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Episode 34

The Complete Guide to FIA World Rallycross

Formula One may not be on the agenda this weekend, but motorsport certainly isn’t. Ever heard of Rallycross? No? Well here’s your ultimate guide.

This weekend marks the return of the FIA World Rallycross Championship, the fourth and final FIA World Championship to begin racing this year, after the World Rally Championship managed to squeeze three events in before lockdown, Formula One has just come off the back of six races in seven weeks, and the World Endurance Championship has straddled the pandemic with events both in February – with their Lone Star Le Mans in the USA – and last weekend with the Spa Six Hours. Despite having the honour of World Championship status, something Formula E will only gain next year, the World Rallycross championship is relatively unknown in the wider motorsport community. With that in mind, then, this is a detailed guide to the sport, and what to look out for if you’re thinking of tuning in to this weekend’s action.

The format of Rallycross is conducive to short, furious racing with small grids, creating a frantic, high-energy spectacle designed to keep spectators on the edges of their seats. The race weekend consists of 4 qualifying rounds – two on Saturday and two more Sunday morning – before a pair of semi-final heats and then a final to determine the race victor. Rewinding back to the start, though, and there has to be a way of splitting the drivers into their qualifying groups, as the track is only big enough for six cars at once, so how do they determine who races who?

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Grids can fluctuate in size between 16 and 25 due to a number of race entrants only competing at one-off events, so to determine the grid positions for Q1, each driver is able to choose which heat/grid position they would like. For the order of who picks when, the drivers’ names are pulled out of a hat. Qualifying consists of 4-5 heat races filled with up to five drivers in each heat. Because not everyone is out on track at the same time, it is the overall time you set in your heat that determines your qualifying position. This makes things a little more interesting, as drivers could very easily be caught up in on-track battles, ruining the qualifying times of all involved.

From then on, the composition of each heat in subsequent qualifying sessions is based on the classification from the previous round, meaning the fastest five drivers from Q1 race each other in Q2 whilst the next fastest five are grouped together, and the same thing for qualifying rounds three and four.

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The question is, though, what do these drivers have to do in each qualifying session? What does one race consist of? Well, a rallycross circuit is a little on the confusing side. For starters, there is an extended straight before the first corner which is only used at the start of the race, as this is where the initial drag-race down to turn one occurs. The other anomaly is a small portion of the circuit which seems to split into two? This is where the ‘Joker Lap’ occurs. A Joker Lap is a longer, slower section of track which every driver must navigate at least once per race, but due to its increased duration nobody drives through it more than they have to. There is no set point in the race when it has to be taken, meaning that teams and drivers use it as a tactical opportunity, such as to give themselves clear air if they’re stuck behind another car.

The race itself is marginally different depending on whether it’s a qualifying heat or a semi/final race. For qualifying, a race consists of 4 laps, with each driver starting side-by-side on the start line, whereas in the finals, the drivers have a two-by-two staggered grid, and six tours to complete. The joker lap only has to be completed once regardless of the race duration.

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Speaking of semi-finals and finals, how do you get into them? Well, the top twelve drivers from qualifying are split into two groups: the odd-placed drivers (i.e. first, third, fifth etc) go to semi-final one, whilst the other six drivers take part in semi final two. From there, the top three at the end of each race progress to the final, with the two victors taking the front row, the two second-placed drivers on row two, and you get the idea. When it comes to the final, it’s winner takes all.

Have you been able to digest all of that? Yep? Good. Because now we’re getting on to the fun bit – the cars! Yep, the purpose-built machines that spit fire, sound glorious and spend as much time going sideways than they do forwards. From the outside, Rallycross cars look like beefed up equivalents of everyday hatchbacks, and that’s because they are. Admittedly, the resemblance is minute, however the base shell used to build a Rallycross car around is exactly the same as the road car of the same shape in your local Tesco car park. For 2020, those cars include: Volkswagen Polos, Audi S1s, Renault Clio and Renault Meganes, Peugeot 208s, Hyundai i20s, Ford Fiestas and Seat Ibizas. Little economy hatchbacks.

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The similarities end there, however. Rallycross machines do not share the engine and drivetrain characteristics seen in Tesco car parks, as the racing cars have four-wheel-drive, and two-litre turbocharged engines producing 600 horsepower. Six hundred. Any turbo lag is taken care of by the popping, banging anti-lag system fitted, and all of that means the cars can accelerate from nought to 60mph in less than two seconds. To put that into context, the Dodge Demon – the fastest production car over a 1/4-mile, takes 2.3 seconds to accelerate from 0-60. Safe to say these cars take a bit of practice before they can be properly wrung out.

Speaking of practice, many illustrious racing drivers have turned their hand to the sport, with Sebastien Loeb – the most decorated rally driver of all time – having previously raced for Peugeot, Petter Solberg – another WRC champion – winning two World Rallycross titles in 2014 and 2015, and DTM legend Mattias Ekstrom having headed the Audi factory effort also. None of these drivers are racing full-time anymore though, so who should you be on the lookout for this weekend?

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The reigning champion is a Swede by the name of Timmy Hansen and, despite winning four of the ten events last year, he only clinched the title by a single point to the Norwegian Andreas Bakkerud. Both drivers are returning in 2020, with Timmy in the Red Bull liveried Peugeots alongside his younger brother Kevin Hansen, whilst Bakkerud teams up with Briton Liam Doran in the Monster Energy-branded Renault Meganes.

Other notable drivers include Timur Timerzyanov and teammate Niclas Gronholm in the i20s, but the main threat to the status quo will come in the form of Johan Kristoffersson, returning to the series after a year out to compete in the World Touring Car Cup. Kristoffersson is a big name in the World Rallycross scene, as in 2017 and 2018 he won the driver’s title as Petter Solberg’s teammate. His 2018 season in particular was utterly dominant winning all bar one of the twelve events, and so his comeback should make interesting viewing.

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This weekend, the aforementioned Mattias Ekstrom is returning, in one of his Audi S1s, however he has stressed that it is a one-off outing rather than a full season commitment. This weekend’s location of Holjes in Sweden is his home event, and has been a happy one for his historically, after winning the 2015 occasion.

After this weekend, the current schedule offers back-to-back weekends, as the championship travels to Finland for the 29-30th August, followed by Latvia on 19-20th September, Belgium on 02-04 October, Portugal on 10-11th October and Spain on 17-18th October, before finishing the season at the all-new Nurburgring circuit on 12-13th December. The first three events – being Sweden, Finland and Latvia – are due to be especially action-packed, as they are double-header rounds. This means we’ll be able to feast on all four qualifying sessions, semis and the final all in one day. Motorsport sure does come thick and fast, these days.

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