Lapping Lydden With The Rallycross Dust Devils

Last year on our pilgrimage to Lydden Hill, the spiritual home of the frantic sport of rallycross, the rain had lashed down to create a mudbath of epic proportions for the competitors to tackle. For 2013 and the birth of a new era for the European branch of the sport, Lydden was instead distinctly dry for the big day of competition. And that meant dust. A lot of dust.

The organisers at Lydden had put in a big effort over the winter to further improve the venue, with the freshly mown grass verges providing a less hazardous perimeter to navigate than in previous years.

The new school of rallycross would start here: new graphics were just the starting point for the series’ refresh, as it was all about providing even more bang for the spectators’ buck. More heats, more cars and more track-time was the aim. Yellow window strips denoted the top class, uber powerful all-wheel drive Supercars…

…purple the rear-wheel drive Touring Car class and blue the front-drive Super 1600s. An impressive 19 Supercars would be fighting it out at Lydden, alongside eight Touring Cars and 13 Super 1600s. So what about the track? What is it that makes Lydden Hill such a winner?

Lydden works for both competitors and fans. A kidney-shaped lower bowl with an uphill dogleg and hairpin tacked on, the track’s apparently simple layout belies its ferocious challenge. With no mud to obscure the track, the constantly changing surface was far more apparent this time around, as we’ll see in this mini tour of a lap.

The track sits in a natural amphitheatre, making it the perfect spectator venue: from the top of the hill at North Bend, you can see all but a small bit of the Dover Slope straight which dips out of view; from down on the start-line you can see pretty much the entire track and not miss a second of the action as it unfolds.

And as with any rallycross event, action unfolds quickly – and often violently. One mile. Around 48 seconds of eyes-on-stalks, edge-of-adhesion action for a regular lap; about 51 when you take the Joker Lap long-cut; and just over three minutes in total for a four-lap race. The build-up actually takes longer than the race, with the cars allowed a burnout to set their throttle and clutch settings for the launch proper.

T-minus two minutes. One by one the cars nail the throttle, spinning up the driving wheels before almost immediately having to hit the anchors to prevent them piling into the formation grid.

Awaiting them, brave (foolish?!) marshals, who stand up front to guide the cars into their correct positions.

The outer asphalt ring at Lydden is only used for the start: its wide aspect is completely at odds with the rest of the track – especially the eye of the needle chicane seen on the left here that they have to navigate to complete the lap.

T-minus one minute. Ahead of you, the arcing right of the first turn or the asphalt drop to the left of the Joke Lap route. Eventually all the cars have completed their practice starts and edged into position…

…with their exact positioning dictated the old fashioned way: by a man with a pole. Depending on the size of the grid, the formations can be different. Typically, five-car races will start line abreast; six-car and more in two or three echelons.

Launch! The five-car Supercar starts are the most aggressive, with 3,000hp straining to be unleashed. The cars squat down on the brake and their exhausts pop like angry demons before firing off the line at F1-beating velocity. From here on in, they’re always a step ahead of what your brain can register.

One second in. Three options await the drivers off the start. Two of them are acceptable, but the chances are even that the third will happen.

Two seconds. It’s a game of chicken as the cars eat up the distance to the first turn. Left or right? Joker lap or regular route?

Four seconds. The first 100 metres have been dispatched, and the issue is now getting to that first corner – which is no sure thing. The cars disappear in a cloud of smoke for a second or two, those of us watching having to wait to see who emerges in which direction.

Six seconds. Those drivers who are going straight into the lap plunge right and onto the first loose section, spewing up gravel and dirt.

Eight seconds. Joker Lap runners have branched left through Pilgrims bend, keeping to the Tarmac and tracking the tightening uphill arc to the chicane where they’ll rejoin the main, loose-surface section of track.

Nine seconds. It can already all be over. That drop off the road onto the loose at full acceleration puts every car out of the hands of traction and into the luck and skill of the driver. Come down at the wrong angle with a car on your tail and all too often you can be turned around and in the barrier before you know it.

That lack of mud was particularly apparent at Chessons Drift: what can appear to be a fully gravel arc in wet conditions in fact hides a solid-surface apex. The cars have barely adjusted to the loose when the grip level instantly and temporarily changes again.

13 seconds. As the main pack hits the loose again, the Joker Lap runners will be negotiating the oh-so slow chicane that leads them back onto the main track.

15 seconds. Again, that loose-to-asphalt-to-loose change around the arc of the corner throws the drivers a grip curveball. The rear-wheel Touring Cars are the most obvious handfuls, with the rear thrown out as the car hops down into the dust.

