Norway’s Mr Rallycross reflects on the Kent track. By Hal Ridge
Reigning World Rallycross champion Petter Solberg is currently king of the highly intense mixed-surface discipline.
The back-to-back World RX title-holder is known as Mr Hollywood, but it’s his compatriot, six-time FIA European Rallycross champion Martin Schanche that is still regarded by many as Mr Rallycross, even though he drew a line under his rallycross career 15 years ago.
Schanche is one of the sport’s greats, and competed for an astonishing 30 years.
He was also an exceptional engineer and played an instrumental roll in the creation of the innovative Xtrac Escort, using the revolutionary transmission from Xtrac that would form the foundations for the company to grow into the major concern it is today.
Schanche is arguably most famous for his extravagant driving style and wearing his heart on his sleeve, both in and out of the car. Speaking to MN, Schanche admitted that the venue for the fourth round of the WRX this weekend, Lydden Hill, was for him, the jewel in the rallycross crown.
“Lydden has always been my favourite because it’s really a driver’s track. It was so different from others because the natural surface was very slippery when it was raining,” says Schanche. “I went there for the first time in 1977 and I couldn’t understand how these small Minis were walking all over us. They were spaceframe chassis with a plastic roof and some of the drivers were actually sitting in a bloody raincoat and driving in Wellingtons, and still they were quick.”
The Norwegian first won at Lydden Hill in 1978, driving a Ford Escort RS1800 in the eighth round of the European series on route to his maiden title. He won in Kent again in 1979 and next in 1981.
“That 1981 season was the first year with the Zakspeed turbo Ford Escort,” says Schanche. “That was special. It was raining like buggery. It was said that Zakspeed engines were good for racing on the Nurburgring, but they would be useless for tractability. The commentator, Arthur Debenham, nearly fell out of the tower because I came from nearly the back row in the wet, on the outside and snaking around before we went into Chesson’s Drift, then sneaked on the inside of Francois Monten and led the way. On the coverage Debenham said ‘listen to that, he’s now passing 10,000rpm and still he can play with the throttle’.”
“That Saturday, Erich Zakowski [Zakspeed founder] sat in a meeting with all the Ford big shots and they were saying to him ‘Your engines are good on Tarmac but not for rallying’, because that’s when they were pumping-up for the stillborn baby, the RS1700T. I won at Lydden with the Zakspeed engine; after that the old German boy gave me free engines. He didn’t get the contract with Ford though.”
Schanche won at Lydden with the car the next year too, before switching to the legendary Escort XR3 T16 4x4 – better known as the Xtrac Escort, with which he won at Lydden in 1985, before John Welch won the British Rallycross Grand Prix in the sister car later the same year.
Further Lydden Hill victories followed for Schanche in 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1992 at the wheel of a Ford RS200 E2. During that Group B era of the sport, one of Schanche’s arch-rivals was Canterbury’s Will Gollop, who remains the last Englishman to win a rallycross title at the sport’s highest level, in 1992. Driving his biturbo MG Metro 6R4, Gollop beat Schanche to the European crown. That year, Schanche lost his licence for three races following his on-track antics (where, having been pushed off, an enraged Schanche ran onto the circuit at the Finnish round of the series to stop the race).
“We’ve had many scraps, the biggest one must have been in Finland when I stopped the whole bloody race after someone spun me off,” says Schanche, as he talks about standing in the path of Gollop’s Metro at Suonenjoki in 1992. “I knew that Will would never hit me. The speed in that corner was not very high, so there was no danger really.
“Will and I never had any problems, we had some good old scraps. Will obviously had a car that was more of a handful to drive because it was very short wheelbase and it looked very iffy the way it was moving. His capability as a driver must have been very good. He was a good constructor and I don’t think there was anybody else that was as close as we were.
“We were both self-employed, doing all the construction, engine wise and all the rest of it. He must have been the one who was closest to a copy of me or I was a copy of him, but obviously I drove a lot more years than he did.”
While sitting on the sidelines with his ban in ’92, Schanche employed the services of some very capable drivers to try and take points away from Gollop, Kjetil Bolneset, Francois Delecour and Tommy Rustad.
Schanche’s last appearance at Lydden was in 1996, the European series not visiting the Kent venue again before Schanche hung up his helmet in 2001.
“When I stopped, I stopped. I didn’t have anything left to prove,” he says. “I don’t think I was necessarily the best driver around, but the combination of that and building the cars technically; people had to wake up very early in the morning to beat me on the technical side. I’ve had only good experiences here, on this chalky island, absolutely.” ■
The season so far has been dominated by Sweden’s Mattias Ekstrom, even though reigning double-champion Petter Solberg won the opening round in Portugal.
Ekstrom has qualified top at the Intermediate Classification (after the four qualifying races) at every event so far, and won twice. He may have gone unbeaten to date, had he not been involved in first corner contact with third row starter Timmy Hansen in Portugal.
The double DTM champion then won the second round at Hockenheim in Germany by passing EKS team-mate Toomas Heikkinen in the final, and led home nine-time World Rally champion Sebastien Loeb at Mettet in Belgium a week later. Heading into the Belgian event, Solberg and Ekstrom were tied on points at the head of the championship, Ekstrom taking the series lead with victory, marking the first time Solberg hasn’t headed (alone or jointly) the points table since July 2014.
Solberg won at Lydden last season on his way to a second consecutive World RX title and would probably have finished on the podium at every round so far this season had he not experienced engine issues in round two in Hockenheim, where he salvaged fourth in the final. He is second in the title race, five points behind Ekstrom.
In his maiden World RX season, PeugeotHansen driver Loeb has twice qualified for the final and stood on the rostrum once (second in Belgium), while fellow superstar Ken Block will compete this weekend in the ‘home’ event for the Hoonigan Racing Division’s M-sportbuilt Ford Focus RS RX. Block and team-mate Andreas Bakkerud impressed with the pace of the new Ford Performance-backed car at the opening two events of the season. Bakkerud finished fourth in Portugal and Block earned a podium result at Hockenheim, but had a torrid weekend in Belgium.
Audi drivers Heikkinen and Robin Larsson have also impressed. Ekstrom’s EKS team-mate Heikkinen finished on the podium in both Portugal and Hockenheim driving the squad’s second Audi S1 but suffered a number of mechanical issues in Belgium, while privateer Larsson finished second in Portugal in his Audi A1 but rolled during the final in Hockenheim. Despite that, he made it to the finish.
Another driver to shine in the opening three events of the season has been Janis Baumanis. In his maiden full Supercar term, the World RX Team Austria driver would have qualified for the final in Hockenheim but for contact with Johan Kristoffersson near the end of the semi. He would also have been in the final in Belgium but was disqualified in the semi for pushing in the first corner. He has also raced in British RX in a RX150 buggy at Lydden.
Kristoffersson has been unlucky: contact with Solberg in Portugal ruled him out of a podium finish. The Swede led the second semi until a puncture in Hockenheim, but lost a final spot on the last lap. In Belgium, his VW Polo dropped onto three cylinders at the start of the final.