Whilst the US contingent of Speedhunters have been soaking up the Californian sun for Formula D, Ross I’Anson and I headed down to the south coast of England for the opening round of this year’s FIA European Rallycross series. Kent versus California. Lydden Hill versus Long Beach. Two exciting, raw forms of motorsport in very different environments, but both with visceral, rough edges. However, I’d suggest that rallycross is just that little more out there. It’s a pirate ship in a sea of racing.
Rallycross is the growing sport at the moment, and the line-up at Lydden Hill proved its international popularity. 69 starters from 16 countries were spread across the three classes competing in the first round of the ERC. There’s cross-over with the US-based Global Rallycross series as well: Tanner Foust, Liam Doran and Andy Scott are just three drivers in the ERC who are also competing Stateside.
Lydden Hill is the home to UK rallycross, but it’s also the birthplace of rallycross as a sport in general. The humble oval-and-a-half of gravel and asphalt has hosted rallycross for almost 50 years (the track itself was built in the mid 1950s): the concept was born from a celebrity race series for rally drivers to compete in, with gravel cut-throughs added between the original Tarmac sections.
Scandinavian drivers – possibly enjoying the unfair advantage of learning to drive on slippery roads – dominated from the ’70s. After enjoying enormous popularity in the ’80s, rallycross went into relative decline in the late ’90s and early new century, but in recent years the scene really started taking off again, with the Scandinavian countries again leading the way.
Possibly it’s because of the watering down of the current World Rally Championship cars; banned WRC Group B cars formed the backbone of rallycross’ earlier glory period, and modern rallycross cars are again brutal mutations of tamer WRC originals. Take WRC car, throw engine away, add thousands of horsepower and a fearless – preferably insane – driver. Light touch paper. Stand well back.
The latter is a lesson that’s not always adhered to, and painful to learn. Ross, me and all the other snappers perched on Lydden’s precarious raised island section were peppered with stones and mud during the day. Rather me than the camera lens though…
I felt most sorry for the lone TV cameraman posted there, who appeared to be chained to his position for the whole day irrespective of the lashing rain and additional assault from the passing cars.
The ERC is full of international competitors; the western European core has been added to with a big influx of Russian and eastern European entrants as those countries have become more and more involved in and passionate about motorsport.
Of course, in the UK the recent episode of Top Gear also did the sport no harm: Lydden’s website was swamped the evening of the programme’s transmission and their phone rung off the hook. Maybe your Skoda could be converted into Super 1600 spec? Though not for the price of a set of golf clubs they suggested unfortunately…
That rallycross is so popular is no surprise: it’s more the question of why did it ever stop being that way. Could it be the best form of racing on the planet? The big crowd that turned up at Lydden to soak up the action rather than – and despite of – the rain certainly thought so.
Rallycross means constant action. Short, sharp shocks of races; just four laps of Lydden in the heats and five in the finals, and as one race finishes the next is being lined up on the off-circuit grid, up to five cars abreast, staggered if there are more.
The only complicated thing about rallycross is the heats versus finals structure, and even that’s not rocket science. Or brain surgery, if you prefer. Practice times set grids for the three Qualifying Heats; results from heats give you points (one for first, two for second and so on) and the least number of points the higher you’re starting position in the A, B or C Finals. Win your Final? You get promoted to the back of the next Final, meaning that drivers can potentially recover from bad results early on and even potentially graduate from the C Final all the way to the deciding race.
Jump starts and penalties lumber drivers with insane numbers of points that guarantee they’ll be starting at the back: 80 for a non-finish, 90 for a non-start and 95 for a disqualification. Basically, get the car from the start to the finish if you can, no matter what.
Drop scores allow for instances of particular misfortune to be parked up – and misfortune is no stranger to the sport.
The final factor is the Joker Lap: every Rallycross track has an addition section that is at least two seconds slower than the main lap and must be taken once a race. At Lydden, the entrance to the asphalt Joker section is right after the start. In cars that can accelerate to 60mph in less than two seconds, optimistic lunges from the outside of the track to the Joker section often cause carnage.
So many times I told myself just one more heat and then I’d head off to check out something else, but despite the rain it was too easy to be sucked into the constant on-track activity around the speed bowl. You can see pretty much every part of the track from most positions.
