Mov­ing away from its roots A cir­cuit-rac­ing back­ground is an ever-greater fac­tor for World RX drivers to be suc­cess­ful

Johan Kristof­fers­son is sta­tis­ti­cally the most suc­cess­ful World Ral­ly­cross driver in his­tory. Known as much for his pre­ci­sion and smooth­ness as his 100% ded­i­ca­tion and dev­as­tat­ing one-lap pace, the two-time cham­pion is at the top of his game.

Peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of ral­ly­cross is chang­ing as a re­sult. Once it was seen as a gag­gle of cars con­stantly side­ways, ca­reer­ing be­tween dirt and as­phalt. Fu­ri­ous side­ways action and panel-bash­ing re­main but, more than ever, tech­nique, tac­tics and driv­ing styles are evolv­ing.

One rea­son for this is that ral­ly­cross is in a stage of de­vel­op­ment whereby cir­cuit drivers are more pre­pared than ever to take it to the rally drivers and win.

This is per­haps why Kristof­fers­son has been so suc­cess­ful. The son of ral­ly­cross and tour­ing car racer Tommy Kristof­fers­son, the Swede only started rac­ing at the age of 20 af­ter turn­ing his back on a ca­reer in cross-coun­try ski­ing. Since then he has com­bined ral­ly­cross and cir­cuit rac­ing, win­ning the Scan­di­na­vian Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship in 2012 and the World RX ti­tle last year. This year he’s swept the board in both.

Me­thod­i­cal and blind­ingly quick, Kristof­fers­son is the bench­mark for the fu­ture of ral­ly­cross. His suc­cess has prompted an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion: do cir­cuit rac­ers now hold the ad­van­tage in the world of ral­ly­cross?

Cir­cuit-rac­ing takeover

Since gain­ing world cham­pi­onship sta­tus in 2014, ral­ly­cross has un­der­gone some­thing of a rev­o­lu­tion. The cat­e­gory that used to be seen as a niche, suit­able only for those with ex­pe­ri­ence on loose sur­faces, is now be­ing dom­i­nated by cir­cuit rac­ers.

Kristof­fers­son and fel­low tour­ing car ace Mat­tias Ek­strom have shared the past three ti­tles be­tween them, Kristof­fers­son dom­i­nat­ing this sea­son with an un­prece­dented nine wins from 10 so far.

That’s not to say that the chances of a ‘tra­di­tional’ ral­ly­cross driver ever win­ning the cham­pi­onship again are gone, just that they’ll have to adapt to a chang­ing land­scape that’s be­gin­ning to favour those with a cir­cuit-rac­ing back­ground.

De­spite strong ral­ly­cross roots, Timmy Hansen spent his early rac­ing days climb­ing the sin­gle-seater lad­der, and was a race win­ner in Formula BMW. Faced with no other op­tions when bud­get is­sues cur­tailed his Formula Re­nault Eurocup cam­paign in 2012, Hansen gave ral­ly­cross a crack with his 14-time Euro­pean cham­pion father Ken­neth’s team.

“I wanted to drive some­thing and it didn’t mat­ter what it was,” Hansen Jr ex­plains. “I was re­ally down when I gave up my F1 dream. So I spoke with my dad and he gave me a go in the ral­ly­cross car. The key to get­ting to where I am now is my dad, he re­ally saved my ca­reer.”

As a ral­ly­cross rookie, Hansen ad­mits that he had to learn the trade the hard way, in com­pe­ti­tion. But far from try­ing to be­come an out-and-out ral­ly­cross driver, he de­cided to take his cir­cuit-rac­ing style and adapt it to his new environment in­stead.

“I knew noth­ing about driv­ing side­ways or us­ing the hand­brake. I was used to look­ing for mar­ginal gains and fo­cus­ing on minute de­tails from cir­cuit rac­ing,” he says. “When I made the switch, I just drove my nor­mal style and de­vel­oped the weaker ar­eas.”

Hansen just loves driv­ing. And for him, ral­ly­cross is the ul­ti­mate chal­lenge that ex­tracts every­thing from his skillset.

“It took some time for me to get used to slid­ing and us­ing the hand­brake,” he says,

“but I’m able to com­bine the pre­ci­sion in find­ing the right brak­ing points and hit­ting the apex from a sin­gle-seater with the move­ment and slid­ing of a rally car.”

