Sol­berg was fast at Lydden Hill but Ekstrom made it count in the fi­nal. By Hal Ridge

Motor Sport News - - Front Page -

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

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