Without any hesitation, I would consider myself a very fortunate person.
Over the course of the last decade, I’ve had to re-write my automotive related bucket list multiple times, as I was able to cross so many things off it. While I don’t think ‘luck’ defines my career, it’s definitely played its part over the years. Most succesful people I know have earned their place with preparation, hard work and passion but nearly all of them, too, have enjoyed a little bit of luck here and there along the way.
What I saw last weekend at World RX in Spa-Francorchamps was that, despite best preparations, in rallycross you really need that extra piece of luck to get you to the top step of the podium.
My relatively short journey from Ireland to Belgium via Köln in Germany was about as sweet as one could wish for, particularly after a recent 2,500KM road trip which took me past these very same places. I haven’t forgotten about that story, either, and you can expect it to follow this one in a couple of days.
Like what you’re about to read now, it’s a considerable piece.
While there was never anything stopping me from shooting rallycross before, I always felt that at some stage there would come a time which presented the best possible opportunity for my introduction to the sport. You always want that first experience to be the best it can be.
Just a couple of weeks ago, our friends at Bilstein invited us to come check out the third round of the FIA World Rallycross Championship at Spa-Francorchamps, and the team which they support, GC Kompetition. From my experience of motorsport, you really need that ‘in’ to allow you to truly see the whole event, and not just from the perspective of a relative outsider.
This was the opportunity I had been waiting for.
Due to a hold up after the press briefing, the sparsely occupied GCK hospitality area and race offices were all the clues I needed to get a move on and head track side.
In the light rain, what was previously VIP parking at the circuit, was now a completely custom built stadium arena complete with a staging area and a first corner which lead out onto the the GP circuit just before Eau Rouge.
This was the very first time that the current World RX field would tackle Spa-Francorchamps, but you couldn’t really tell. Everything was polished, from the presentation of the venue to the tight time control which the organisers had down to a fine art.
I might not have realised it right then, but time is everything in World RX, both on and off the track. I was about to have my rallycross baptism with a shower of mud, gravel, dirt and rain.
When I reached the staging area, the two FORS prepared GCK Renault Megane RS RXs were already waiting for their warm-up laps. The cars were pre-staged, before being sent to the start line where they were then released in a staggered order.
GCK brought four cars to the fight for the weekend; the two Meganes of team owner Guerlain Chicherit and two time European Rallycross Champion,, Anton Marklund are complemented with two GCK Academy Renault Clios for Cyril Raymond and Guillaume de Ridder.
All four cars and drivers compete in the top Supercar class of World RX, but for my own sanity’s sake, I decided to focus primarily on the pairing of Chicherit & Marklund.
This was everyones’ first time driving the new layout at Spa, but with track time in considerably short supply over the weekend, there’s not much in the way of time for the drivers to gently feel their way into it.
They have little choice but to send it from the off, and see what sticks.
The first practice session was done and dusted in less than five minutes on track for each car, before they went straight back to the pits, made whatever changes they could in the short time available, and headed straight back to the staging area for their second, and final, six lap practice session.
The wet conditions on Saturday morning introduced another obstacle in the form of mud covering the vehicles’ componentry and parts. While the cars do receive a quick jet wash on their way back to the paddock, the teams still need to use small, portable washers to remove the remaining dirt in order to inspect the cars properly.
Some hasty repairs were made to the rear bodywork of Marklund’s car (presumably from a gentle nudge) before both cars were lowered off their stands and headed back out again.
It was relentless.
They leave a mess behind, that’s for sure.
The Supercars are one of four classes which ran over the weekend, with two, three and four groups in each of the other classes. It’s a lot of cars and quite quickly, the new course started to struggle with both the volume of water and number of cars tearing it up.
While the course workers worked as quickly as possible to repair it between sessions, it was decided to reverse the running order so the Supercars, which were causing the least damage, would run their groups first for the rest of the day.
In turn, this would mean less time between the second free practice session and the first of two qualifying races to take place on Saturday.
The World RX Supercars are special pieces of machinery, but it wouldn’t be until later on that I could have a proper look around them. With limited time between FP2 & QR1, it was a rush to turn the cars around in order to make their grid positions.
If you’re late to the startline in rallycross, you’re out. There’s no time for f*cking around.
Each of the GCK drivers would feature in two separate groups for the first qualifying races, which went off without too much drama. The five-abreast starts were impressive, mind you.
What’s interesting about this format is that it’s not about who crosses the finish line first, but rather about the amount of time it takes you to complete the prescribed number of laps. It’s a huge disadvantage to get caught up in a battle for track position, where even overtaking can cost you time.
