Rallycross holds special memories for me. As a kid in the '80s I remember being taken down to Brands Hatch, my local track, on chilly winter mornings with mist rising and the frosty ground hard underfoot. The crowds would be packed in around the temporary course made up of sections of the Indy circuit and gravel paths cut through the in-field – and the wickedly fast, horribly bumpy straight across the back of the South Bank parking area. We'd be treated to the short, sharp shock of tuned-up rallycross supercar races: five minutes of sideways 500bhp thunderstorms. It was amazing.
So, when the opportunity came up to drop down to the south coast and the refurbished Lydden Hill circuit to cover the opening round of the 2011 FIA European Rallycross Championship I couldn't be happier: the rallycross track at Brands was erased long ago, and I'd missed rallycross' visceral hit.
When Group B rallycars of the mid-80s became too fast and dangerous for their own good and were banned from World Rally competition, the nascent rallycross scene was quick to snap them up. Audi Quattros, Ford RS200s, Lancia Delta, Peugeot 205 T16s and Metro 6R4s like the one here that was on display at Lydden went from against-the-clock stage thrashes to four, eight and even 10-up races around mile long gravel and tarmac mash-up courses in five lap sprints like this one.
After a relatively lean period, the good news is that rallycross is back with a vengeance. Rallycross' popularity has never really waned in Scandinavia, home to the majority of champions across the years, but the emerging US scene and a resurgent interest in Europe means the crowds are back and, more importantly, so are the stars and cars. US star Tanner Foust is back for another crack at the series – and there's no question that he's brought yet more fans along with him.
Foust's 4WD Fiesta cranks out 575hp and hits 60mph in two seconds. It's a beast – as are all the Supercars. And there were 29 of them.
The biggest cheers of the day were for his battles with local heroes Pat Doran and his son Liam. Pat Doran has been a staple of the rallycross scene for years (and as an RS200 driver deserves legend status) and had some epic battles with Foust in his Focus. Doran actually now runs the Lydden Hill circuit and he and his wife have been responsible for turning around the track's fortunes.
Now his son Liam, in a Citroen C4 has taken up the driving baton – he finished third overall in last year's championship.
What's so great is just how fast these cars are. World Rally Cars are often used as the base vehicles in the Supercar class, but then they're taken to a completely different level. They're not just evolved, they're reinvented and taken to a new level of vicious power and acceleration – just like their Group B forefathers.
They're then usually systematically destroyed in the space of about three minutes. It's an arms race of acceleration and grip versus gravel, barriers and other cars.
But you've got no choice. No matter what the damage, the heats are too short to stop, so you have to continue regardless.
Many times you see cars with shredded tyres still firing round at maximum speed.
Back in the paddock, the thickness of tanktape holding the car together increases heat after heat.
There are now three classes in the ERC: two-wheel drive Touring Cars (though the name is rather misleading) which seem to have alarmingly soft suspension.
The 11-car field would three-wheel round the tarmac corners as they struggled for grip – the only exception was this Focus, which seemed to be set up for drifting.
Next up are the Super 1600s: 28 turned out at Lydden. These are based on smaller hatchback models.
The schedule builds perfectly, as you get to be impressed by the TCs and Super 1600s first up on the bill. All very exciting, but then you see the first Supercar heat. These things are simply primal in their ferocity. Before lining up on the grid the cars carry out practice starts: on acceleration the cars are literally lifted up and propelled forward by the vicious application of power that pull the cars up on their suspension.
But it's the real starts that blow your mind. Four or five cars lined up, barely fitting the width of the track, exhausts popping and throwing up clouds of dust behind them as the drivers struggle to keep them from creeping before the lights go out.
When they do there's an explosion of movement as the cars go from nothing to a hundred in seconds, all fighting for the same bit of tarmac.
A recent introduction has been the Joker Lap: the track has a slightly longer detour section that each car has to take once during the heat or race. At Lydden it's cuts off left just before the first corner and the drop into the gravel. This creates chaos, as often cars duck out immediately at the start, no matter who is to their left. This was a typical example: three cars went in, only one came out.
Lydden is perfect for spectating: the fans can see the whole track from the main spectator banking, as the track sits on a natural slope. It's a simple layout – effectively an oval at the base with an uphill hairpin added on.
The gravel section cuts inside the first corner, rejoining the tarmac at turn three. The Joker Lap section merges back into the track on the right of this shot, meaning the cars are thrown off-line and shoot out rooster tails of dust as they scrabble to get back up to speed.
Next up is the run to the hairpin and back down the other side.
This is the final corner. F1 drivers do not apply.
There's a small raised island separating the two sides of the track, which surprisingly you're allowed to stand on. You can get very close to the cars here.
There's then a short gravel straight to the finish line, parallel with where they started.
Then comes the real fun: a super-fast left-right chicane, going from gravel to tarmac, with heavily serrated kerbs. With the cars on the edge as it is, this is one of the best places to watch as cars get air over the kerbs. And another lap! Just 45 seconds or so, and only four laps in the heats.
In the paddock were a couple of display cars, including this 1986 WRC Metro 6R4. It was another car designed for Group B just as the category was banned: thankfully rallycross was the perfect outlet for these rocket-powered go-karts. The engine is the back of the car; the body was mostly GRP, so if you even looked at it, it would likely crack – but it weighed nothing.
At a time when British-built was hardly a guarantee of quality, the 6R4 was actually a very good car. Its 3L V6 pushed out almost 400bhp and was mounted backwards, with the gearbox in the middle of the car.
Also there was this vaguely road-going version, which had apparently leaked an enormous intercooler. That's the only problem with such a small car: there's no room for anything inside it!
Tanner made it through the first couple of heats after setting second fastest time in practice and into the initial Superfinals.
But despite some epic driving he could't quite make it into the A Final – the win went to multiple rallycross champion Sverre Isachsen in his Ford Focus MK2 T16. Four Citroen C4s finished second to fifth, with Liam Doran in fourth, and the big Saab 93 in sixth – check out some on-board video from the Saab here. It's like the video is running at double speed.
So, a great opening round for the 2011 European Championship, but there are also plenty of national series during the year that are worth checking out.