Kristof­fers­son con­curs. “You can def­i­nitely com­bine cir­cuit rac­ing and ral­ly­cross to be­come a more per­fected driver,” he says.

“For cir­cuit rac­ers, you have the ex­pe­ri­ence of learn­ing a new track and get­ting the max­i­mum out of the car ev­ery time.

“For rally drivers, you can adapt to the chang­ing con­di­tions more and al­ter your driv­ing style to suit these con­di­tions. You are more com­fort­able with slid­ing and look­ing for ex­tra grip on the loose.”

Tech­nique and raw skill are es­sen­tial com­po­nents of ral­ly­cross. Re­act­ing to dif­fer­ing grip lev­els in a va­ri­ety of weather con­di­tions, com­bined with the aware­ness re­quired to race tac­ti­cally, is the key to suc­cess.

Ek­strom, who was cham­pion in 2016, is an­other driver with ral­ly­cross in his blood, his father Bengt hav­ing raced com­pet­i­tively when Mat­tias was a child. A late bloomer in RX, the dou­ble DTM cham­pion – and three-time Race Of Cham­pi­ons win­ner to boot – shares the views of Kristof­fers­son and Hansen.

“About 10 years ago, you would be bet­ter com­ing from a ral­ly­ing back­ground,” the

Audi man ex­plains. “There were more real gravel sec­tions on the tracks, but these are be­com­ing less com­mon these days.

“Tyre man­age­ment and driv­ing within the grip limit avail­able is now more im­por­tant than ever. I guess drivers who have had side-by-side rac­ing have an ad­van­tage in ral­ly­cross as they have had more ex­pe­ri­ence of this than the rally drivers.”

Evo­lu­tion of RX cir­cuits

There is ev­i­dence to sug­gest that ral­ly­cross tracks are mov­ing to­wards less sur­face-grip vari­a­tion, favour­ing drivers with a cir­cuitrac­ing back­ground.

Ek­strom reck­ons that “tra­di­tional” RX tracks are now a thing of the past and the emer­gence of in­creased tyre man­age­ment is a key part of this shift.

“The tracks have de­vel­oped a lot more now,” Ek­strom says. “But in my view, they have de­vel­oped in the wrong way. The gravel sec­tions are more or less con­crete now and ac­tu­ally, some gravel sec­tions have more grip than the as­phalt.”

It seems bizarre to think of gravel of­fer­ing greater grip, but while some in the pad­dock lament the pre­dictabil­ity of the sur­face, oth­ers feel that the con­sis­tency is no bad thing.

World Ral­ly­cross com­men­ta­tor An­drew Co­ley says: “Of course there are tracks now that don’t have proper loose gravel sec­tions any­more. Por­tu­gal [Mon­tale­gre] and Lo­heac

[in France] are good ex­am­ples where it’s pretty solid.

“Riga, for ex­am­ple, has a re­ally abra­sive sur­face and a smooth gravel sec­tion. It def­i­nitely gives more con­sis­tent grip lev­els, but I think that’s what the fans want. They don’t want car-break­ing sur­faces and ti­tles to be de­cided on me­chan­i­cal fail­ures. Con­sis­tency adds to the show and makes the cham­pi­onship more ex­cit­ing.”

While ral­ly­cross is in essence any­thing but pre­dictable, such is the na­ture of the short, sharp bursts of action and the jug­gling of the or­der re­sult­ing from the joker lap, the evo­lu­tion of cir­cuits has forced tra­di­tional rally drivers to adapt to a style more akin to cir­cuit rac­ing.

A style like Hansen’s, with pre­ci­sion honed in sin­gle-seaters, was no bet­ter demon­strated than in his semi-fi­nal win in Hell ear­lier this sea­son.

“It def­i­nitely pays off to be clean in ral­ly­cross, to look af­ter your tyres, even though the races are so short,” he says.

“I still use the same style now. For ex­am­ple, in the semi-fi­nal in Hell, I tried so hard to pre­serve my tyres for the fi­nal. I ended up brak­ing in a straight line, turn­ing in smoothly, straight­en­ing the steer­ing and feath­er­ing the throt­tle on ac­cel­er­a­tion.

“On that track es­pe­cially, you

“With these tyres, it’s bet­ter for your lap time to drive smoothly”

learn when to push, when not to. It def­i­nitely helps on cer­tain tracks to drive sen­si­bly.”