Lydden Hill comprises two asphalt and two gravel sections: from the Canterbury Straight launch-pad the cars fire off over the crest and into the first gravel section at Pilgrims (or into the aforementioned Joker Lap section around the outside).
The approach is slippery and difficult to get right as the cars scrabble for grip whilst braking and turning on the loose surface.
The exit of the corner is where the cars taking their Joker Lap rejoin: it’s a battle of accelerator pedal versus mud.
Rejoining what passes for Tarmac on the Dover Slope, the cars slither though the shallow S into the Devil’s Elbow
The serrated inside kerb at Devil’s Elbow is enough to knock the car off line – if you’ve made the apex in the first place that is. It’s all to easy to drift out wide on the climb to North Bend.
Though preferably not this wide. Engine-specialist Julian Godfrey let it all hang out on this lap.
The cars disappear up the hill in a frenzy of sawing at the wheel and vicious acceleration, throwing up gravel and mud from the run-off area of the previous corner.
North Bend is the slow-speed hairpin at the top of the circuit, wind-swept and difficult to navigate with a nervous accelerator pedal. There’s always great action to be witnessed at this corner – like this incident with Marcus Gronholm last year. Awesome stuff.
Hairy Hill is appropriately named. Even more so when it’s the name of the driver as well.
Somehow the drivers have to then slow their cars down enough for the turn off Paddock Bend into the final off-road section to the finish line.
The apex has been left to nature. It’s every surface you wouldn’t want on a race track, all in one corner. You mash the brake pedal, heel the car over and – if it was me – close your eyes and pray.
This isn’t a track. It’s an obstacle course.
The transition from Tarmac to gravel (read: mud) is indeterminate, as are the outer limits of the corner.
The neighbouring county may be the best guide.
The track limits are… ambiguous. Well, not in regulation terms, but more in what’s possible when you can’t see anything.
From the second lap onwards the first corner becomes this treacherous chicane.
The exit is lethal: the apex is blind, the track slippery and the kerb vicious in its attempts to smack the car out of shape.
Then this happens.
Or this. Frequently. Exiting a chicane backwards with oncoming cars approaching is definitely not in the safety manual. If you’re lucky, you gather it up with the car still somehow intact and fire off towards the gravel again…
…maybe leaving something behind for the ever-efficient and always cheerful track marshals to clean up later.
Being out front is always best, if only for the opportunity to actually see where you’re going and keep your windscreen relatively clean. The colour white and rallycross cars really don’t go together. It’s a forlorn hope.
Cars go from this…
And then can end up like this. Yes Liam, I’m pointing at you. His poor, only-just-built DS3! However, to go from nowhere in the heats to third place overall you need to take risks. You take chances as they present themselves – or even if they don’t, you find them – and the results come. Close with and engage the enemy! Board them if necessary!
A dedicated crew of jet-washers were tasked with hosing down the lucky survivors of each race to see if there were still cars left under all of the mud.
The drivers would then roll back to their team trucks for a rapid bit of spannering and running repairs before heading back out for the next session.
There can be no complaint about the mix of cars: ex-WRC Citroen and Fords might be the weapons of choice, but there is an incredibly eclectic range of cars of all shapes and sizes targeted for rallycross mutation, even in the SuperCar class.
The four-wheel-drive SuperCars might be the top draw, but the other two classes provide the same level of entertainment, especially in these kind of conditions. Super 1600 are two-wheel-drive, front-driven, 1.6-litre-engined cars: they might not have the same punch of acceleration off the line as the Supercars, but cover them in mud and the racing is just as spectacular.
The ERC adds the TouringCar class: Group A-homologated, non-turbo, rear-wheel-drive machinery with a 0-60mph time in the region of 3.5 seconds and a mandated minimum weight and engine capacity that is proving a hit with competitors.
There’s just no pretension in Rallycross. It’s not that presentation isn’t important – these are serious cars run by serious teams – but it’s all about the competition.
Frozen fingers. Biting wind. Muddy clothes. Equipment slowing dying as the rain soaked in…
Would we have swapped Lydden’s Hill for a Long Beach? Nah. No chance. They’ll be more from Lydden coming up soon!