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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