CHAMPION COMES OUT FIGHTING
KRISTOFFERSSON WINS WRX SPAIN
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