The FIA World Rallycross Championship is exactly as it seems on TV and the highlight reels. Only, in reality, just magnify the sensations by a factor of 50. Or maybe 100, just to be safe.
Seriously, this being my first proper exposure to World RX, every last aspect about Round 6 in Höljes, Sweden surpassed my expectations by about that much. This is, perhaps, due in part to having relatively low expectations for the event. Honestly, the sport previously never fully captured my attention, but I’ve quickly realized that this was due to my lack of understanding rather than the idea that it isn’t entertaining.
Quite the contrary, this particular motorsport is pure entertainment. In person, the sensations you experience are at a level which other disciplines of motorsport just can’t deliver.
Furthermore, I never appreciated the sheer insanity and variability that these drivers, teams, and engineers are dealing with in rallycross. I’ll be pointing out the blatantly obvious to some of you, but you just can’t quite appreciate the dynamism of an event like this through a screen.
All of the courses are a combination of dirt and asphalt, with Höljes’ dedicated rallycross circuit being 60% tarmac and 40% dirt. Like any other motorsport, this makes setting up the cars an exercise in balance. The only difference is you’re balancing entirely different mediums at the same time.
Compared to Formula One, where the cars are tuned to execute a very specific task to the highest level of precision, you just don’t have that sort of predictability in World RX. Given each team’s budget, there is no doubt that these cars are engineered to the highest level possible, but there is no one right answer in rallycross.
Take the track itself, and you’ll realize the fastest line for one car isn’t quite the fastest line for another. This makes the action on the track so much more exciting than your average road race, and this isn’t even accounting for the concept of a ‘joker lap’.
If you aren’t familiar, drivers must take a slower alternate route — the joker — once over the course of the race, whether it be qualifying or in the finals. On the photo above, you can see the two cars in the background left rejoining the trio that are on the main circuit.
This introduces a huge aspect of strategy to aid clean passes and give drivers an out on one corner where things might otherwise get a bit hairy. In Sweden this split comes immediately after the first turn, so you’ll often see cars out of position diving off to take their joker lap and get it over with right away.
On the other hand, if you can jostle yourself through the first corner on a good line, you can essentially pass the cars on their joker lap for free.
Only, nothing in World RX is free, as you’ll need to take your longer lap later on. But when is best?
As if these drivers didn’t have enough to process already as they bang doors, bounce off apexes, and fly through the air, your joker strategy can make or break your race. Just as with car setup, there is no one single solution, and it makes the sport an absolute joy to watch — you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
Again, take the most extreme example: F1, where (sadly) one car seems to win every time. It was more or less this way during Vettel’s reign, and now with Mercedes-AMG running away from the pack it’s just so predictable. Which reminds me, I need to cancel my F1 TV subscription, as I literally only watch the races to help me go to sleep these days.
World Rallycross is the exact opposite of this. From an outsider’s perspective it’s practically a roll of the dice as any of the top drivers could be punted off at any moment. If you race in an earlier heat you might be lucky to get one chance to redeem yourself, but at the end of the day nothing is certain. This is why even when the car might be missing a tire or two, drivers press on to the finish, hoping to overtake any other stragglers.
On the same token, as Ben touched on in our intro to this event, World RX is quite nearly a full-contact sport. Generally, bumping wheels and sitting on someone’s bumper is frowned upon in motorsport. Still, it seems that this type of action is exactly what the average spectator is waiting to see when they flip the channel to racing.
In rallycross, this aggression is constant and it’s just one more reason to tune in. The action appeals to some primal sense of destruction and chaos as the cars and their drivers are pushed to the absolute limit.
After a handful of laps, there’s just nothing left to give.Misunderstanding
As visually stimulating as is it, this was ironically my initial gripe against rallycross. Multiple qualifying races, cars slamming into each other through corners, drivers flying through the air, joker laps, and the constant chaotic action. It was entertaining – I’d watch some highlights and enjoyed the insane racing that unfolded – but I didn’t truly understand what I was seeing.
