage.

That being said, I’m not a fan of the influence of team tactics in racing, so I really hope we see race results decided by driver performance on track and not by management decisions in the paddock.

As before the World Championship regulars will face the additional challenge of local entrants at each round. Several wildcard entries have already confirmed for 2017, including Andrew Jordan, who will take the helm of Timo Scheider’s MJP Team Austria car for the UK round.

Last time Jordan drove a Ford at Lydden – an OMSE Fiesta back in 2014 – he managed to place third overall, so it will be great to see if he can go one, or perhaps even two, better in the MJP Fiesta.

Magda Andersson isn’t the only driver to graduate to Supercars in 2017. 2016 RX Lite Championship runner-up Thomas Bryntesson will is set to drive a JC Raceteknik Ford Fiesta, with Bryntesson partnering with Scandinavian Supernational driver Ola Froshaug for full European Rallycross and RallyX Nordic Championship campaigns.

The additional seat time in the Nordic Championship is going to be absolutely vital for Bryntesson, as the 2017 European title is shaping up to be as hotly contested as the World Championship.

After two years with Albatec Racing double European Championship runner-up Jerome Grosset-Janin has switched to a Team Knapick run Citroen DS3. Kristoffersen Motorsport have prepared a Volkswagen Polo for Tore Kristoffersen
and Hedstrom Motorsport have confirmed a three car European Championship entry with Peter Hedström and Alexander Hvaal utilizing a pair of Volkswagen Polos and Joachim Hvaal at the helm of a Ford Fiesta.

In all 29 drivers will be vying for the European Championship title. There is unquestionably a lot of talent in the field but, for me, the favourite has got to be Robin Larsson. After fighting – and beating – the World Championships finest over the last few years, Robin has clearly got the pace and his Audi A1 is a well developed car.

With Championship line ups that deliver both quantity and quality, I’m expecting a close fought title race in both the European and World Championship.

Theoretically the fight for the 2017 Super 1600 crown should also be very tight, as both of last year’s title protagonists are set to return. Krisztian Szabo barely pipped Ulrik Linnemann to Super 1600 honours last year, with just two points separating the pair at the end of the season.

With the rest of the field trailing on points, these two are surely the ones to watch again this year. Linnemann has never been short on pace, but his results have often been erratic. With Szabo set to switch cars mid-season consistency could be even more crucial for Ulrik this year if he is to finally lay his hands on the Super 1600 title.

Ben-Philip Gundersen won the 2016 Touring Car title by just a single point and, with his closest rival now moving to Supercars, he is surely the favourite for 2017. Philip Gehrman and David Norgard were both race winners last season, so hopefully they can give Gundersen a run for his money. With just 10 permanent entries, simply surviving the qualifying races will guarantee Championship points, so self-preservation is likely to prove as vital as outright pace in the Touring Cars.

Last, but by no means least, is the RX2 class. 2016 RX Lite Championship Cyril Raymond will return to defend his title, however with the other permanent entries yet to be confirmed it would be rather foolish to make any sweeping statements about another potential title winners at this stage. One thing that can be said with absolute certainty though is, with Raymond’s race experience, it’s going to take a committed driver to keep Cyril from overall victory again.

So who is your money on? Every category has some obvious favourites, but for me the eighteen car World Championship entry is the most difficult to narrow down. In terms of overall numbers, there isn’t a great deal of difference to last year, but the names involved – and the machinery they will all be using – is arguably of an even higher calibre than ever before.

I cannot wait for the season to get underway and, with Fueltopia presence at the first round of the World Championship in Barcelona, expect a full report on the opening event in the coming weeks!