In the build up to the start of the 2016 FIA World Rallycross Championship, it was clear who would be fighting for the title.
Having won the Drivers Championship two years in a row, Petter Solberg was well aware of the increased works efforts being poured into the series and his message to the rest of the field was clear after taking the win at the season opener in Portugal: “If you want my title, your going to have to fight me for it!”
However, the battle lines were drawn during the off season. EKSRX confirmed a full season entry with two Audi S1 Quattro’s with Topi Heikkinen joining Team Principle Mattias Ekstrom whilst 2015 FIA World Rallycross Teams Champions Team Peugeot-Hansen signed 9 time WRC Champion Sebastien Loeb alongside Timmy Hansen. Peugeot-Hansen Academy duo Davy Jeanney and Kevin Hansen would compete in 10 events during the season, with the younger Hansen securing his first ever Supercar title in the 2016 FIA European Rallycross Championship.
Hoonigan Racing entered the fray as the works team with Andreas Bakkerud joining Ken Block in the M-Sport developed Ford Focus RS RX whilst Volkswagen RX Sweden welcomed Anton Marklund back alongside Johan Kristoffersson. World RX Team Austria returned for a second season with Janis Baumanis and Timur Timerzyanov signing on board to drive the Stohl Racing built Ford Fiesta’s as OlsbergsMSE entered two Ford Fiesta’s for young guns Niclas Gronholm and Kevin Eriksson.
Munnich Motorsport signed Latvia sensation Reinis Nitiss alongside Team Boss Rene Munnich, however the former World RX winner would leave the team after Loheac and be replaced by former DTM driver Timo Scheider. Nitiss gave the new SEAT Ibiza its first Supercar Final in France whilst Scheider added to that tally with his first ever Final appearence in the season Finale at Argentina.
Whilst Solberg campaigned his sole Citroen DS3 as an Independent entry, he was joined by 2014 FIA European Rallycross Champion Robin Larsson who returned in the fan favourite Audi A1 named “Diana” having won the 2015 season finale in Argentina himself. Liam Doran moved over to the JRM World RX outfit and would take a memorable Semi-Final two win at Hockenheim, a race that was regarded as one of the highlights of the season. However Doran would leave the team after Sweden with Guy Wilks and Guerlain Chicherit competing in several of the European World RX events.
2016 would also see further wildcard entries from Tanner Foust, who would race in a third Volkswagen RX Sweden Polo Supercar at the World RX of Great Britain and the World RX of Germany whilst Gigi Galli would return in his popular Kia Rio Supercar for several rounds.
With all of these driver moves, it was obvious as the season got underway in Portugal that the competition was prepared and ready to stop Solberg from taking a third straight title, however the Norwegian driver took victory in the first event of the year with Larsson and Heikkinen joining him on the podium. This was depsite very difficult conditions on the first day which saw several high profile drivers down the standings.
Kristoffersson was looking for his second consecutive Portugal in, however contact with Solberg as he rejoined from taking his joker saw the Swedish driver retire despite showing improved pace during Qualifying. Loeb qualified for his first ever World RX Final and was involved with a tough battle with Bakkerud whilst Ekstrom lost out in Semi-Final two to miss out on a place in the final. Solberg left leading the Drivers Championship…
The World RX round at Hockenheim that shared the opening round of the DTM returned for 2016 and it was an absolute belter. Ekstrom, on double duty in both series during the weekend, would go fastest in Qualifying before taking an EKSRX 1-2 with Heikkinen in SF1. SF2 is one of the years most action packed races with positions changing at every corner before Doran took the win for in the 1.6 litre turbocharged BMW Mini ahead of Solberg and Block.
In the Final, the EKSRX Audi’s came to the fore as they headed of in to the distance with Block in pursuit. Solberg would be classified fourth behind Block, however this was a stark reminder that further development would be needed to get his Citroen back on the pace as his predicted title rival took his first win of 2016. Doran came home fifth with Larsson classified sixth after rolling his Audi during the Final.
Mettet is always a favourite with the World RX drivers and Loeb added to this by going fastest in Q1 on a weekend where he would be Ekstrom’s closest challenger. The Frenchman would go all the way to the Final with Solberg in close proximity as they completed the top three in Qualifying. Local wildcard driver Francois Duval, competing in an OlsbergsMSE run Fiesta made it all the way to the Final as well for the second year in a row.
Ekstrom again showed the pace of the Audi in the Final as he drove away with Loeb in pursuit whilst both Volkswagen RX Sweden drivers were in the Final for the first time of the season. Kristoffersson would fall to the back of the field as Marklund and Duval diced for fifth position, meanwhile Solberg would be trying to close on the leading pair but to no avail. Ekstrom would take his second win and this meant that he would take the lead of the Championship by five points from Solberg as the series headed to Lydden Hill in the UK…
At the Spiritual home of Rallycross, Solberg fought back in style, winning the first three rounds of Qualifying with Bakkerud taking the Q4 win in the ever improving Ford Focus. Ekstrom took fourth in Qualifying as he looked to defend his lead in the Drivers Championship. Local wildcard driver Guy Wilks had a tough time in the third OlsbergsMSE Fiesta whilst Doran suffered with jump starts in the newly updated 2.0 litre turbocharged Mini. Five times British Rallycross Champion Julian Godfrey rolled his Fiesta in Qualifying which would end his run early against the World RX regulars.
