Fan POV: World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill
Nestled into the natural amphitheater which is Lydden Hill, the British round of the World Rallycross Championship hit the UK this last weekend. The weekend was a celebration of fifty years of rallycross at Lydden Hill; and the last British round to be held here, at least for the time being. After a week of beautiful sunshine, we were expecting thunderstorms. The drive down the A2 to the venue was a mixed bag of sunshine to the left and black clouds to the right. Why do I love Lydden? Perhaps because it was the first track I ever went to or maybe because of the friends I have made over the years or the atmosphere and history of the venue. It could be that no matter where you stand (you can literally walk the circumference of the track) you have a great, unobstructed views of the whole circuit. I can always spot my car parked on the hill above the circuit. The reasons are plenty. Today’s vantage point was at the beginning of the straightaway (Dover Slope), just after the Joker merge (Chessons Drift), as cars head off over to the left hand turn at Devils Elbow and up the hill. As the track dried anyone deviating from the racing line or taking the joker would kick up in the dust storm, not only reducing visibility of the cars behind, but swallowing the spectators in a cloud of dirt.
It was a rainy start to Saturday morning, which fortunately stopped as free practice began and tyre strategies were already in play by some drivers as they reacquainted themselves with the heavy corners and surface transitions of this circuit. As free practice continued, lap times became quicker, 40-42 seconds, unless you were a PSRX VW Sweden Polo running sub-40 second laps. The British contingent at this round will make it interesting. Regular World Rallycross Championship entry Guy Wilks in his VW Polo; Andrew Jordan stepping into Timo Sheider’s MJP racing Ford Fiesta; and EuroRX driver Ollie O’Donovan, and newcomer to British Rallycross, Oliver Bennett, both in Ford Fiesta supercars. It was drama from the start in the first of the Qualifying sessions. Niclas Gronholm spectacularly rolling his Ford Fiesta in lap 3 of the first heat (all ok). In heat 3, Reinis Nitišs missed the joker and incurred a 30-second penalty, allowing Timmy Hansen and the Peugeot 208 to take the heat win and place 5th in Q1 behind Solberg, Kristoffersson, Ekstrom and Bakkerud. The misfortune continued for Nitišs as a scuffle and squeeze off the line in Q2 heat 1 put the Latvian into the barrier, ending his day.
Techs and mechanics did a fantastic job getting Gronholm back on track for Q2 and he responded with a flying top 10 quality time. Car trouble for Kevin Hansen (Peugeot 208) prevented him from finishing his heat and an engine issue for Toomas Heikkinen (Audi S1) had him crawling the car around to finish with a recorded time. These issues left both drivers with a some work of playing catch up the following day. A sparring Q2, heat 4 battle between Ken Block (Hoonigan Ford Focus RS) and Sébastien Loeb (Peugeot 208) saw them swap places a few times during the race, and switch positions in the standings in Q2 to Loeb 6th and Block 7th; the top 5 for Q2 being the same as Q1 and Solberg going out as overnight leader. Sunday saw a slightly different atmosphere from the previous day. A reported 25,000 people were at Lydden over the weekend and the effects of such a crowd could be felt starting with the parking. I had been directed to the overflow car parking but despite the large crowds, I was pleased that I was able to still manage to secure the spectator spot I wanted. It was the front row, on the downward (Hairy hill) after the North Bend hairpin before the cars plunge down into Paddock Bend, literally opposite the pit entrance. It was a perfect spot to see the start/finish, joker merge and, most importantly, I was able to get to the paddock area for the trophy presentations at the end of the day! Q3 got underway with a heat 1 win for Topi Heikkinen. He was closely followed by Reinis Nitišs. Sunday saw a great start to the day by the EKSRX boys. Kevin Eriksson won both heat 3 and 4. After exciting and competitive racing between Loeb and Block that carried over from Saturday's closely matched battles, Loeb won and lifted himself to P4 in Q3. You could have predicted the heat 5 outcome based on Saturday's performances. Petter