The end of QR1 mercifully brought about a two hour break, the first time that the drivers could take a breath since the cars had headed out for free practice earlier that morning. Unfortunately, it wasn’t break time for everyone.
While I had earlier figured out where the brakes had gone on these Megane RS RXs (I’ll come back to that), I was slightly more confused by the lack of damper units during this break.Insider Information
While they had already been fully removed from Marklund’s #92 car, Chicherit’s mechanics were just removing the last pair from his #36 car. Normally, the only time I’ve ever seen dampers removed from a car mid-event is to replace them due to damage, but this wasn’t the case.
Remember what I said earlier about it being best to have an ‘in’ at an event like this? Well, I was about to make the most of my Speedhunters privilege and investigate.
Beside GCK’s considerable pit area, Bilstein had set up a full workshop in order to serve the team throughout the weekend. When time allowed, they were taking the full units off both cars before cleaning, inspecting, measuring and checking them on the dyno in their rig.
This was for both preventative and research reasons, as they continue to develop their Evo RX units.
The damper units themselves have to withstand an incredible amount of abuse each event, so they must be so thorough in order to detect any issues before they arise along with monitoring the performance of each unit. Of course, should an issue arise, they already have spares with the appropriate settings for each driver ready to go.
As an interesting aside, each damper unit can take up to seven tonnes in weight, such is the amount of force asked of them on landing.
The Megane RS RXs were built from the ground up to be rallycross cars, so they’re relatively straightforward to work on for the most common maintenance and repairs items. As such, they go back together very quickly which was good, because it was QR2 time.
It’s hard to take a breath, such is the unabated pace with which the event is run.
For QR2, both drivers would again feature in different groups (which was decided by their previous session’s time). Having been second quickest overall in QR1, Marklund was just four seconds off the pace in QR2, which demoted him to 9th place overall in the standings.
Having had a tough QR1, Chicherit bounced back to win his group and move up to 13th overall. The speed and pace was certainly there for both cars, but the drivers just needed that little bit of luck to get them further up the rankings.
That luck was not forthcoming.What Makes A Supercar?
QR2 was the final session on Saturday for the Supercars, which meant that things relaxed considerably, and I was finally able to take a closer look at what makes a World RX Supercar.
I’m sure we’re all familiar at this point with the headline figures; 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-fours producing 600hp in cars which must weigh no less than 1,300kgs (2,866lbs) including driver, with all-wheel drive and a manually shifted gearbox. Driver aids are prohibited, as are paddle-shift systems.
From 0-60mph in 1.9 seconds, the World RX Supercars are typically quicker than contemporary Formula 1 cars off the line. They’re properly fast racecars.
With the cars lifted high in the air, and most of their underbody protection removed (along with even more dirt) they were perfectly poised to be explored.
Where to start, then? Maybe with something that you’re not aware of.
Each team is only permitted a certain number of mechanics per car, whom must be registered at the start of the event. Only these people are permitted to work on each car, which is why you will see them wearing a green band on the outside of their clothing with a number.
How do you enforce a rule like this? Simple, with CCTV. Every pit area has camera(s) monitoring them, so that the organisers can check both live and back on a recording to ensure that a team isn’t in breach.
High-lift jacks are used to get the cars up onto these custom Prodrive stands.
The entire series is run on a control tyre, and each driver is limited to 12 dry and 12 wet tyres per event. If the driver completes more than three rounds, then they must include four dry and four wet tyres from the previous round at the next event.
The suspension concept and packaging on these cars, is pretty clever. You should have noticed by now that there’s no brakes on the hubs, as they’re in-board at both the front and rear of the vehicle. The front brakes are mounted off the gearbox, with the rears mounted to the differential housing.
It’s not a new idea by any means, but it does save an incredible amount of unsprung weight off each corner.
As so much weight has been moved in-board, it means they can use thinner and lighter arms, too. I was curious about the five-stud setup, as opposed to a centre-lock system….
… but it became apparent why this was the case as I watched one of Chicherit’s mechanics replace a lower wishbone and driveshaft on the front driver’s side corner of the car. The hubs have been designed to allow the driveshafts to pass through them, for rapid replacement.
You should be able to make out the brake discs in the pictures above. Thankfully, they don’t typically need to be changed during an event but usually are swapped out between events back at the factory.
Unsurprisingly, then, the dampers and their external reservoirs can also be quickly changed if needs be. These points of contact are likely to be the first parts damaged in a coming together, so it makes sense that they have been prioritised for ease of replacement.
The interior, as you can probably guess, is maximum racecar. The mandatory safety equipment, three pedals, a sequential lever, hydraulic handbrake lever and lots of buttons and displays. The Prodrive carbon door cards which have been recessed for the cage are neat.
