From an assembled field that could boast 22 FIA world titles, seven Le Mans Wins, copious X-Games medals and four previous Race of Champions wins it was Filipe Albuquerque – a man making his debut in the competition – who stole the win from under the racing glitterati's noses.
A man whose highest profile drive to date had been outings for Team Portugal in the A1GP series to see Albuquerque's name alongside Loeb, Vettel, Schumacher or Prost was a collision of worlds, before even the other racers admitted to knowing little of man who won his place in the Race of Champions at the late summer preliminary in Portimao.
He was part of the Portuguese pairing that fell at the first hurdle in the Nations Cup, but in the individual competition he was unstoppable. Drawn in the third of the nights four groups with Americans Tanner Foust and Carl Edwards as well as Sebastian Vettel, the Portuguese powered through to finish top of the group with wins in all three of his races – a win against the new world champion capping a performance that was already impressive enough to depose the pair of Americans – a nation of drivers who normally provide some of the best entertainment of the ROC nights.
While Albuqeurque came through a close all Portuguese sudden death quarter-final against Alvaro Parente his semi-final opponent would come from an all-German race, which you sense disappointed the Dusseldorf crowd in the knowledge one of their victorious Nations Cup team would go no further.
It was a battle which, fittingly given the F1 season they have both just contested the new World Champion won, but only after some typical gamesmanship from the pair – each determined to make the other wait on the line, tyres cooling. Vettel was the first to force the officials on the line to allow him an extra warm-up, before Schumacher who would later claim “well, my tyres were cold as well” with a playful smile followed him around for an extra circuit.
“The problem against Sebastian was that after the first lap I was ahead and I was probably too cautious,” admitted Schumacher. “I was too careful and he got to the line first. But it’s been really nice to be here with all these talented guys. On the one hand it is a competitive event but also it is a bit more relaxed and we have the chance to catch up with people we otherwise don’t get to see, so I have enjoyed the weekend.”
That meant the semi-final – again a high pressure sudden death affair – was another meeting with Vettel for the Portuguese. Again the race – each contest taking into two laps of the parallel track and equating to about 1.2km – was closely fought and came down to the final corner, Vettel unable to transfer the horsepower from his KTM X-Bow onto the track on the exit of the final corner, meaning Albuquerque could pull away with a final blast of throttle to take his place in the final.
But if Albuquerque's progress was unexpected than that of his final opponent was the exact opposite.
Already with three Race of Champions crowns Sebastien Loeb cruised through his group, including a win over Heikki Kovalainen in the afternoon's first race, then narrowly avoiding his own role in one of the bigger ROC accidents in the events history.
Trying to beat Loeb to the line – Kovalainen, with girlfriend Kata Hyde in the passenger seat of the Audi R8 LMS, clipped the barriers on the outside, breaking the suspension. That, coupled with the Lotus Racing driver's reports of a stuck throttle sent the car into a spin when he tried to brake after the line. The crash, which Heikki proclaimed a “decent shunt” afterwards, probably looked more dramatic than it was – the trajectory of the snake of plastic barriers parting the lanes probably saw to that, but the rear first impact was still enough to destroy the rear suspension of the car and briefly render the Finn unconscious.
Both he and Hyde were able to walk away from the accident, though Hyde was later found to have suffered a minor back injury and Kovalainen was forced to withdraw from the event in order for him to receive medical checks.
Loeb won his quarter-final match against Tom Kristensen by just a single tenth of a second before facing up to Andy Priaulx in the semis. The three-time WTCC champion had enjoyed his weekend in Dusseldorf – being part of the British team that finished the Nations Cup as runners-up before he was another to win his group with a 100% winning record.
The final was a best of three contest, Loeb's quality – and ROC previous – almost bound to show through, especially now a mistake or mechanical gremlin no longer meant instant elimination.
And it was Loeb who held the lead at the half way split, but an astonishing second lap – especially the first half of the lap, put Albuquerque ahead at the finish line to take a 1-0 lead. He could have made it a sweep In the second race, holding Loeb level at half-distance before the Frenchman won by just 0.02 seconds to take the Race of Champions to a final deciding race.
A leap back into the ROC Buggies they raced in the first race and both drivers were out onto the track – warming up the tyres is spectacular fashion in the tight access tunnel between the changing area and the stadium itself.
Loeb led at half way, but again Albuquerque's second lap was the better of the pair and he crossed the finish line to trigger the jets of flame and begin the celebrations for a slightly shocked looking driver, winning the Race of Champions on his first appearance at the traditional end of season event.
“Today was my day,” said the 25-year-old who plied his trade in 2010 in both the Italian GT Championship for Audi and Superstars Series. “Everything went so well and I made no mistakes. Since the beginning I was up against such good drivers – I had to beat Sebastian Vettel twice and in the final, wow, SÃ©bastien was really on it. I just drove my race and when I won the first one I was really happy.”
“In the second race I made a small mistake and straightaway he was there and won – a little mistake can cause you to lose everything in this competition. But in the deciding race I was nice and smooth with no mistakes. I can’t believe it – it’s the first time I am here and I have won – I could not ask for more. To win against great names, including Vettel in Germany when he has just won the world championship, is just fantastic.”