Race Review: World Rallycross: Riga, Latvia
So far, in the 2020 World Rallycross season, it's a pair of returning faces running the show. Question is, which will come out on top in Riga, Latvia?
The FIA World Rallycross Championship was back this weekend, with a double event at Riga, Latvia. The season so far has very much been dominated by a pair of returning World Champions, with the 2016 champion Mattias Ekstrom filling in as a last-minute replacement for Janis Baumanis – who couldn’t compete due to budget issues, and the double World Champion Johan Kristoffersson returning to World Rallycross after competing in World Touring Cars in 2019.
Coming into the weekend the pair had taken victory at three of the four rounds, and the trend continued on Saturday, with Kristoffersson claiming his third win of the season – keeping his record of victory in every Saturday event so far. On Sundays, however, the story has been drastically different. Who will win round 6 of the FIA World Rallycross Championship, then? Let’s take a look.
In Q1 it was Ekstrom that shot out of the blocks. After being placed on the back foot by having to choose his Q1 grid position last, he had the outside lane in Race 1. The veteran Swede didn’t let this phase him, though, as he had a perfect start and left Krisztian Szabo, Reinis Nitiss and Guerlain Chicherit to eat his dust. In Race 2 it was Robin Larsson – Ekstrom’s Audi S1 teammate – who won the heat, although his time was not quite as quick. Race 3 was Niclas Gronholm’s, although he was one second slower than Ekstrom and 0.2s off Larsson, which left him fifth overall. Third and fourth in Q1 went to Timmy Hansen and Kristoffersson respectively, with the older of the Hansen brothers beating the championship leader in the fourth heat.
That put the two Audis, Timmy Hansen, Kristoffersson and Gronholm all together in the final heat of Q2. Before then, the initial pace was set by Timur Timerzyanov in heat two, putting in a time of 3 minutes 24.030 seconds. This was eclipsed by Andreas Bakkerud in Race 3, who set a 3:23.769 – the benchmark time that would be chased by the leaders in the final heat. That heat saw Ekstrom make another good start, aided by Larsson of course, meaning Kristoffersson was once again on the back foot. The 2017/2018 champion was hassling his 2016 counterpart to an extent, however there was no way through and the pair settled into a rhythm that placed them first and second in the session standings. The gap in pace between the two masters and the rest of the field was significant, as they were the only drivers that made it into the 3:22’s.
With an extremely abrasive track surface, it was imperative that drivers were as kind to their tyres as possible during the day, as they only had 12 new tyres for the whole day. With that in mind, Robin Larsson was on the back foot after his front-right suspension broke in Q2, and so had to strap a fresh set of boots on in order to cement a good semi-final grid position. As such, he promptly set a benchmark time of 3:22.361 in heat 1, and nobody could live with it. Race 3 was a quick heat, with the Hansen brothers maximising their strategy to set times that gave Timmy 3rd and Kevin 4th in the session. Second was Kristoffersson, who psychologically dealt a big blow to Ekstrom, finishing more than three seconds up the road, although Ekstrom was on those used tyres.
With the points added up from the three qualifying sessions, we had our top 12 set. Semi-Final 1 would see the Audi pair of Ekstrom and Larsson on row 1, Gronholm and Kevin Hansen on row 2, and Timerzyanov alongside Szabo on the back row. They would be competing for spots 1, 3 and 5 in the final, whilst semi-final 2 – competing for the even spots in the final – would see Kristoffersson and Timmy Hansen on the front row, Bakkerud and Timo Scheider on row 2, with Anton Marklund and Liam Doran bringing up the rear.
Semi-final 1 saw Ekstrom check out at the front, whilst Larsson led the battle for second. Kevin Hansen lost out in the start to Gronholm, and so had to play the strategy game by taking the joker lap on the first tour. Gronholm responded on lap 3, and the pair emerged at the re-join side-by-side. Gronholm had the inside line, though, and took the position. In clear air Larsson was able to set a better pace, and so slotted back into second, behind Ekstrom and ahead of Gronholm.
For semi-final two, Kristoffersson copied Ekstrom. Back in the pack the race had scrappy moments, with Doran having a big moment at turn two on the first lap when four cars tried to occupy the same spot of tarmac. The big moment occurred between Timo Scheider and Andreas Bakkerud, however. Bakkerud managed to get up the inside of the German out of turn 3, but Scheider was having none of it and forced the Norwegian into the grass banking at 120kph. As a result, Bakkerud’s Megane was wrecked and Scheider took third place behind Kristoffersson and Hansen, but he was later disqualified for his error.
This gave us a final of Ekstrom on pole with Kristoffersson alongside, Larsson and Timmy Hansen on the second row, with Gronholm in fifth and Kevin Hansen promoted due to Scheider’s DSQ. Once again, Ekstrom got the jump on Johan off the grid, and the pair checked out from the rest of the field. The fight for the final podium position was extremely tight, with Larsson, Gronholm and Timmy Hansen all jostling with each other at stages, but it was Robin Larsson who claimed third. Ahead, Kristoffersson was hassling Ekstrom, but couldn’t get past and was unable to use the joker strategy due to the proximity of the chasing pack, and as such the ‘retired’ Audi driver crossed the line first.
After Mattias Ekstrom’s second victory of the season, then, and Kristoffersson’s streak of Sunday ‘failures’ continuing, the championship gap has been cut to just 17 points. Niclas Gronholm is third with 117 points, 32 back from Ekstrom (149) and 49 off Johan (166). With the season now past the halfway mark, however, is there enough time for anyone to catch the most successful World Rallycross driver of all time? We’re going to have to wait nearly a month for the next event, with the championship heading to Catalunya on the 17th and 18th October for the last double-header.
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