Hav­ing ob­served Hansen since the start of his ral­ly­cross ca­reer in 2013, Co­ley agrees that this ap­proach is pay­ing off.

“The ad­van­tage the cir­cuit rac­ers have, al­most above race­craft, is their abil­ity to hit the same apex at the same speed ev­ery time. Rally drivers are just as quick as the cir­cuit rac­ers over one lap, and prob­a­bly bet­ter at deal­ing with the joker, but they aren’t as pre­cise over the rest.

“That’s why Johan [Kristof­fers­son] has been so good for the past two sea­sons. He never for­gets a thing, and he’s tac­ti­cally very good. Ral­ly­cross is all about build­ing the week­end and Johan has been able to dig him­self out of some big holes be­cause he’s so pre­cise on ev­ery de­tail.”

The loss of ‘Sol­berg style’

Is there such a thing as ‘ral­ly­cross tech­nique?’ Not if you ask Ek­strom’s EKS team-mate An­dreas Bakkerud, who is ral­ly­cross through-and-through.

The Nor­we­gian did a bit of go-kart­ing in his youth be­fore dab­bling in the hugely pop­u­lar – and very Scan­di­na­vian – Bil­cross, the bud­get ver­sion of ral­ly­cross, which gave him a ground­ing in the nec­es­sary skills to make it as a pro­fes­sional. Bakkerud be­lieves tech­nique is not so much learned as ac­quired in­stinc­tively.

“Ral­ly­cross is mo­tor­sport’s an­swer to

MMA!” he says. “It has every­thing: jumps, gravel, rac­ing. It com­bines ev­ery as­pect of rac­ing with the cra­zi­est cars.

“I grew up watch­ing ral­ly­cross on TV in Nor­way, watch­ing Martin Schanche fight­ing with guys like Ken­neth Hansen, Will Gol­lop.

In the 1980s and ’90s it was very big.

“Bil­cross is a great way to learn. You build your own car, race it and learn the work­ings of the car. It also teaches you how to drive with dam­age!”

A quick search on Youtube pro­vides proof that Bakkerud is one of the best at deal­ing with a dam­aged car – he fa­mously won a heat with bro­ken rear sus­pen­sion at the Es­ter­ing, one of few clas­sic ral­ly­cross tracks re­main­ing on the world cham­pi­onship stage.

He in­sists that be­ing quick in mod­ern WRX beasts is more about who makes the fewest mis­takes than any spe­cific tech­nique.

“These cars are very easy to over­drive,” he says. “The rear gets loose on the gravel and you also have to be pre­cise on the Tar­mac. Everyone over­drives in ral­ly­cross, it’s just that the guys at the front over­drive less than those at the rear.

“You do need to look af­ter the tyres on the Tar­mac sec­tions so you have to al­ter your driv­ing. You can’t al­ways go side­ways, ‘Sol­berg style’, you have to be clean as well.”

But Kristof­fers­son adds: “WRX cars in­vite you to push the lim­its, and some­times you are forced to go way over the limit to get the most out of it.”

The truth is that tra­di­tional ‘Sol­berg style’ is be­gin­ning to fade away, at least on tracks where degra­da­tion on the con­trol Cooper tyre is higher. But ‘old school’ tracks like the Es­ter­ing, Hol­jes and Lo­heac, which re­tain a clas­si­cal gravel/as­phalt split, per­mit rally drivers to thrive and still al­low for au­da­cious moves of the kind that ral­ly­cross is so fa­mous for.

Ek­strom is a fan of the tra­di­tional tracks, but also of­fers an in­sight into just how much the tyres al­ter his own driv­ing tech­nique.

“The tyres we use, lon­gi­tu­di­nally they have very good grip, so ac­cel­er­a­tion and brak­ing is very ef­fec­tive and you can use all the rub­ber,” he says.

“Lat­er­ally they are not so good, so it puts you off slid­ing the car be­cause you will lose grip and time. With these tyres, it’s bet­ter for your lap time to drive smoothly.”

That’s why ‘Sol­berg style’ may be on the way out on as­phalt. But, as Co­ley ex­plains, there is still an area of ral­ly­cross where it’s bet­ter to be lairy.

