There are three things that I will take away from the FIA World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill. The series itself is insanely entertaining, Lydden Hill is a fantastic circuit and I got sunburn.
The sun literally blazed down at the weekend and what a glorious two days it was too. In my life as a racing fan and writer, I have been to some terrific circuits and events but I have to say that after my first visit to Lydden Hill and a WRX event it has definitely hit the button of 'favourite'.
This visit had been planned for some while with a good friend of mine and we had both been counting the days. I had not planned to write an article for The Pit Crew, but as the date drew closer it morphed into a good idea. I had moved to Kent just over a year ago and quickly found out that Lydden Hill was on my doorstep. That was when the decision was made to attend the FIA World Rallycross Championship. A decision that proved to be outstanding.
I have been a big fan of World Rallycross since its inception, but this visit has made me fall in love with the event.
We arrived on the Saturday, a day that would include practice, two qualifying rounds of WRX and three qualifying rounds of the Super 1600's and RX Lites. In between there would be stunt shows, drifting, Group B demonstrations and the chance to walk around a very accessible paddock area. Now, this is where WRX differs from a lot of other championships I have attended. It is quite normal to be standing in the paddock of a support series, but being inches away from the cars and drivers such as Sebastien Loeb, Ken Block, Petter Solberg, Mattias Ekstrom and Liam Doran! That was just quite unbelievable.
So, there I am getting out the car with the track in the dip below me and I was instantly impressed. My mate and I were treating Saturday as a bit of a recce but soon found out that the action on track was just non-stop. The turnaround in races at a World Rallycross event are extraordinary. No sooner are the cars on their warm down lap than the next set of cars are lined up on the grid. The 1600's were out practicing and so we wandered up to North Bend and down the side of Hairy Hill.
The first set of awnings I came across had the Group B demonstration cars inside. They all looked retro and proud with big bodywork and even bigger spoilers. We sauntered down and came to the paddock area. First sightings were of the Super 1600 cars and we just casually walked by the garages as the drivers wandered around and the mechanics worked on the cars to get them ready for the upcoming qualifying heats. We took a zig-zag route and passed by the large awning of Terry Grant with his stunt cars. More about them later.
My first visit would be to Hoonigan Racing Division. There was Ken Block's #43 car in it's multi liveried glory sitting in the garage as a couple of mechanics made some adjustments. As I cast my eye up, there was the great man himself standing about two feet away from me. I crossed over the paddock to where Johan Kristoffersson's car was up on a jack with the right wheelbase being looked at, an engineer busily replacing something which looked rather important.
Over at Team Peugeot-Hansen, both Sebastien Loeb and Timmy Hansen were having hasty work done to their cars in readiness for the upcoming qualifiers. The mechanics looked a bit busy, too busy. Walk round the corner with World RX Team Austria awnings to the right. They had two helicopters in the field behind! Two!
We had been walking around looking at the paddock when I walked by a man wearing a baseball cap, Red Bull sponsored Audi shirt and sunglasses. I did a double take and continued to walk on as my brain tried to tell my mouth who I thought I had seen.
"That's Andrew Jordan!" I said to my mate.
"Where?" He asked.
I pointed behind and with him being a big BTCC fan, he wandered back and with the subtle nature of a brick, leaned on the guard rail, turned and stared at Andrew Jordan. He looked across at me and nodded. I walked back and he got his camera out.
"Go get a pic," he said.
I didn't want to seem like a pillock so waited for a moment as he was in the middle of a conversation. Then, when I thought the time was right, I walked over.
"Andrew Jordan?" I asked.
"Yes, mate." He replied.
"Do you mind if I have photo? Big fan of yours."
We stood next to each other and I had my photo taken with a BTCC champion. I thanked him for the photo and wished him the best of luck for the rest of the season. Bizarre! - Great spot though.
I walked down a bit further and there was the massive set-up of double world champion, Petter Solberg. Now, in my build-up to Lydden Hill I had emailed the PR Manager of Petter Solberg cheekily asking for a quick interview with the champ himself, not expecting any kind of reply. Imagine my surprise when I got an email saying, "Yes, sure come after Q2 on Saturday." - I looked inside the garage and there was Petter talking to his team. Now was not the time so I left the other fans taking photographs and wandered down the slope towards the dummy grid where they line up. Liam Doran's car was already there, mechanics standing by the car with arms folded.
