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!
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