Petter Solberg started his defence of the FIA World Rallycross Championship in perfect style this weekend in Montalegre, Portugal as he battled the torrential weather conditions and mud that greeted competitors. Solberg was joined on the podium by Robin Larsson and a revitalised Topi Heikkinen in the Audi S1 EKS RX quattro.
The final race of the weekend saw Solberg line up his Citroen DS3 alongside Johan Kristoffersson‘s VW Polo on the front row; Heikkinen and rally legend Sébastien Loeb‘s Peugeot 208 WRX would occupy the second row while Andreas Bakkerud in the all new Ford Focus RS RX would be joined by privateer Larsson in his Audi A1 on the back row.
Solberg battled issues with his launch control in both the semi-final and the final but the Norwegian driver managed to get away from the line without issue, unlike Heikkinen who lost out as the lights went green. One driver on a charge was Larsson who shot from the back of the grid to challenge Solberg through the first lap as Loeb and Kristoffersson took an early joker lap. While Solberg would remain in control throughout the race there was a scary moment for the defending champion when he exited the joker lap and clipped the VW of Kristofferson, thankfully for Solberg he remained on track to take the victory.
“I’m really happy – my team have put in countless hours working on the car in the factory recently and this win is for them,” explained Solberg, “At the end of Q2, I was seventh – I’ve been in worse positions but we had a team meeting and we made some set-up changes. Today started well but we had a faulty launch control system so I had to do a manual start. For the final, we had the same problem but actually I managed okay, sometimes the old fashioned way can work!
“Last year we had eight different winners throughout the season and in 2016, we have three or four extra drivers who are very capable of winning events so it’s not going to be easy that’s for sure!” he added.
Robin Larsson would hold on for an impressive second place ahead of the Heikkinen who has recovered from his bad start. Bakkerud narrowly missed out on a podium position but showed that there is already plenty of potential in the new Ford Focus RS RX. Nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb suffered with transmission issues throughout the final which meant he was unable to challenge. Johan Kristoffersson claimed the Monster Energy Super Charge Award but ended the final with a broken driveshaft following the collision with Solberg.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect to be here,” admitted Larsson. “Reaching the semi-final was our goal, so to make the final was a bonus and to finish second is a dream. It has been a bit of a crazy day and to be truthful, the semi-final and the final are a blur but I know that pushed really hard!”
While Solberg tops the drivers’ championship, EKS RX lead the teams’ standings after an impressive performance from both team owner Mattias Ekstrom and the third-placed Topi Heikkinen.
“It’s been a weekend of ups and downs but it’s great to be on the podium and to be leading the teams’ standings.” said Heikkinen. “I had a launch problem at the start of the final but I kept pushing and managed to keep out of trouble. The season is long and there is still some work to do but generally the car feels good. It is a shame for my team-mate Mattias [Ekstrom] – he was top at the end of Q4 and it would have been good to see him in the final too.”
Ken Block had a challenging weekend as he was taken out of the running early with a software glitch which saw a scary moment on day one when the throttle of his Ford Focus RS RX stuck wide open.
2015 championship runner up Timmy Hansen also had a tough weekend, while it was looking promising for him to make it through to the finals, a collision with Ekstrom in the semi-final saw him knocked out of contention with power steering failure.
Liam Doran enjoyed a positive start to his 2016 campaign as he made it through to the finals in the JRM Mini RX along with Kevin Eriksson‘s Olsbergs MSE Ford Fiesta.
Elsewhere it was the opening round of the Super1600 Championship which saw 33 cars do battle across the weekend. It was Ulrik Linnemann who took victory ahead of Portuguese driver Mario Barbosa who delighted the home crowd with the runner up spot. Russia’s Timur Shigaboutdinov secured the final podium position.
“Today we had a sell-out crowd in Montalegre with more than 10,000 fans.” said Paul Bellamy, World RX Managing Director for IMG. “After relentless rain yesterday and most of Friday, we were blessed with dry weather for the majority of today and it was excellent to see packed grandstands and such passionate fans who clearly love to see close racing.
“We had five different manufacturers in the final with Citroen, Volkswagen, Peugeot, Audi and Ford Supercars all represented, which just goes to show how fiercely competitive our Championship has become. Credit to Petter Solberg who took the win – despite suffering some technical problems, his flat out driving style and tenacity out on track certainly proves why he is our reigning Champion.”
Round two of World RX will take place in three weeks’ time as the World Championship returns to Hockenheim in Germany to once again join DTM for a double header.