This is about as much as I can show you in detail of the engine bay. Sorry.
Rear-mounted radiator setups, with ductings in the quarter panels are an obvious choice in a sport which is pretty much full contact.
Due to packaging, neither Megane runs an alternator. As the races are short, they choose to just charge the cars between sessions instead.
These are serious motor vehicles and amongst some of the most interesting I’ve ever looked at, partly because they’re still relatable and identifiable as their production counterparts.
I mean, I’m not going to be turning my engine sideways in Project GTI anytime soon, but it’s nice to dream, right?Race Day
If I thought Saturday was unforgiving, I was in for a real treat on Sunday.
While some pretty decent sunshine had replaced the rain and gloom of the day before, this would introduce new challenges for all involved. With only two warm-up laps on Sunday morning, it was then straight down to business with QR3.
With four qualifying races in total, the third and fourth races were pivotal in qualifying for the semi-finals, the start of the main event which broadcast on live TV.
To make the show, and accrue vital championship points, both drivers would need to qualify inside the Top 12. With Anton in 9th place overnight, and Guerlain in 13th, neither driver was assured of a place in the semi-finals.
This was make or break time.
One driver couldn’t afford to go backwards in the rankings, and the other had to move up. It was clear as day on Saturday that both the cars and drivers were more than capable of being the fastest out there, they just needed lady luck to shine on them.
No incidents, no mistakes, no traffic.
Despite a stunning view of the track from Raidillon, I was limited in what I could see happening inside the stadium section of the course. The timesheets & some chat with the crew afterwards would be required to tell this part of the story…
At the start of QR3, Marklund dropped four seconds due to a launch issue with the car (which dropped into a limp mode of sorts after waiting too long on full throttle for the green light), but his pace was excellent otherwise and he likely would have topped the timesheets. Instead, he finished 11th O/A and 3.4s off first.
Chicherit, too, had a launch issue where he jumped the start (an overheating clutch forced him to leave the line early) and had to take a second joker lap, instead of the mandatory single joker. However, despite two jokers, he was only 2.9s off first and finished 9th O/A in QR3.
Despite the forced errors on the start line, things were looking positive for the GCK cars.
There was only time for a quick de-brief and strategy meeting before heading to the grid for the deciding qualifying race.
I hope you can appreciate the speed at which things are happening, because it only gets more intense from here.
With a return to form, things aligned for Marklund in his QR4 heat.
He would win his heat and finish second O/A in QR4, jumping up to 6th in the standings and earning himself a place in the semi-finals. His teammate wouldn’t be so fortunate.
As it happens, Lady Luck only seems to shine on one driver at a time and Chicherit was definitely in her shadow on this occasion.
Despite a good start, at the end of his first lap, his #36 Megane was taken out by another driver coming off their joker lap. It was a genuine racing incident, which ended the session for the #123 Audi of Krisztián Szabó.
Guerlain was able to continue, and put in a stormer of a race, but it wouldn’t be enough for him to qualify for the semi-finals.
Looking at the timing, Chicherit lost approximately 15 seconds after his coming together with Szabó, and finished 17th out of 20 drivers in QR4. Had he not lost that time, he would have comfortably qualified for the semi-finals.
But he did, and rallycross in ruthless in this regard as there are no second chances. His final qualifying position was 13th, and that’s where he would finish the event.
Back in the pits, it was a tale of two very different outcomes. The #36 car was shut down for the last time at this event, while #92 headed back to the grid for its semi-final heat.
If you think that one World RX Supercar launching is impressive, wait until you see a grid of six of them taking off at the same time. It’s glorious.
Marklund started on the second row in his semi-final race, with a strong chance of making it to the final.
What happened next, I really could not tell you. The resulting dust cloud from six Supercars left us blind for most of the race.
This was about as clear as things got, as Anton chased and nudged the GCK Academy Clio of Cyril Raymond. He would get past him, but a 4th place finish wasn’t enough to make it through to the finals.
Just 1.1s separated Marklund from 3rd place Timmy Hansen. Margins.
At the end of the day, Russian driver Timur Timerzyanov would lead home Andreas Bakkerud and Joni Wiman. It could have been anyone’s event, as so many drivers were trading fastest times all weekend but when it came down to it, only one man stood on top of the podium.
Marklund would finish 7th, Chicherit 13th and the team 4th. Of course, it could have been much worse. Both cars finished intact and they did indeed finish but I got a sense from the team that this was an opportunity missed. The pace was there all weekend, but the proverbial stars just wouldn’t line up.
There will be another day and I’m sure their time will come, but this is rallycross, so it still must be earned.
There are no easy victories.The Cutting Room Floor