Mattias Ekstrom made it back-to-back victories on 15 May to move into the lead of The 2016 FIA World Rallycross Championship presented by Monster Energy for the first time, following a peerless performance at the Kapaza Rallycross of Belgium. The EKS driver defeated Team Peugeot-Hansen’s Sebastien Loeb and defending two-time Champion Petter Solberg on a weekend of thrills and spills that brought the capacity 25,000-strong crowd to its feet.
Buoyed by his maiden success of the season at Hockenheim a week earlier, Ekstrom was once again right up at the sharp end from the outset in World RX of Belgium, where his tally of three maximum scores from the four qualifying sessions was unmatched by any of his rivals. The Audi S1 EKS RX quattro driver duly topped the intermediate classification and after winning his semi-final, looked to have proceedings under control in the all-important final.
“I think that was probably one of the best weeks of my rallycross career!” reflected the Swede, who is now five points clear of Petter Solberg at the top of the World RX drivers’ standings. EKS RX also continue to lead the overall teams’ standings.
Ekstrom added: “People say we made it look easy, but when you consider that the lap times between the top drivers are all within the same tenth of a second, it’s anything but easy! The season is very long and there are a lot of races still to go, so you can never take anything for granted and I’ve been in this sport long enough to know that things can change very fast. We need to remain focused and keep working hard – and that is exactly what we will do.”
The runner-up spoils marked Loeb’s best finish in rallycross to date, and both the Frenchman and Solberg – who relinquished the World Championship lead for the first time in over a year – were constant thorns in Ekstrom’s side throughout the weekend.
“The level of competition in this championship is incredibly high,” opined nine-time WRC Champion Loeb. “There are really tight battles between a lot of drivers, meaning we have to push to the limit at all times and even the smallest of mistakes is heavily punished. It was hard work getting to the final, but I’m really happy to finish on the podium for the first time in World Rallycross and now the goal has to be to keep this positive momentum going.”
“The final was going pretty much to plan until I lost some time when [Anton] Marklund spun in front of me,” added Solberg. “I tried to push as hard as I could to fight back, but that overheated the rear tyres a bit and I couldn’t quite pip Seb at the end. I’m happy with the podium but Mattias was the fastest driver this weekend, so we have some work to do. We’ll have to reach into our bag of tricks to see what we can pull out for the next round!”
Marklund wound up fourth following a meteoric getaway that propelled him from the back row of the starting grid to second by the exit of turn one, earning the Swede the Monster Energy Super Charge Award for his spectacular efforts. The Volkswagen RX Sweden driver saw his podium hopes disappear with a lap two spin, but recovered for a strong points haul with his best result of the season so far.
In glorious spring sunshine, local hero Francois Duval gave the tens of thousands of trackside fans plenty to cheer about by making his way through to the final, although a late puncture restricted the Belgian to fifth at the chequered flag. After a starring turn in the semi-finals, meanwhile, technical woes hindered Volkswagen RX Sweden’s Johan Kristofferson in the final who eventually finished sixth.
Seventh place went to Timmy Hansen, whose strong turn of speed was undone by a jump-start in the second semi-final that obliged him to take two passages through the Joker Lap and saw him miss out on progressing on to the final by just eight-tenths-of-a-second. Former FIA European Rallycross Champion Timur Timerzyanov was another to fall victim to a semi-final false start, which ended a promising weekend for the Russian that had earlier yielded a qualifying race win.
His World RX Team Austria team-mate Janis Baumanis finished third in the first semi-final, but a black flag for opening lap contact meant he dropped from the final, his place handed to Duval. Nonetheless, the reigning Super1600 Champion enjoyed an excellent weekend that offered a ringing endorsement of the talent produced by World RX’s feeder categories.
Kevin Eriksson rounded out the top ten for Olsbergs MSE, ahead of Peugeot-Hansen Academy’s Davy Jeanney and Reinis Nitiss – another semi-final jump-start culprit behind the wheel of his ALL-INKL.COM Muennich Motorsport SEAT Ibiza.
Notable hard luck stories could be told by Ekstrom’s EKS team-mate Topi Heikkinen, whose bid for a Belgian World RX hat-trick – after triumphing in both 2014 and 2015 – was scuppered by a series of mechanical misfortunes and Robin Larsson, who just missed out on the semi-finals following a collision in his last Qualifier. Hoonigan Racing Division duo Ken Block and Andreas Bakkerud endured a torrid weekend, with their Ford Focuses beset by electrical issues.
Belgium also marked the opening round of the highly-competitive FIA European Rallycross Championship for Supercars, where there are five rounds in total. Frenchman Jerome Grosset-Janin won all four qualifying sessions [Q1-Q4] but it was Kevin Hansen who took the outright victory in his Peugeot-Hansen Academy prepared Peugeot 208 WRX Supercar. Grosset-Janin finished runner-up, while Norway’s Tord Linnerud clinched third.