I just didn’t get it and as a result I couldn’t buy in to the idea that races only lasted four to five minutes. So I wrote it all off as some sort of automotive spectacle rather than a race series. But I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assessment.
Not knowing any of the drivers or the teams — even in our own rallycross championship here in the States, which is a bit of a feeder series for the FIA World Rallycross Championship — didn’t help as I was never emotionally involved in the sport, either, but really that’s just an excuse.
It was a perfect storm of ignorance that took a bit of a culture shock for me to truly see how intense top-level rallycross is. Now, I get it. Seeing the cars in person helps translate that sense of speed and the fact that these drivers are absolutely right on the limit, or beyond it, for the entire race.
I know I’m not the only one who has felt some version of this sentiment towards rallycross in their lives, so I’m hoping my experience here can broaden your horizons, similarly as mine were. It’s really easy to get hooked after watching a few race replays, and once you understand the intricacies of how an event is run it makes perfect sense.
Beyond the fact that rallycross offers such a great return on your viewing investment, the races are easily accessible around the globe. As the FIA World Rallycross Championship YouTube channel has the qualifying heats streamed live and loads of race replays and weekend highlights, it really couldn’t be easier.
Due to this, I won’t bother delivering any sort of complete play-by-play account here, as I’d encourage you to go watch the entirety of the drama that unfolded when you have some time. But I will touch on some of the highlights from the event from my perspective.Highlights
Like Paddy was at Spa, I was embedded with the GC Kompetition team. More specifically, I was closely following the progress of two Renault Meganes (whatever those are): the #92 car of Anton Marklund and #36 car of Guerlain Chicherit.
When I showed up on Friday evening I tagged along for the track walk with the GCK team.
Up close, you pick up on certain details, like the sheer size of the curbs where the dirt is worn down around them (a great way to check the strength of your axles as you come over the sharp edge sideways), and how the exit of turn one is completely obscured by the crest of the apex.
The next morning practice sessions and qualifying commenced, and that’s when I got my first real taste of how great rallycross is from a spectator viewpoint. It’s just so entertaining, and I found myself shouting at the top of my lungs in pure excitement as the cars screamed by, bumper to bumper and flying through the air.
As Ben pointed out, our guy Marklund was effectively bashed out of competition in the first qualifying race on Saturday but fought back to find himself in second position moving into Sunday.
As Sunday rolled around Chicherit didn’t find himself in quite as good of a position and was ultimately ousted in the final qualifying race (which took place against Marklund). Marklund continued on to the semi-finals and I headed to the final hairpin on the course.
It’s just as well that I did, as it was at the exit here that Sebastian Eriksson pulled off a perfectly timed ‘bump and run’ which sent Marklund sideways and way off line. There was still a slim chance that another competitor (or two) might take themselves out of the race, or someone might drastically get their joker lap wrong.
Marklund pushed hard, but as it turned out he simply wasn’t able to make up the lost time and this aggressive maneuver was what the weekend came down to. He finished fourth, just a hair under two seconds off the pace of Timmy Hansen and Kevin Abbring who came second and third in the heat.
As heartbreaking as it is, that’s brutal reality of rallycross.
Ultimately, this move propelled Eriksson on to the second semi-finals and then to the finals, where he and Kevin Hansen were neck and neck over the last few laps of the race.
Hansen went for a similar move as Eriksson made on Marklund after the jump and through the last corner of the track before the checkered flag, but Eriksson said he knew he was coming, and sat on the brakes waiting for the impact. Eriksson was able to re-balance the car by powering out and finished the event with his first-ever World RX class win.
With Eriksson on top, Kevin Hansen and Reinis Nitiss finished off the podium in World RX and the champagne sprayed as each class came up and gathered their trophies.
It was a weekend filled with highs and lows, but never have I experienced a motorsports event that was so unpredictable and captivating.
Rallycross is end-to-end edge-of-your-seat action, and it’s only better in person. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and check it out sometime.
You won’t be disappointed.Just Some Extras