Swede ham­mers home his ad­van­tage with win in Bel­gian WRX round

Motor Sport News - - Rally News - Pho­tos: fi­a­worl­dral­ly­cross.com

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

Loeb took his best WRX re­sult

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