CHAM­PION COMES OUT FIGHT­ING

KRISTOF­FERS­SON WINS WRX SPAIN

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Rally leg­end Se­bastien Loeb has seen it all. He had nearly a decade of dom­i­na­tion in the World Rally Cham­pi­onship and won races in World Tour­ing Cars. He has smashed the Pikes Peak In­ter­na­tional Hill­climb record and led the Dakar rally on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions. He has raced at Le Mans and tested F1 cars. There are few driv­ers on the planet that have had his range of ex­pe­ri­ences.

But, even so, at the open­ing round of the sea­son at Barcelona in Spain last week­end, the French­man was as­ton­ished by the roller­coaster of emo­tions ex­pe­ri­enced across a World RX event.

He said: “It’s ter­ri­ble how many emo­tions you can have in a ral­lycross week­end. In the first heat I was OK but my team-mate Timmy Hansen was re­ally down, but in the sec­ond and third heat he was good and I was off each time with bro­ken rear sus­pen­sion. I was re­ally low and I didn’t ex­pect to reach the semi-fi­nal.

“I tried in Q4 but the road was still clean­ing so it was not amaz­ing, but fi­nally the de­ci­sion went that I still went in the semi-fi­nal, and from that point ev­ery­thing went well.

“I had a lit­tle bit of luck with me and it was just amaz­ing how the emo­tions are go­ing up and down dur­ing all the week­end. It’s not easy!”

Hav­ing not made the semi-fi­nal cut, the works Peu­geot squad with­drew young Swede Kevin Hansen, who had qual­i­fied 12th, to al­low Loeb into semi-fi­nal two. Loeb then went on to make it into the fi­nal, in part thanks to the re­tire­ment of team-mate Timmy Hansen from the lead with an elec­tri­cal prob­lem.

In the fi­nal, Loeb fin­ished third on the road to net a podium fin­ish, only to be later el­e­vated to sec­ond when on-track win­ner Mat­tias Ek­strom was dis­qual­i­fied for a first-cor­ner move on Pet­ter Sol­berg.

Emo­tions were run­ning high through­out the field in the open­ing round, a week­end of two halves with tor­ren­tial rain on day one be­ing re­placed by dry con­di­tions on day two.

Ek­strom struck first with the fastest time in Q1, but it was PSRX team owner and driver Sol­berg who set the best times in Q2 and Q3 to move to the top of the In­ter­me­di­ate Clas­si­fi­ca­tion. The Nor­we­gian main­tained the po­si­tion de­spite be­ing beaten to the fin­ish line in the last race of Q4 by Timmy Hansen. By con­trast, Sol­berg’s team-mate, cham­pion Jo­han Kristof­fers­son had a dif­fi­cult qual­i­fy­ing, start­ing each race to­wards the out­side of the grid and, by his own high stan­dards, strug­gled to make sig­nif­i­cant progress up the or­der. Re­gard­less, he qual­i­fied third and joined Sol­berg on the front of the grid for semi-fi­nal one. Both pro­gressed to the fi­nal, as Ek­strom passed sec­ond semi-fi­nal leader Hansen when the Peu­geot ran into trou­ble.

That put Ek­strom onto the front row of the fi­nal grid with Sol­berg, the only two driv­ers to have pre­vi­ously won at the Span­ish venue.

As the lights went green, the pair made equal get­aways, Ek­strom nos­ing slightly ahead and forc­ing Sol­berg to the in­side and into a tyre wall, spin­ning his Polo out of con­tention. That left Ek­strom up front, chased by Kristof­fers­son and Ek­strom’s EKS team-mate An­dreas Bakkerud. The lead­ing pair edged clear, mak­ing it a two-way fight for vic­tory. Ek­strom ducked into the joker first on lap five, Kristof­fers­son get­ting the ham­mer down for the next tour in a bid to leapfrog his com­pa­triot, but re­turned to the main cir­cuit af­ter his own joker just be­hind. That’s how it would fin­ish, with Loeb hav­ing passed Bakkerud with an early joker tac­tic for the fi­nal podium place.

Just over 90 min­utes af­ter the fi­nal had be­gun, the stew­ards de­cided to dis­qual­ify Ek­strom for the first cor­ner move. The de­ci­sion gifted vic­tory to Kristof­fers­son, while Loeb had gone from 13th to sec­ond in a mat­ter of two six-lap races, with a lit­tle help from his team-mate. Bakkerud’s de­but for the EKS team re­sulted in a podium in third, while Ni­clas Gron­holm gave his fa­ther’s GRX team much to cheer about as he fin­ished fourth in the fi­nal clas­si­fi­ca­tion on the de­but of the squad’s Hyundai i20 Su­per­car.

Loeb’s emo­tions had been through the mill, but Sol­berg’s had too, in the op­pos­ing di­rec­tion. The 2003 WRC cham­pion was on the kind of form that should have re­sulted in a first World RX win in al­most 11 months for the Nor­we­gian, but in­stead his chal­lenge ended in a tyre stack. Like­wise Timmy Hansen dom­i­nated his semi-fi­nal in a Peu­geot not ex­pected to have the pace of the VW or Audi at round one, and may also have chal­lenged for vic­tory.

His de­lighted beam af­ter set­ting the best time in Q4 chang­ing to a hol­low frown as he walked away from his stricken car in the semis.

And then there was the GCK squad, de­but­ing its Pro­drive-built Re­nault Me­gane R.S. RX Su­per­cars.

Both cars made the semis, but turned into dis­ap­point­ment when Jerome Gros­set-janin failed to make the fi­nal hav­ing run sec­ond in semi two in an im­pres­sive maiden per­for­mance. With all six full-time World RX teams hav­ing shown solid pace in the sea­son-opener, the roller­coaster of emo­tions can be ex­pected to con­tinue at round two next week in Por­tu­gal.

Kristof­fers­son pow­ers past stricken team-mate Sol­berg

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