X-Games 18 kicks off this weekend in Los Angeles, California. The Checkered Flag takes a look at the most competitive field ever to grace the X-Games, the jewel in the crown of the 2012 Global Rallycross Championship calendar.
The Ones To Watch
- Marcus Gronholm
The Flying Finn Marcus Gronholm, a double World Rally Champion in 2000 and 2002, currently leads the GRC points after dominating both of the opening rounds at Charlotte and Texas. Gronholm will be relishing the renewal of his rivalry with Loeb, having not competed against him since his WRC swansong in 2007, with the exception of two one-off appearances in sub-standard machinery. Since then, Gronholm has dabbled in rallycross with Andreas Eriksson's OMSE team, winning on his ERC debut in 2007, and finished second in the GRC on his return to regular completion last year, with three wins. As long as the competitive fire still burns in the 44 year old, he will always be a threat.
- Sebastien Loeb
What can be said about Sebastien Loeb that hasn't been written already? Already an eight times winner of the World Rally Championship, and looking more than likely to add to his tally this year, Loeb is one of the most decorated names in all of motorsport. The Frenchman also holds the record for wins – at 72, more than legends Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae combined – and is adept on all surfaces, having won all but 3 tarmac rallies since 2005, and in 2004 became the only non-Scandinavian in history to win rally Sweden. While each of his 72 wins has come with co-driver Daniel Elena at his side, Loeb is equally adept on his own, and is an accomplished circuit-racer in his own right, finishing a remarkable second overall at Le Mans in 2006 with Pescarolo. For his rallycross debut, Loeb will campaign a Citroen DS3 similar to his WRC mount prepared by Kenneth Hansen, a 14 times ERC champion as a driver. Interestingly, this will be the first appearance by a DS3 in the GRC, although the car does have winning pedigree as it currently leads the ERC standings in the hands of Russia's Timur Timerzyanov, also ran by Kenneth Hansen Motorsport.
- Tanner Foust
Top Gear USA presenter, drifting champion and Hot Wheels stuntman Tanner Foust made the seamless transition to the ERC in 2010, before committing to the full season in 2011. Although Sverre Isachsen ran away to the title, Foust – the holder of the world indoor speed record and the world's longest jump in a car – managed to beat Timerzyanov in a titanic struggle for the runners-up position, before renewing his rivalry with the Russian this year. Dovetailing the European championship with an attack on the US-based GRC has presented its logistical challenges however, as Foust was forced to miss the Austrian round of the championship to compete in Charlotte. Nonetheless, due to the ERC's dropped score system, Foust remains within touching distance of Timerzyanov and still has a chance of winning both titles, having finished second to Gronholm in both GRC events so far. Foust's chances of winning a fourth X-Games gold are strong and he is in good form after winning the last round of the ERC in Norway last weekend. However, he must overcome Gronholm for the first time this year if he is to do so, and then there is that man Loeb to worry aboutâ€¦
- Travis Pastrana
Mr X-Games Travis Pastrana has won just about everything there is to win in extreme sports, becoming the youngest ever X-Games gold medal winner aged just 15 in 1999 and the first person ever to land a double back-flip on a motorcycle in 2006. Switching to cars in 2006, Pastrana won four Rally America titles in succession driving for Subaru, before joining Dodge for 2012, a year which also marked his long awaited NASCAR debut, which was postponed after a serious ankle-break during X-Games 17 while attempting to win Best Trick. Although the new Dart has had its fair share of teething troubles, it proved to be the driver who cracked first when the tour travelled to Texas, as a heavy landing off the gap-jump in the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ) dislocating his shoulder. Never one to admit defeat, Pastrana will be back this weekend to finally get his season rolling.
- Sverre Isachsen
The big Norwegian Sverre Isachsen is the reigning treble European Rallycross Champion, but has endured a troubled start to his GRC season in 2012. After years of running his own state-of-the-art Ford Focus, Sverre appears to be enjoying life as a factory Subaru driver, although he hasn't had the results to show for his pace. A turbo failure denied him victory in the LCQ in Charlotte, while he was controversially disqualified from the final in Texas for stopping on the ramp before the jump, having decided that he didn't have the momentum to reach the other side. This weekend, the 'Viking Warrior' will be back with a vengeance, so look for the Norwegian to compete with the very best at the front, where he belongs.
