This year, my road to World RX’s Riga round started much earlier than it usually does.
Normally, I would just pack my things in the car and drive to Latvia’s capital; that was the extent of preparation. Now there’s a new normal for FIA-sanctioned series like the World Rallycross Championship, which involves a bunch of documentation – including a 21-page ‘COVID-19 Code of Conduct’ – as well as the requirement to undergo COVID testing. Yes, to attend this event I had to pay a stranger to stuff cotton swabs up my nostrils. Twice.
As you can probably tell, I tested negative both times and was duly granted trackside access along with 24 other photographers (half the normal amount) to one of my favorite motorsport events.
To keep spectators safe, there was no interaction allowed with the drivers, teams, and media; nor was there access to the paddock area. This extended to two separate pathways to the track: one for visitors and one for any sort of staff. As I had no working connection to a team, it also meant that the pit area was out of bounds for me.
It felt weird not having any connection with the drivers, almost like I was watching an amplified version of a live broadcast. Although, I couldn’t always clearly see what was happening in front of me; wearing a mask all day meant my glasses were constantly fogged up.
The great weather and the Bikernieki circuit’s amazing location in the middle of a pine forest made up for it though. Catching a sharp snap of the action between the trees felt good, but finding a great photo spot was even more rewarding.
How World RX works for media – at least in Latvia – is that you have a map of multiple locations that you’re allowed to shoot from. But as always, the track offers so many more great vantage points that it would be a crime not to utilize them. It’s also about timing your move between photo spots, which can sometimes result in being in the right place at the right time.
For example, while I was walking between locations, the Euro RX Polo of Peter Hedström took flight right in front of my camera.
A great spot that’s not officially used is the parallel position to the smaller second jump, like you see here. It would be amazing to have multiple cars jumping at the same time, be them together on one side of the track, or if someone is taking the joker lap on the far side. The grandstand is a great background for the image.
This year, there was a cap on the number of photographers at any one location, backed up by the 1+1 rule: one meter distance and a mask. In the media center, the safety requirements were extended even further, so I found sitting in my Roadster more convenient.
As for the racing itself, COVID-19 arguably had a positive impact. Riga played host to two separate rounds of World RX in this single weekend, so there was no shortage of on-track action. In fact, the World Rallycross Championship, together with the Euro RX and fully-electric Project E categories, delivered non-stop action from 8:00 in the morning until late in the afternoon.
You might wonder how it’s possible to fit so many cars in a single, tight frame, but the answer is simple: rallycross is a contact sport.
Two-time world champion Johan Kristoffersson in his VW Polo was the man to beat. His closest rival was Mattias Ekström, another rallycross champ, DTM superstar, and someone who I have a slight bias towards, just because one of the very favorite photoshoots I’ve done was with his Audi RS5 DTM race car. Also, one of my very first Speedhunters assignments was with Mattias and his EKS Racing Team.
These champions mixed it up with Niclas Grönholm (son of WRC legend, Marcus Grönholm) and Timmy Hansen (son of rallycross legend Kenneth Hansen) on the qualifying leaderboard, but as they have done so many times this season, when it mattered, the experienced wheelmen ended up on top.
Before I get to the podium result, I wanted to touch on the Project E cars: the all-electric Ford Fiestas and Citroën with unified STARD triple electric motor systems, producing up to 613bhp and 1,002Nm of instant torque, delivered via a 2-speed transmission and 4WD.
It’s no secret that the World Rallycross Championship is looking to switch to an all-electric racing model in the near future, with all current World RX cars easily converted to electric powertrains. But should they be?
I wish I could go to the paddock and take a closer look at the EVs, but this year I’m just grateful that I’m able to see the action trackside. I believe that the more people who buy into vehicles powered by alternative energies, the more time car enthusiasts will have to enjoy their ‘old school’ hobby cars.
But is it the same with motorsport? And more importantly, how can manufacturers and race organizers bring more attention and interest to EV racing? Having four Project E cars compete between the exciting, smelly, and noisy World RX top-tier heats is fine, but would anybody come and watch electric rallycross racing on its own?
As a petrolhead, I had a hard time keeping up with the EV competition; it’s a bit surreal to hear gravel flying without any rev-limiter noise or mechanical smells. And after experiencing it in person, I’m advocating for fake engine noises for these ‘cars of the future’.
The EVs actually looked faster on the straights, but at the end of the day they were around three seconds a lap slower than the traditional fuel-burning World RX Supercar-class machines.
And herein lies my main concern with World RX Project E – and Formula E for that matter. The cars in these classes should at least have the same speed as the cars they’ll eventually replace, and at the moment they don’t, so the excitement level isn’t as high.
A great example would be the VW I.D. R. That freaking thing demolished Sebastian Loeb’s Pikes Peak record, went fastest on the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and showed who’s boss on the Goodwood hill climb course. It really showcased that EV power is a way of the future.
And Project E? Well, at least in pictures they look the same as the World RX machines we’ve come to love, I suppose.
After Cyril Raymond won the very first race for the new Citroën C3 ERX, we went back to the business of finding out who’d leave Latvia as a winner. Even though Johan Kristoffersson won on Saturday, we always remember the last winner, right? And on the day it mattered, Mattias Ekström came out on top to keep his championship hopes alive.