16 seconds. The front-drive Super 1600s are relatively planted, with the drivers nailing the throttle to keep the cars’ momentum up through the exit of the parabola.

17 seconds. At the worst of times, when the water-spraying truck hadn’t made a pass to dampen down the dirt, the following cars were consumed in a storm cloud of dust.

18 seconds. Full. Throttle. Fight to keep the car straight.

20 seconds. Now another treacherous transition from loose back to solid as the cars power down the Dover Slope.

The drivers have to change their angle of attack as they rejoin the outer asphalt track, trying to line up their cars to keep the run to Devil’s Elbow as short as possible.

22 seconds. Positions don’t mean anything: chasing cars who have already made their Joker Lap detour now have the potential benefit of running in clean air – or clear dirt at least. Those up front have the advantage of position.

24 seconds. Devil’s Elbow is a killer: what follows is an uphill charge, so every mile per hour that’s lost through the corner will haemorrhage tenths on the climb to North Bend.

25 seconds. The tables are turned for the Super 1600s through the fast sweepers: with the weight up front they heel over hard, cocking the unweighted rear-wheel in proper FWD circuit tourer style.

30 seconds. The evidence of Devil’s Elbow’s challenge is clear: run too wide on exit and you’re sucked into the gravel.

32 seconds. How to take North Bend? If there’s someone on your tail, then you can forget the wide-in, shallow-out racing line: keep it tight, and rely on the awesome power under the hood to power you through still in front.

33 seconds. Though if you’re Petter Solberg, who cares about racing lines. Petter was usually gleefully sideways even on the uphill approach to the corner, flinging the car in and then mashing the gas to somehow bisect the apex, to the roar of the crowd.

37 seconds. After what is the most painfully slow corner on the track, the drivers then get the chance to use gravity and horsepower to fire back down Hairy Hill and into the final section.

39 seconds. If the last half minute has been tough, then the last 10 seconds of the lap compresses all that challenge into one final blast. Every corner is now tighter and faster, the straights shorter and the surface transitions even more brutal.

The braking point for Paddock is crucial to get right: once again the Super 1600s three-wheel their way through the braking phase in their efforts to get the car slowed and turned at the same time.

40 seconds. You just have to trust in your car: the grip it can generate and the power it can put down. You can keep it tight on entry, sure…

…but then you’re deep into a corner where the surface changes abruptly on the apex, just as you’re struggling to get the direction change completed.

Worse still, it’s not just a front to rear surface change, but even a side to side one as every wheel experiences the sudden panic of completely different grip levels.

Different lines there might be, but it’s always clear when things are about to go horribly wrong.

41 seconds. From this point it’s all over. The result is gone, your race is over – you bank the experience and remember just where the limit is for next time.

If you’ve made it through, then there’s the short straight to survive before the final chicane. Survive? What could be so difficult?

The idea that this bit is straight is a joke. The cars have completed their slingshot through Paddock and are then on utterly maximum attack, barely touching the ground with all four wheels as they bounce and buck, twisting left and right across the loose.

43 seconds. You do whatever you can through this section. Keeping tight to the intimidatingly solid inner tyre wall gives you the best angle for the chicane, but out wide is where the car – and, if you’re Petter Solberg, the driver – wants to be.

44 seconds. As the car’s yaw is still bringing the nose to the right, the track goes left. And changes surface. Perfect. Just let the lap end.

It’s made worse by cars on your tail, further compromising entry. And two cars will absolutely not fit through here: it was a common sight to see two go in and just one emerge the other side, the other left spinning helplessly to the side of the track on the exit.

46 seconds. The shallower angle of attack the better in theory, but the entry kerb on the left bangs the car up in the air, unbalancing it for the following right kerb.

47 seconds. It all looks innocuous enough from this angle, with a shallow lead-out to the kerbing.

But the entry side is lethal: hit it square on and the car will be one, two, three or even four wheels off the ground on the other side.

It’s then a case of gathering things up and getting the power down…

…to get everything in order for the, oh, second or so of relaxation you’ve got before it all starts again.

And on again for another three laps. Rallycross races couldn’t be any longer, for risk of mass heart attacks both on the part of the drivers and crowd.

In the blink of an eye it’s over: the chequered flag drops – if your car and your nerve have survived. I’m not sure mine does, and I’m only behind a camera watching…

Jonathan Moore

Instagram: speedhunters_jonathan