“Rally drivers, or drivers with a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence on the loose, tend to fare bet­ter in the joker lap than cir­cuit rac­ers,” he says.

“They’re more used to chang­ing grip lev­els and sur­faces and can adapt, es­pe­cially in change­able weather, to al­most any­thing.

Cir­cuit drivers are more used to the con­sis­tency of grip, so I think they strug­gle a lot more.

“Guys like Pet­ter [Sol­berg], I al­ways say are more likely to find time in the joker with a more side­ways ap­proach. They look out of con­trol but they al­ways find the apex some­how. It’s also why Johan has gone to

Pet­ter for ad­vice on how to drive the jok­ers bet­ter – there’s a lot to gain there.”

Drivers there­fore have to be more cal­cu­lated in their tech­nique, know­ing when to de­ploy ‘Sol­berg style’ and when to look af­ter the tyres. The balance is not al­ways as ob­vi­ous as it seems.

The Kristof­fers­son ef­fect

For the past year and a half Kristof­fers­son has been the bench­mark, not only for what he has achieved, but also for what he does away from ral­ly­cross.

Un­til Ek­strom hung up his DTM boots for good at Hock­en­heim ear­lier this sea­son, Kristof­fers­son was one of only two full-time RX drivers to com­bine his reg­u­lar job with cir­cuit rac­ing, which is all the more re­mark­able given his late start in the sport.

“I only re­ally de­cided I wanted to do rac­ing as a ca­reer when I was 20,” says Kristof­fers­son. “My at­ti­tude was, if mo­tor­sport goes well, I quit ski­ing. If it doesn’t, then I will try to be­come a pro­fes­sional in ski­ing. It doesn’t mat­ter what you do, as long as you give it 100% ef­fort, you will suc­ceed.

“So I started very late com­pared to the other drivers I was rac­ing against, but I think bring­ing the ski­ing men­tal­ity and ap­proach to per­fec­tion and train­ing helped me a lot when I started.”

Kristof­fers­son strives to be­come the ul­ti­mate rac­ing driver, and his ex­ploits in the STCC are all part of the train­ing.

Tyre man­age­ment, straight-line brak­ing and smooth ac­cel­er­a­tion – it all helps find those mar­ginal gains. It’s less of an art and more about cal­cu­lated logic for Kristof­fers­son. He be­lieves suc­cess comes with per­fec­tion and mixes cir­cuit rac­ing with ral­ly­cross in pur­suit of that.

“I think more drivers are try­ing dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines, which is a good thing. Ten years ago they used to say, ‘This guy is only used to driv­ing rear-wheel-drive cars or front-wheel-drive cars’, whereas it’s not re­ally the case any­more.”

Kristof­fers­son switches from his 4WD VW

Polo R in ral­ly­cross to the FWD Golf GTI TCR in the STCC with com­par­a­tive ease, al­though the two cars are very dif­fer­ent. Kristof­fers­son has to point his TCR ma­chine at the apex de­lib­er­ately, not be too ea­ger on throt­tle ap­pli­ca­tion and not al­low it to drift, oth­er­wise it will un­der­steer. Tyre preser­va­tion is at a pre­mium and drop-off can be se­vere.

Hansen says: “I think it is very im­por­tant to drive a lot of dif­fer­ent cars. What Fer­nando Alonso has done re­cently has been re­ally im­pres­sive and I hope that en­cour­ages more drivers to do dif­fer­ent things, not just stick to their se­ries.”

With ral­ly­cross in­creas­ing its pro­file and ex­pand­ing its hori­zons with its made-for-tv for­mat, it’s lit­tle won­der that it’s be­com­ing a draw for drivers from var­i­ous dis­ci­plines.

And while it seems that cir­cuit rac­ers are the pull-fac­tor for many new fans, there is ev­i­dently still plenty room for the tra­di­tion­al­ists to show­case the cat­e­gory’s bril­liance and take it fur­ther than ever be­fore.

On top of the world: Kristof­fers­son

Ek­strom broke Sol­berg’s WRX ti­tle run in 2016

Sol­berg’s lurid style is be­ing usurped in RX

Bakkerud is wary of over­driv­ing

Hansen beat fu­ture F1 man Sainz in Formula BMW

Kristof­fers­son won STCC ti­tle in a TCR Golf

Sol­berg’s joker-lap tech­nique has helped his team-mate

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