EKSTROM TAKES SECOND WORLD RX WIN IN A ROW IN BELGIUM
Swede hammers home his advantage with win in Belgian WRX round
attias Ekstrom doesn’t like understeer: that was the multidiscipline Swede’s answer to why he ran new front tyres on his Audi S1 in the first semi-final at the third round of the FIA World Rallycross Championship in Belgium.
For the third event in a row, the EKS owner and lead driver had qualified top at the Intermediate Classification, thanks to two fastest qualifying times and started on pole position for the first semi-final at the Mettet circuit.
There is a range of tyre strategies at play in WRX, where eight dry tyres are allocated to each driver at each round.
There are those who are generally unable to save a set of fresh rubber for the knockout stages, those who’s driving style involves going sideways as much as forward: Petter Solberg and Robin Larsson among them.
The Peugeot-hansen Peugeot 208s are usually good on their rubber and can save a set for the semis, as is Ekstrom’s Audi. The rule of thumb is that if you have been able to save a fresh set of tyres for the semis, the thing to do is to run them there to secure the best possible grid position for the final.
In Belgium, things were slightly different. Some of those that had fresh rubber ran them all round, but Ekstrom had an eye on the long game. Such is the current pace of the EKS Audi that he knew a semi-final win was on the cards and he would need the same potential for the final.
Ekstrom won his semi with relative ease, followed throughout by nine-time World Rally champion Sebastien Loeb, and the Swede lined up in the same spot for the final with fresh new front boots bolted to his Audi.
The second semi-final was won by Solberg, who had used his second full set of tyres in Q3 to maximise his Intermediate standings position and won the second knockout race to join Ekstrom on the front row for the final.
Loeb started on the second row of the grid with fresh tyres all round but, without having beaten Ekstrom in the semi-final, that advantage was all but lost before the lights had gone out.
Ekstrom led into turn one while compatriot Anton Marklund, who felt he had overheated his rubber in the semis, made an incredible launch from the back row of the grid to pull an impressive move around the outside of the pack at the first corner and climbed to second ahead of Solberg and Loeb.
Solberg was the first to take his joker on lap one, but was delayed when Marklund had a half-spin on lap two and dropped from second to fifth.
The VW Polo driver would have been demoted to sixth but for his team-mate, Johan Kristoffersson, retiring with a misfiring engine from the second row of the grid.
Up front, Ekstrom set a series of fastest lap times, allowing him to take his joker on the sixth and final tour and return to the lead of the race to score his second victory in seven days, while Loeb followed him into the compulsory alternative route, returning to the main circuit ahead of Solberg to score the first podium of his World RX career.
“The car was perfect all weekend long, I’m so happy because it drives so wonderfully. My guys work day and night for this,” said an elated Ekstrom. “It feels a bit surreal, first Hockenheim and now I make it back-to-back here. It’s really crazy. I know the other guys are pushing, we are pushing and I feel completely exhausted.”
At the start of lap five Marklund overcame local star Francois Duval at the first corner to move up to fourth, Duval suffering a leftrear puncture on his one-off appearance in an Olsbergsmse Ford Fiesta.
While Ekstrom took the championship lead – the first time Solberg has been headed in the series for 12 months – others who shone at Hockenheim a week earlier didn’t have such a good time in Belgium.
Double Belgium World RX winner and two-time 2016 podium finisher Toomas Heikkinen failed to make the semi-finals, as did two-time finalist Robin Larsson and Hockenheim third-place finisher, American, Ken Block, who had a difficult weekend with the Hoonigan Racing Ford Focus RS RX.
Britain’s Liam Doran didn’t make the semi-finals for the first time in 2016 in the JRM Racing Mini. A range of issues, including twice breaking a driveshaft clean off the car, ended his hopes of making the top 12. n
Ekstrom (l), Loeb and Solberg (r) celebrate Ekstrom took his second win in a row