- Liam Doran
Englishman Liam Doran comes from a family with rallycross pedigree: his father Pat Doran is a multiple BRC champion, and sister Amy manages the Lydden Hill circuit. Since landing a lucrative sponsorship deal with the Monster Energy drink company last year, the 25-year old has enjoyed enormous success, and won X-Games gold last year in the rally racing category against none other than Gronholm in the final. Although he has yet to win a round of the ERC, and will compete this weekend in the Citroen C4, rather than the newer DS3 he races in Europe, Doran will be a force to be reckoned with.
- Ken Block
Ken Block has decided to put the WRC on the backburner this year to prioritise the GRC, after two tough seasons with an eighth place finish in Alsace last year his best result to date. However, 2012 hasn't exactly gone to plan for the American Gymkhana King either: a sizable accident at Charlotte and persistent reliability issues at Texas have left Block a lowly 12th in points. He therefore badly needs a good result in the X-Games, if only to augment the hype surrounding his latest video, Gymkhana FIVE, due for release on July 9th.
- Rhys Millen
US domiciled Kiwi Rhys Millen, son of Pikes Peak legend Rod, is a success in his own right as a team-owner and competitor. Driving a Hyundai Veloster for Rhys Millen Racing, 'Mad Skills' currently sits fourth in the GRC standings, and could be a contender on race-day with his seat-of-the-pants driving style. If nothing else, Millen will provide bags of entertainment value for the watching fans!
- Toomas Heikkinen
21 year-old Finn Toomas Heikkinen, who finished 6th in the ERC last year, has earned himself a reputation as a wild-child after a tumultuous start to the GRC season. In Charlotte, the Fiesta driver clashed with both Pastrana and Dave Mirra en-route to third on the road, before he was disqualified by the stewards. So it was a somewhat sheepish Heikkinen who arrived atTexas eager to atone for his error, only to be disqualified again, this time from the LCQ for taking his joker lap at the first available opportunity, which is only allowed in the final. Heikkinen clearly has the pace to challenge for honours, but needs to curb his enthusiasm a little moreâ€¦
- Brian Deegan
Despite being best known as a motocross freestyle rider, Brian Deegan's transition to rallycross has gone without a hitch, and as the defending X Games rallycross champion, will head into the event with confidence. After car trouble in Charlotte, Deegan was back to his competitive best at Texas with a podium finish, although he could well have won. After making the best start, Deegan comfortably led the chasing pack, but the intervention of the red-flag, necessitating a restart, gave Gronholm another chance. So while the Finn aced his start to take a lead he would never relinquish, Deegan fluffed his lines and came home a disappointed third. A man for the big occasion, don't expect Deegan to make the same mistake twice this weekend.
And Not Forgettingâ€¦
Multiple BMX champion Dave Mirra is another to have switched to rallycross late in his action sport career. Having played second-fiddle to Pastrana for several seasons in the Subaru team, Mirra is relishing the fight with Isachsen to establish himself as number 1 within the team. On his day, Mirra can mix it with the best of them, and his stellar record at the X-Games – Mirra holds the record for total medals – means he should be in the mix.
Despite his initial reservations about the enormous gap-jump, the hard-charging David Binks scored well at Texas in his distinctive purple Fiesta and should be spectacular to watch, while fellow Briton Andy Scott will be looking to make up for the disappointment of crashing out of the A-final in Texas. His team-mate in the Scott-Eklund Racing Saab team, the drifting champion Samuel Hubinette from Sweden, currently lays fifth in the standings after two solid, if not characteristically spectacular performances in the opening rounds, despite only joining the team days before the start of the season.
Another to have quietly impressed is Frenchman Stephane Verdier, running a second Hyundai Veloster from the Rhys Millen Racing stable. The chief beneficiary of Heikkinen's disqualification in Charlotte to end up on the podium, Verdier was the only man to see the finish of the second LCQ in Texas after Heikkinen's disqualification, car problems for Doran and the guesting DTM-star Filipe Albuquerque, and the spectacular exit by skateboarding icon Bucky Lasek, which must go down as one of the most dramatic moments in rallycross history.
Finally, how about wildcard entry Bryce Menzies? Driving the sister Dodge Dart to Pastrana, the off-road truck racing ace will be making his debut in a rally car this weekend, and is out to impress. Could he spring a surprise?