In the Euro RX TouringCar category, 17-year-old Magda Andersson from Sweden took the overall win in her Ford Fiesta and leads the standings after the first round. Norway’s Fredrik Magnussen finished runner-up in another Ford Fiesta, while compatriot Ben-Philip Gunderson – also driving a Fiesta – took the third podium spot. The TouringCar category will rejoin World RX as a support category in Norway next month.
Round two of the RX Lites Cup was won by Thomas Bryntesson – the Norwegian triumphing for the second event in a row. Simon Olofsson and Joachim Hvaal finished second and third respectively. In the RX Lites driver standings after two rounds, Bryntesson leads Frenchman Cyril Raymond by ten points.
Paul Bellamy, World RX Managing Director for IMG, concluded: “It’s been tough for the teams having had two back-to-back events but congratulations to Mattias who has taken his second World RX win in a row. It was fantastic to see Sebastien claim his first World RX podium, and credit to Petter who has delivered two podiums from three events. Our final today saw five different marques on the grid – Audi, Volkswagen, Ford, Citroen, Peugeot – and once again demonstrates the huge amount of diversity within our Championship. We had over 25,000 fans at Mettet over the weekend and of course they loved watching their home favourite Francois [Duval] reach the final and fighting with our World RX regulars, which was an excellent achievement. We now have a two week break before the teams reconvene for World RX of Great Britain at Lydden Hill at the end of the month”
An incident filled race weekend at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium saw McLaren GT factory driver Alvaro Parente and teammate Miguel Ramos extend the lead of the International GT Open championship with a double podium finish for customer team Teo Martin Motorsport. Changeable conditions midway through the first race caught out the team’s sister car, driven by fellow McLaren GT factory driver Rob Bell and McLaren GT Young Driver Andrew Watson, but the pairing showed strong pace throughout the weekend, securing pole position and a solid top five finish in the second race.
Qualifying for the first race of the weekend saw Rob Bell qualify the #59 650S GT3 on the front row of the grid, closely followed by championship regulars Parente and Ramos in P3. From the start, Bell took control of the race, maintaining the lead until he pitted to hand over to Young Driver Andrew Watson. On rejoining the circuit with slick tyres, the young Ulsterman was caught out by a sudden downpour through the notorious Eau Rouge. Despite his best efforts, Watson was unable to prevent the car sliding off the track into the barriers, bringing his charge to an early end. A well-managed stint by Parente’s teammate Ramos, saw the Portuguese factory driver take over for the second stint and he wasted no time in chasing down the leaders.
With time running down, Parente showed his class in the tricky conditions, closing the gap on each lap, and was quickly up into a podium position. At the end of the 27 lap race, Parente brought the #2 650S GT3 home in P2, just 1.421s behind the race winner. This result crucially maintained the championship lead for Parente and Ramos by a single point.
The grid for race 2 of the weekend was set during a damp session on Saturday, ahead of the first race, and it was a closely-fought battle over the front row positions by Watson and Parente. The two McLaren drivers traded fastest times during the session as a dry line started to appear around the 7.004km circuit. In the dying seconds, Watson returned to the track taking a gamble on slick tyres, and moved himself back up to top the timesheets on his championship debut.
The race itself saw Bell and Ramos take the start for Teo Martin Motorsport, with the pair holding position. As the pit-window opened, the McLaren duo pitted for routine driver changes with both cars running strongly. Parente returned to the track and moved into the lead with Watson close behind in P2. As the chequered flag fell, Parente took the race win and was followed over the line by Watson in the #59 650S GT3. However, a post-race investigation penalised the young driver with 40 seconds added to the youngster’s race time, dropping to P5.
Alvaro Parente, Factory Driver, McLaren GT
“Another strong weekend for the 650S GT3 and Teo Martin Motorsport, and great to come away with an extended lead in the championship. The car ran faultlessly in both races, and we showed strong pace in the challenging conditions to secure two strong results. Spa is such a fantastic circuit to race on, and the 650S GT3 really comes into its own around here. It feels so stable and composed, and the team continues to do a great job to ensure we are in a strong position in the championship with two rounds to go.”
Andrew Watson, Young Driver, McLaren GT
“Overall, it was a great weekend, but it definitely had its challenges, and its highs and lows. However, the main thing I will take away is just how much I learnt – working closely with Rob [Bell] and pulling on his experiences of a race weekend, and seeing how a different team operates in a championship of this level. The retirement from Race 1 was a real disappointment, but to put the car on pole position on my championship debut, and then bring the car home in the top five was a great end to the weekend. I would like to thank Teo Martin and the whole team for the opportunity, and now looking forward to the next round of the Avon Tyres British GT championship.”
Andrew Kirkaldy, Managing Director, McLaren GT
“Congratulations to Teo Martin Motorsport on a strong weekend overall. A front row and three podium finishes, including the race win for Alvaro [Parente] to extend his lead with Miguel Ramos in championship, and pole position and a top five for Rob [Bell} and Andrew [Watson] is a great result. Especially when you think this is still the debut season for the car. Andrew was unlucky with how his race ended, being caught out by the sudden rain storm – but then that unpredictability is why we love Spa!”