Solberg won out over teammate Johan Kristoffersson for the 3rd time over the weekend, leaving Mattias Ekstrom in an epic battle with Bakkerud and Timmy Hansen for third in the heat. Three of the Brits were pitted against each other in heat 2 of Q4. Andrew Jordan won out over Guy Wilks. It was unusual to hear that heat 3 was slower than the heat 2, but it saw great competitive driving between Janis Baumanis and Kevin Hansen. Q4, Heat 4 win by Timmy Hansen would be the time that would bring an end to Petter Solberg’s clean sweep of qualifying victories and top points this weekend as we also saw a slower run in Heat 5 over Heat 4. Qualifying 4 was full of oddities as a number of heats saw more cars than normal dive into the joker lap on the first lap, in particular Heat 4 which saw Heikkinen squeezed out into the barriers. The downside (if there really has to be one) to being track side at these events is that you are still relying on the WorldRX website to confirm timings and positions of drivers after each qualifying heat. Going into Q4, Heikkinen was P12 and Wilks P13 – don’t ask me to make a choice as to who I would have preferred to see in the Semi Finals! And it was a nail-biting wait (which took forever) for the Q4 results to be finalized and posted online. It was to be Heikkinen over Wilks to make it through.
Lunch break is a popular, yet very busy, time to go and walk around the paddock. You get to see the cars but not, predictably, the drivers, unless you head to the set autograph session or “Rig Riot”. I preferred to stay put and guarded my unspoiled view of the circuit. Leaving my post would mean not getting back to the front. It also gave me a great opportunity to watch the Retro rallycross cars race around the track. One specific retro car was the Porsche which had won the first rallycross event at Lydden Hill 50 years ago back in 1967. This Porsche was a personal favourite. It’s great to see these older cars (some still racing) out on the track and the different types of car racing from each decade of rallycross. It's amazing to see the innovation and development that has been made to get us where we are today. With lunch break over, we headed into the Semi Finals. Semi 1 was a hard fought race with joker strategy paying off for Petter Solberg to go through ahead of Andreas Bakkerud and Timmy Hansen. There were heart-in-mouth moments in Semi 2 with Sébastien Loeb and Mattias Ekstrom swapping and changing positions between 2nd and 3rd position. In the final for round 5 it was really becoming apparent that the VW Polo supercars are finding that extra bit of pace. Kristoffersson has driven them previously and they seem to suit Solberg’s driving style. Using the same, second lap joker strategy that worked so well in his semi-final, Solberg slotted out behind Kristoffersson who had jokered in the first lap and was to “lead” from then on. Everyone taking the joker in subsequent laps would come across Sébastien Loeb who first took on teammate Timmy Hansen, then Mattias Ekstrom, and won out in both instances. It was unfortunate that both Hansen and Ekstrom picked up punctures towards the end of the final race. However, Andreas Bakkerud had other ideas and pushed on in clean air to joker in the last lap and come out in front of Loeb, holding position and finishing in P3 behind a jubilant Solberg and Kristofferson in the dominant VW Polo’s.
The Podium had moved this year and it was a lot closer to get down and see the presentations. I was able to get a prime spot on the steps of the Dirt4 stand opposite the stage and just a bit hidden behind a trophy on the Bakkerud podium selfie. Post celebration is a good time to wander the paddocks, mainly because you’ll be in a traffic jam getting out of Lydden, but also because the drivers are a little more relaxed and approachable to the fans. I’m going to miss coming down to Lydden each year. It has sentimental meaning for me. But in light of the developments which have not been able to proceed, the move to Silverstone circuit means we are still able to hold a World Rallycross Championship round in the UK. The decision to do this has split the rallycross fan base down the middle. After reading posts and comments since the launch, more dislike the idea than are for it. It is sad to see that people are quick to judge an event that is yet to be held. Stay tuned till next season. It's bound to be a good one.