Opposite Paddock Bend and above the dummy grid area I saw the Monster Energy stage and decided to go up. They had the stunt cars lined up and I saw a two sets of steps leading up to the hospitality area with security guards. I just wandered up, a security guard jigging to the booming music being played. He smiled and ushered me inside and that's when I saw the PS4 WRX game set up which my mate made a bee-line for. I wandered cautiously over to the Monster bar, not knowing if we were supposed to be here or not and ordered a Monster Lemon Rossi with the VR46 logo all over it in a yellow can. I stood looking out as the cars went hurtling round the track. The qualifying had started. This was a great vantage point so we decided to stay where we were. The stage was set high above the paddock and I had a great view of what was going on. During the interval, Terry Grand came out in his Monster sponsored cars, drove around the entire circuit on two wheels, performed drifts and set a Ford Sedan Legend up to go round in a circle on its own whilst he did the same in the opposite direction in his TVR. Very entertaining I must say. The drift cars came out and did their thing. I'm not a massive drift fan but it was very impressive and put on a great show.
This is when the start of what was a very entertaining day became surreal. I had already drunk two cans of Monster, I'm hyper enough anyway so imagine that included into the equation. This had the desired effect that I needed the gents. I explained to my mate that I was popping off to find one.
On the way I saw Kevin Hansen standing at his awning talking to someone. Feeling slightly brave I slowed my walk and casually, without looking too weird (I hope) looked at the car being worked on. The man he was talking to walked off and Kevin just shot me a glance. I took my opportunity.
"Kevin, I write for The Pit Crew Online, wondered if I could just ask you a couple of questions?" I asked, expecting a shake of the hand or just a polite no.
In my head the reply was "What! Sorry? Did you just say sure?" - Think quick Simmo.
"Tough day today, how are you finding it out there?"
"It was hot and very tough. Hoping to deliver better."
"What do you think of Lydden?"
"Great circuit, very quick."
I nodded to the car and Kevin smiled as the mechanic worked on it, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say "No idea" and politely waved as he walked off.
I saw World RX Team Austria driver. Janis Baumanis, he had a huge fan base at Lydden, he smiled and I said:
"How's the car?"
"Good." He replied and smiled.
With those spontaneous Q&A's done, I wandered off to the gents in the corner. On the way back I could see a large crowd gathering as cars were going out. I worked my through and as I reached the turning that would take me back to the Monster Energy stage I noticed it was cordoned off and fans were being stopped from moving across. I gazed around and noticed that I had a line of cars coming up behind me. RX Lites. All the people surrounding me wore FIA World Rallycross identification and I suddenly felt slightly out of place. I asked the marshal if I could duck through but she said I'd have to wait where I was for a moment. The people around me were FIA scrutineers and they were checking the cars. A young lad who was part of their team stood next to me. I looked at him and smiled uncomfortably, he smiled back and walked away from the man he was with to the front of the car. The grey haired man with the clipboard turned and said to me.
"Can you see that damage at the back?"
"Yes," I replied nervously.
"Was that from Q1?"
"I have no idea." I replied still feeling rather nervous.
"It's not too much. I think it's fine to race, what do you think?" He asked.
"I think if you reckon it's fine then that's good enough for me." I replied not knowing what to do. The marshal was wetting herself. This was slightly awkward.
He waved the car on and his young assistant joined him. He gazed at the young man, realising he had not been speaking to his assistant and then looked back at me. I just smiled and suddenly felt very uncomfortable. The grey haired man laughed, tapped me on the shoulder and walked away. Phew! The cars filed through and eventually the marshal let me escape, still laughing.
I ran back to the Monster stage and told my mate who just laughed and shook his head. The surreal moments did not stop there.
This is where I bumped into an official Monster and WRX photographer, I didn't get his name. We were on top of the Monster Energy tower watching the racing with an RX Lite driver who had been punted off the track wandering back onto the track after the race in front of the car who had smacked him to remonstrate with the driver. That was quite entertaining. The photographer explained that he had just come back from Rally Portugal. As we stood there just chatting about racing, it was getting chilly. He took off his very expensive camera equipment and placed them on the floor.
"Do you mind watching that whilst I grab a jersey?"
"Sorry." I said, looking down at the thousands of pounds worth of equipment on the floor.
"If you could keep an eye on it for me, be back in a minute."
"Er, yeah. Sure."
Off he wandered leaving me, somebody he had never met, guarding his extremely expensive camera equipment.
"There's probably a deposit worth of a house there you're looking after." My mate said, which made me feel a bit nervous.
