Nor­way’s Mr Ral­ly­cross re­flects on the Kent track. By Hal Ridge

Motor Sport News - - World Rallycross Preview -

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.

Schanche mas­tered the RS200 in 1992 Schanche: true ral­ly­cross leg­end On the limit in the Xtrac Es­cort

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