In the Final Bakkerud made a bad start which rulled him out whilst Ekstrom and Timerzyanov, in his first Final of the year, took an early joker as Solberg led Timmy Hansen and Kevin Hansen into the race. With the early joker working to his advantage, Ekstrom took the lead on lap four from Solberg and would hang on to take the win in a swap of the 2015 World RX of Great Britain result where Solberg headed the Swedish driver. With the Hansens coming home in third and fourth, Ekstrom kept his five point lead in the series.
Hell in Norway has literally the best name for a racing circuit and this year the World RX of Norway was all about home hero Andreas Bakkerud. The young Norwegian driver was untouchable as he took the first ever perfect weekend in World RX history. Bakkerud dominated Qualifying to win all four sessions whilst title protagonists Solberg and Ekstrom were fourth and sixth respectively. It was Timerzyanov who provided the closest challenge as the former Double Euro RX Champion really gelled with his World RX Team Austria Fiesta.
The Final saw split strategies again dominate the race with Timerzyanov, Ekstorm and Loeb taking to the joker on lap one whilst Bakkerud was pursued by Hansen and Solberg. The early joker worked to the advantage of the chasing pack when Solberg jokered and fell back into the pack, however lost time on the penultimate lap saw Timerzyanov passed by Ekstrom and Solberg, ending the Russian’s hopes of victory. Bakkerud took his first ever home win ahead of Hansen and Ekstrom as in the championship Solberg kept the gap at five points for the third event in a row.
Holjes in Sweden is always a popular round of World RX and 2016 was no exception. Johan Kristoffersson was Top Qualifier after four Qualifying sessions that saw Kristoffersson, Bakkerud, Solberg and Loeb all take a Qualifying victory despite racing in mixed conditions over the weekend. Ekstrom was well within the hunt as he looked to extend his championship advantage on home soil and he duly qualified for the Final as title rival Solberg missed the cut in SF1, handing him the chance to extend the gap.
After his home win, Bakkerud was on form again in the Hoonigan Racing Focus and he gambled on an early joker working for him as Hansen led Loeb during the Final. Kristoffersson followed Bakkerud into the joker and the two would make their way through the field as first Ekstrom jokered before falling back with mechanical issues. This left Bakkerud fighting the two Peugeot-Hansen drivers as Timmy looked for that elusive home win. Bakkerud passed both Peugeot’s on the last lap as they jokered and then as he took the win, Hansen fell back on the last corner handing second place to Loeb with Kristoffersson completing the podium.
With Solberg out in the Semi’s, Ekstrom kept his lead at five points going into the summer break…
As the World Championship returned from its summer break at the Trois-Rivieres circuit in Canada, there improvements made across the board as the teams strived to moved forward in the second half of the season.
Solberg topped Qualifying after taking three wins out of the four, however Kristoffersson took the Q3 win with Timerzyanov finishing inbetween the two drivers. The Russian was back on form and looking to take that forward to the Final, however a controversial stewards decision saw him disqualified from SF2 whilst Ekstrom failed to make it to the Final after a left front puncture.
Timmy Hansen took his first win of the year from Bakkerud, taking revenge for his loss at Sweden with Kristoffersson completing the podium, however the main talking point was after the race finished where Marklund collided with the back of Solberg’s car due to brake failure, leaving Solberg with a mammoth job to get the car fixed for France. However Solberg also left Canada with the Championship lead…
With his Citroen repaired, Solberg looked to consolidate his lead at the “Temple of Rallycross” at Loheac in France, however it was Ekstrom who ended up top qualifier after dominating the first days action. Kristoffersson began a run of being fastest on the second day in France by dominating Qualifying whilst the improvement of the Hoonigan Racing Fords was evident as Bakkerud and Block both out qualified Solberg to be inside the top five.
In the Semi-Finals Ekstrom lost out yet again after a mechanical failure saw him passed by both Solberg and Nitiss. In the Final, Kristoffersson ran away to take the win whilst Solberg and Bakkerud had an entertaining battle in the first few laps that saw plenty of door to door action. During this battle Loeb profited by taking second place with Bakkerud completing the podium and Solberg losing out on points. With Ekstrom out in the Semi’s, Solbergs lead in the title race stayed at five points
At the Barcelona Grand Prix circuit, the title fight heated up as Ekstrom looked to get back on terms with Solberg as the season entered its final quarter. Hansen finished as top qualifier with Kristoffersson, Ekstrom Bakkerud and Loeb completing the top five. Former DTM driver Timo Scheider made his debut for Munnich Motorport as Nitiss moved over to OlsbergsMSE for the rest of the season.