Fortunately the cameraman wasn't too long, I was so relieved. Wandering back through the paddock after Q2, as instructed by Petter Solberg's PR, I noticed that he was in deep conversation. The option had been given for me to chat to him after the race on Sunday and I was beginning to think this was a good idea as the crowds gathered round his awning and I didn't know what his PR man, named Per, looked like. Suddenly my mate nodded in the opposite direction and there was Marcus Gronholm standing with his World Rallycross driver son Niclas. I wandered over and as I got closer, Marcus got taller. He is huge! I noticed he was being very fan friendly and so I asked him if I could have my photo taken with him and his son Niclas.
"Sure." We stood waiting for my mate to take the photo and he said "One hundred Euro's a snap." He laughed and that was the picture opportunity done. So not too bad, a BTCC driver, double World Rally champion and a WRX driver on my tick list.
Walked by the Hoonigan Garage and shook hands with Andreas Bakkerud. Name dropping all over the place. He had a huge fan club, all dressed up in their blue hoodies. They looked like they were having fun.
During the day we had walked the entire circuit, had a spot of lunch, saw a lot a grid girls, walked the paddocks and witnessed some epic racing we decided to go back to the Monster Energy tower.
I had decided to give up on the Petter Solberg for today and go and find him tomorrow after the final. We stood on top of the tower and my mate nudged me and pointed at the Quest TV crew who were setting up for an interview. I didn't pay much attention and then one of the crew wandered over to us.
"Hi, guys. Sorry to be pain. Do you mind if we use your spot for a bit? We're interviewing Petter Solberg."
A rounding "No, we don't mind at all," was the response he received.
He chatted to us and I mentioned that I was supposed to be interviewing Petter today but he seemed a little busy.
"Well, why don't you have him after we're done." Said the Quest crew member.
A few minutes later, Petter Solberg in full race uniform walked up with a couple of people and had his TV interview with Quest. My friend pointed at two men standing in front of me, an old guy with a notebook writing furiously and a young guy about my height with short blonde hair.
"One of those could be your man." Said my friend who knew about the exchange of emails I had with Per, the PR man for Petter Solberg.
I checked both men. The older man seemed like a journalist and so I discounted him. I looked at the blonde haired man and took a deep breath.
"Excuse me. Are you Per?" I asked.
"Yes." He replied.
"Neil, from the Pit Crew Online. We emailed each other."
"Ah! Yes. Neil Simmons." Per said smiling.
"I could see Petter was really busy earlier as he is now, so I may leave the interview until tomorrow." I said politely.
"We can do it straight after this TV interview. No problem." Per replied.
I felt my heart rate get a bit quicker. Petter was nearing the end of his interview and I was about to be faced by a double World Rallycross champion.
"Only if you're sure?" I asked.
"Sure. No problem."
We stood to one side and I had noticed earlier my phone had died so I persuaded my friend to use his voice recorder on the phone to record the interview. Per nodded to me and I wandered over with the Quest TV crew watching on with a gathering of journalists who had been waved away. I felt out of my depth and slightly nervous, but I took a deep breath. I knew I only had three questions, due to time constraints.
"Hello. Petter. The Pit Crew Online, I write for them. We follow your career and I'm doing a special feature." Petter relaxed from the initial approach and nodded at me.
"How did you feel how today went?" I asked, knowing that he had blitzed everybody in qualifying.
"I feel good. We did a lot of hard work since the last race in Belgium, because the Audi's have been a little bit faster. But now I think we are catching them back again." He replied.
"But you like Lydden don't you?" I asked and Petter smiled.
"Ah. Lydden is a fantastic track. I am looking forward to tomorrow. We are going to try to do some small adjustments to get the team in first place." Petter replied.
"And who do you think will be your biggest challenger tomorrow. Ekstrom?" I asked.
"Yeah. Ekstrom.Yeah. Definitely."
Petter Solberg smiled and I put my hand forward and we shook.
"Fantastic. Thank you, Petter."
He was welcoming, cheery and had a very relaxed nature about him. I had been very nervous but straight from the off he relaxed me. If I had more time then I could have gone into a few more questions but I knew he was against the clock.
That was Day One at Lydden. Bizarre, surreal and I interviewed Petter Solberg. World Rallycross offers some fantastic racing, insane action and boy...do they know how to put on a show! Lydden as a circuit is just so nice. I loved it.
I came to Lydden Hill as a motor racing writer and a World Rallycross fan, I left falling even more in love with this series. If you have never been to WRX event I urge you to go. Honestly, you won't regret it.