The pre-season testing had finished, the public relations and interviews had been conducted and now it was time for RX Barcelona to roar into action.
World Rallycross, the most dynamic four-wheeled racing series on the planet, is back!
New partnerships, new drivers taking to the WRX stage for the first time and a new season.
Mattias Ekstrom, as defending champion, commented that every single driver now starts from ‘square one’. This statement was made, presumably, as he cast his eye down the grid when the official entry list was announced a few weeks ago. The strength in depth and talent was there to be seen and it was off to Barcelona to see how the first round of the World Rallycross Championship would unravel.
After the heats in Qualifying 3 it was new boy on the block (but not new in racing terms), Timo Scheider who topped the standings. He had a three point lead over Ekstrom who could see the likes of Kristoffersson, Heikkinen, Timmy Hansen and Solberg queuing up, waiting.
The top stories of after Q3 came in the form of three names who were regular semi-final qualifiers in the shape of Kevin ‘Round The Outside’ Eriksson, Janis Baumanis and Sebastien Loeb all sitting outside the top twelve. Independent entries, Guy Wilks and JP Dubourg were inside the top twelve, a fantastic effort so far on their part.
For those new to WRX, the top twelve drivers after four qualifying heats move through to the semi-finals. The qualifying heats are timed base, so whereas a driver would want to win their heat, it is the best possible time they can post to get them valuable qualifying points and Loeb was in a position where he could miss out on a semi-final place for the first time in his World Rallycross career. That is how competitive the grid is this season.
THE STORY OF Q4
With positions so tight in the points and places up for grabs, Q4 would see an important set of heats. Loeb would post a quick time to see him go top of the timed standings in this qualifying period. In the next heat Ken Block and Kevin Eriksson, also determined to break into the semi-final positions, battled hard and it was the American who ran straight into the back of Eriksson causing damage to both cars. Eriksson won the heat but he was not pleased with Block’s contact as he remonstrated when interviewed after the race.
Heat 3 saw Nitiss and Kristoffersson battling hard for the entire race, Kristoffersson was always looking for a way through and eventually he found it and posted a time three seconds quicker than Loeb, knocking him off the top.
Next up was Heat 4, this was just full of quality throughout the field. Solberg, Ekstrom, Scheider, Bakkerud and Timmy Hansen, a heat that would be good enough to grace a final and they did not disappoint with close racing and all the cars under a second of each other as they hurtled around the Barcelona circuit. Bakkerud took the win in his Ford Focus RS ahead of Solberg and Ekstrom. The heat was that quick that Bakkerud and Solberg slotted into the top two positions.
It was semi-final time. Eriksson, Loeb, Baumanis and Timerzyanov, names that graced semi-finals and finals last season would miss out. This was the first time Sebastien Loeb had not made a semi-final and what made it even more frustrating for the Frenchman was the fact his two team-mates, the Hansen brothers, did make it through. Wilks and Dubourg held their positions in the top twelve and remarkably made it through to the semi-finals.
The close racing and compact finishing showed that this season was not going to be a walk in the park, with non-factory teams and independent drivers mixing it with the big boys.
THE SEMI-FINAL STORY
SEMI-FINAL 1 – GRID
SEMI-FINAL 2 – GRID
In the first semi-final it was Kristoffersson pushing MJP Racing’s Timo Scheider all the way over the 6 laps, he jokered early and was able to maintain his pace. Scheider came out in front of Solberg after his joker lap but there was one casualty when Heikkinen’s car gave up the ghost. He would not be in the final. The top three were Kristoffersson, Scheider and Solberg. It has to be said that through the qualifiers, Kristoffersson and Scheider were both looking very strong.
Semi-final 2 got under way and it was Nitiss who found himself left on the line as the other five cars blasted off. Bakkerud and Timmy Hansen bustled and fired their way to the front only to see Ekstrom take the lead and skip off into the distance to take the win. He would be joined in the final by Bakkerud and Timmy Hansen who held their places.
THE STORY OF THE FINAL
Kristoffersson – Ekstrom
Scheider – Bakkerud
T. Hansen – Solberg
A mouth-watering final in prospect with five different makes of cars out of the six drivers, which just goes to prove that all the teams have been hard at work during the off-season to make this a very competitive series.
It was a nightmare start for Kristoffersson when he stalled on the line. Ekstrom took the lead into the first corner after a blistering start, which saw him gain the Super Charge Award (quickest off the line). Kristoffersson, to his credit, made up good time after the bad start and was on the back of the tightly bunched pack by the end of the first lap.
Solberg, who was sitting in 5th out of the six cars, decided to joker and he was followed by his team-mate Kristoffersson who made a late call to joker also. He had the car positioned to go round for another lap but possibly a call from his spotter in the tower advised him to follow Solberg and give him something to chase to make up time.
On the second lap it was Timmy Hansen who took the joker and he came out in front of Nitiss with Ekstrom and Scheider battling up at the front.
Bakkerud, who was sitting third, jokered on the third lap and as he came across the line he drifted his way around the outside of Solberg who had cut in from the corner to hold his position. Ekstrom and Scheider, still to joker, were way up front having a battle of their own. Two DTM drivers racing on a different type of circuit in a completely different series.
They both decided to stay out on lap four and extended their lead, it looked as though Bakkerud was holding Solberg up and the other four cars who bunched together battling for that final podium position.
It would be defending champion Ekstrom who would take the spoils here in Barcelona with Scheider, in his first World Rallycross race second and Bakkerud just holding on for third.
This was the opening round of World Rallycross and it did not disappoint. If this is what we have to look forward to for the rest of the season, with far more technical tracks and joker laps to come, then we are in for one hell of a ride this season.
Ekstrom has put his stool out and shown the rest of the grid he is determined to defend his crown, but with the emergence of Scheider, a much improved Focus RS for the Hoonigan Racing Division and two very competitive Polo’s driven by double world champion Solberg and the very talented Johan Kristoffersson , I expect there to be a lot of fireworks this year.
Take a bow WRX. Take a bow Barcelona. You delivered, as you always do.
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS
Ekstrom – 29
Scheider – 26
Bakkerud – 22
Kristoffersson – 21
Solberg – 19
T. Hansen – 17
Wilks – 12
Heikkinen – 11
Block – 11
Nitiss – 8
Dubourg – 7
Eriksson – 4
Loeb – 3
Baumanis – 2
Csucsu – 1
See you at the chequered flag.
(c) all images courtesy of FIA World Rallycross