EKSTROM WOWS THE LYDDEN HILL CROWDS
Solberg was fast at Lydden Hill but Ekstrom made it count in the final. By Hal Ridge
Things could hardly have been going better for Petter Solberg come Sunday afternoon in Kent where Lydden Hill was hosting the fourth round of the FIA World Rallycross Championship. But they would ultimately turn out even better for Mattias Ekstrom.
As he had done 12 months earlier, Solberg topped the order in the intermediate classification at the close of the first day, and continued the trend into day two to secure top spot after the event’s four qualifying stages.
On outright pace, Ekstrom had appeared to hold the upper hand in the opening three events of the year in Portugal, Germany and Belgium. But in the Garden of England, at the home of rallycross, it was Norwegian Solberg who was setting the pace.
Fastest in Q1, he then beat that time in Q2, almost two seconds faster than anyone else. In Q3 on Sunday morning he was again quickest, shaving almost another 1.5 seconds off his best time from the previous day.
Another race win on track in Q4 could have netted a further fastest time (and in the process become the first driver in World RX to win all four qualifying races), but despite crossing the line first in the final race of the session, it was Solberg’s young compatriot Andreas Bakkerud who stopped the clock first in the M-sport developed Hoonigan Racing Division Ford Focus RS RX.
That mattered little to Citroen DS3 pilot Solberg, who claimed to have backed off a fraction in Q4, knowing he had done more than enough to not only start on pole position for the first semifinal but also net the 16 championship points that go with being top after the qualifying races.
Solberg is a man with firm championship ambitions and knows how important scoring as many points at every stage of the event is.
In Belgium two weeks previously, Ekstrom had taken Solberg’s title lead and the Norwegian’s PSRX team had worked hard at a base in England between the two events to better its package. It seemed to work. Ekstrom had little response for Solberg’s pace, and dropped from second overall to fourth in Q4 when he picked up a frontleft puncture and could only set the 18th fastest time.
In the semi-finals, Solberg won to secure pole for the final, while Ekstrom beat Bakkerud in the second of the knock-out encounters to start on the outside of the front row for the main event.
At the British round of the championship last season, Ekstrom and Solberg had split their strategies in the final, the pair starting on the front row of the grid and taking their joker laps at either end of the race. The result then was a nail-bitingly close finish. This time around, Ekstrom repeated his move and headed straight for the joker on the first lap. Solberg made a good start and was followed by PeugeotHansen driver Timmy Hansen and the Swede’s younger brother Kevin on the standard route. Russia’s triple European Rallycross champion Timur Timerzynov followed Ekstrom into the extra route while Bakkerud had qualified on the second row but failed to get away cleanly from the start line and was forced to crawl through the race after breaking a driveshaft.
Solberg led at the front of the pack, but he wasn’t able to drop the two Peugeot 208s behind, which, for much of the event, hadn’t been able to live with the Norwegian’s pace. Ekstrom, with a new tyre fitted to the front left corner of his Audi S1 for both the semifinal and final, was closing in on the top three. Solberg’s spotter (wife Pernilla) elected to send him into the joker on lap four in an attempt to cover off Ekstrom and remain ahead of the Swede, but it didn’t work. Solberg returned to the main circuit behind Ekstrom (and Timmy Hansen who was yet to take his joker).
The driver known as ‘Hollywood’ had pushed his tyres too hard, and with Ekstrom on fresher rubber (drivers are only allowed two sets per weekend) he could do nothing to stop the Swede taking his third successive win, once the older of the Hansen brothers had taken his joker on the final lap. Solberg finished second with Hansen third and younger brother Kevin fourth.
“This was probably the hardest weekend so far in my career, because even though we were really spot on and I felt ‘that’s it’, Petter is going quicker,” said Ekstrom. “It was a little bit up and down. The semi-final and final actually came down to tyre strategy and I had a little bit more of my tyres left, and that’s what made the difference. The fight between Petter and me is fun, but also with Bakkerud and Sebastien Loeb, who had bad luck this weekend. I wouldn’t count out the Peugeots because they can be really fast. For the moment I see six or seven guys who can
be in the top group and win a race later in the year.”
The gap between Ekstrom and Solberg at the head of the standings remains at five points.
Kevin Hansen was delighted to finish fourth on a circuit he knows well. “It’s really amazing, to be in the final first of all is just incredible,” said Hansen. “To finish third in the semi-final and to qualify for the final, I couldn’t dream of that entering this weekend. I just tried to follow as well as I could in the final. After two or three laps I was surprised that I was still just two or three car lengths behind. Fourth is just amazing, behind Ekstrom, Timmy and Petter and ahead of so many really talented drivers. It’s incredible.”
Timerzyanov lost the power steering on his Ford Fiesta on lap two and finished almost half a minute behind the leaders, just ahead of Bakkerud.
Having finished second at the previous round in Belgium, Solberg’s former rally nemesis Sebastien Loeb failed to make the final at Lydden Hill.
The Frenchman suffered a puncture in the Q3 and ran in the first race of Q4, when the track was at its slowest. Despite that, he set a time in Q4 good enough to make it into the semi-finals, albeit at the back of the grid. A great launch propelled him alongside those ahead in his semi-final, but even the maestro couldn’t make a move work around the outside of the first corner and he ran fourth in the opening stages, but later dropped out of contention with an engine problem.
While Kevin Hansen shone, the British drivers struggled. Guy Wilks finished best of the home trio, in 17th, struggling with the set-up of the Olsbergsmse Ford Fiesta before he lost fifth gear in Q4 and retired. Liam Doran also retired at the same stage. The JRM Racing Mini is now fitted with a twolitre engine, but the unit is in its early development phase and Doran was unable to repeat his two-semi final (and one final) appearances of the season to date.
Julian Godfrey, the five-time British Rallycross champion, suffered an uncharacteristic roll in his first race of the weekend when a rear upright broke on his Ford Fiesta at the joker exit. His team repaired the car for Q2 and the engine-builder kept far more developed cars honest through the rest of the event, but wound up 20th, one place behind Doran. ■
Ekstrom has a lead of five points
Solberg (l) was on strong form through quaifying races and the semi
Swede Timmy Hansen claimed a Lydden Hill podium in his Peugeot
Ekstrom has now taken his third World Rallycross final win in a row
Solberg took his joker lap halfway through the final and finished second