It was Solberg’s turn to lose out in the Semi’s as he missed out on a spot in the Final by eight tenths of a second and this would be a crucial failure. Ekstrom pounced on the opportunity to take the win ahead of Hansen and Timerzyanov whilst the second World RX Team Austria car of Janis Baumanis made his first Final of the year after showing stellar pace during the season. Larsson and Kristoffersson completed the field as Ekstrom regained the championship lead and took a ten point gap.
World RX made its first visit to Latvia in 2016 and it would be the scene of that witnessed the end of Solberg’s championship challenge. The talk of the season was to include contact and stewards penalties and in Q2, contact with between Solberg and Ekstrom saw the reigning World Champion penalised and way down the order. Despite his best efforts, 19th place was Solberg’s reward as Kristoffersson dominated Qualifying ahead of Bakkerud, Hansen, Ekstrom and Loeb.
Many were predicting that Loeb would take at least one win during his debut season and Latvia would be the scene of that win. In very wet conditions, the WRC ace moved into the lead and would never be headed as he took victory ahead of Ekstrom and team-mate Hansen. Bakkerud and Kristoffersson completed the top five as Timerzyanov would retire after hitting the wall at the first turn, however the main talking point was that Ekstrom now had a 27 point lead heading to Germany…and his first chance to secure his first ever World Championship.
The iconic Estering circuit was host to the penultimate round of the series and the aim for Ekstrom was clear: Finish the event with a 30 point lead. With Solberg fired up to score more points and move up from third in the championship whilst Kristoffersson was now Ekstrom’s next challenger, the pressure was on and Ekstrom was given permission from Audi Sport to miss the clasing DTM round and pursue his first ever FIA World title.
Solberg began the weekend well by going fastest in Qualifying ahead of Ekstrom whilst Kevin Hansen once again proved that he could cope with the World RX crowd by going third fastest ahead of Baumanis and Loeb. It was a weekend for young guns as Eriksson also made it into the the Semi’s.
Ask any World RX fan about their high point of the season and Kevin Eriksson’s move to take the lead in the Final will be right up there. The 2016 RallyX Nordic Champion ran wide in to the first turn/hairpin and slide all the way around the outside of Solberg, Ekstrom, Hansen, Bakkerud and Kristoffersson to take a lead he would never lose. As Eriksson beat Solberg and Bakkerud across the line to take his first ever World RX win, fifth place was enough for Ekstrom to seal the title with one round to go.
With the Drivers Championship sealed, there was one aim left for 2016 World Champion Mattias Ekstrom and his team-mate Topi Heikkinen: To secure the Teams Championship. With rivals Team Peugeot-Hansen in close proximity, the dusty circuit of Rosario in Argentina would be witness to this battle as World RX visited the venue for the last time.
Solberg showed that he was back to his dynamic best by taking a perfect 200 points score with 4 wins in Qualifying, ahead of Bakkerud, Ekstrom, Kristoffersson and Loeb. However the Norwegian would suffer contact in SF1 and this left his Citroen battered and out of the chance for a win in the Final. The fight for the final win of the year came down to Bakkerud and Kristoffersson and these two driver went at it very hard.
Bakkerud would take his third win of the year whilst Kristoffersson would finish second in the race and seal second in the Drivers Championship. Heikkinen completed the podium with Scheider taking his first ever Supercar Final points finish ahead of Ekstrom and Larsson.
2017: A WINTER OF MANY QUESTIONS…
2016 will be forever remembered as a titanic battle between Ekstorm and Solberg with Kristoffersson, Bakkerud and Loeb as future title challengers stepping up to be counted. However the other talking point was contact and this will surely be a subject that is much discussed during the 2017 season.
The Calendar has also changed for 2017 with Argentina being replaced by a new event in South Africa as the season finale whilst Barcelona has moved to be the season opener. However there is also the news that Lydden Hill will host the World RX of Great Britain for the last time before the event moves to Silverstone for 2018, a move that has divided the fans in the World RX Community.
The 2017 FIA World Rallycross Championship calendar looks like this:
- Barcelona, Spain March 31 – April 2
- Montalegre, Portugal April 21 – 23
- Hockenheim, Germany May 5 – 7
- Mettet, Belgium May 12 – 14
- Lydden Hill, Great Britain May 26 – 28
- Hell, Norway June 9-11
- Holjes, Sweden June 30 – July 2
- Trois-Rivieres, Canada August 4 – 6
- Loheac, France September 1 – 3
- Riga, Latvia September 15 – 17
- Estering, Germany September 29 – October 1
- Cape Town, South Africa November 10 – 12
One thing is for certain, the 2017 season of World RX will need to step up another gear to beat the 2016 season and you can be certain that it will!