The opening round of the 2017 RX2 International Series, support class to the FIA World Rallycross Championship, held this weekend at the Circuit Jules Tacheny in Mettet, Belgium, has gifted reigning RX Lites champion, Cyril Raymond, with a hard-fought victory, after the troubles that affected him in the qualifying; joining Raymond on the podium, 2016 MSA British Rallycross champion, Dan Rooke, and American star Tanner Whitten.
The weekend’s start was anything but easy for Cyril, who found himself down in fifteenth position overnight. Worse was still to come, as a sensor failure in Q3 meant he really needed a miracle to reach the semifinals. An amazing heat race in Q4 gave him exactly what he needed: from then on, the young Frenchman proved to be unstoppable.
Let’s take a quick look at the weekend’s action:
Young Swede Simon Olofsson immediately emerged as the man to beat, claiming victory in both Q1 and Q2. On Sunday, British Rallycross Champion Rooke fought back, earning a Q3 win, while Raymond took Q4.
Rallying convert Vasiliy Gryazin was good enough to secure third place ahead of the semis, while former Crosskarter Anders Michalak – the oldest competitor in the field at 39 – showed incredible consistency to qualify fourth.
Norway’s Glenn Haug made up for his troubled Q2, where he first jumped the start, being penalised with a double joker lap, then lost a wheel as a result of a bizarre incident, finishing fifth overall, just ahead of Raymond, whose story was just about starting.
Local hero Guillaume De Ridder, American ace Tanner Whitten, Norwegians Sondre Evjen and Thomas Holmen, Swedish teenage hotshot William Nilsson and Kenya’s Tejas Hirani completed the semi-final duellists at the end of a breathtaking run of flat-out qualifying races.
Olofsson never lost his form in semi 1, gaining a comfortable, lights-to-flag victory. Haug benefited from a great start to secure P2, while Gryazin’s dramatic end of race meant Evjen snatched P3: a short-lived joy, as he was found guilty of driving off the track, subsequently penalised, thus handing Nilsson a spot in the final.
A slow start for Michalak in semi 2 easily gave Rooke the lead, while Raymond got P2. Worse was still to come for the Swede, as contact in turn one killed all of his podium hopes. There was further contact on the exit – this time delaying Whitten and Holmen – while at the front, Raymond ramped up the pressure on Rooke, with his earlier joker lap strategy paying off, granting the Frenchman a front-row start in the final. The Briton held on for second, while America’s Whitten just about made the cut by snatching P3 off his Olsbergs MSE team-mate, Hirani, at the beginning of the final lap, and surviving later contact between the two.
Olofsson’s quick getaway secured him an immediate lead; Raymond’s getaway, meanwhile, hadn’t been quite as quick, as he found himself behind Rooke. Cyril’s early joker lap, though, would pay dividends later in the race.
Olofsson looked comfortably in control of the race, until he picked up a puncture on lap four, thus giving Rooke a chance to get closer. The young Brit showed all of his bravery by darting on the inside of the Swede at turn one on lap 5: the resulting contact sent the Scandinavian spinning into the tyre barrier.
By the time Rooke emerged from his own joker lap, he found himself staring at the back of Raymond’s car, with no further chances of improving his position. As the reigning champion took the chequered flag, he would share the podium with Rooke and an impressive Whitten, while Norway’s Glenn Haug was fourth. Neither Olofsson nor Nilsson, though, would see the flag.
What the competitors said…
“This just goes to show that it’s never over until it’s over and you should never give up.” said a delighted Cyril Raymond. “It was a bit of a crazy weekend for me. When I was down in fifteenth place after Saturday, things looked pretty bleak and there was a very real risk of missing out on the semi-finals. That was a new situation for me, but it only gave us extra motivation to succeed.
“We dug deep and refused to admit defeat, and the Olsbergs boys did a fantastic job to provide me with an excellent car for both the semi-final and the final. It was enjoyable to be on the podium with Tanner, too – we have a great bond at OMSE and he’s my spotter in the States, so it’s good to share these moments. It’s clearly going to be a long, tough season ahead but this is absolutely the perfect start. It was fun having to fight so hard to win, but still, it would be nice to have a slightly more straightforward time of things at Lydden Hill…”
RX2 rookie Dan Rooke admitted that he didn’t know what to expect of the weekend, “I’m extremely happy to finish second.” said Rooke. “I came into the weekend not really knowing what to expect – this was only my second event in an RX2-level car, and the first one hadn’t gone too well. It didn’t take long to find my groove, though, and to be right on the coat-tails of last year’s champion and jointly leading the standings is a very strong start.
“In the final, Olofsson looked to have picked up a puncture in the last corner which gave me the run, and I knew that was my opportunity. I’m not sure if he didn’t see me, but I was almost fully alongside when he tried to close the door and I had nowhere to go, which unfortunately put him in the tyres. It’s a very high-quality field in RX2 and with such a level playing field, it’s going to be a tough season but my goal is to win – and with my home round next, I can’t think of anywhere better to open my account!”
Tanner Whitten who has made the switch from the GRC Lites series in similar machinery was exstatic to take third place, “I’m over the moon with that.” said Whitten. “What an emotional rollercoaster of a weekend! It didn’t start out too good for us as we didn’t have a great deal of pace or luck throughout Saturday, so at that point our goal was simply to make it into the semi-finals. We chipped away, though and finally got some clean air in Q3 and Q4, which enabled us to pull it back.
“There’s no question that rallycross is the future of the sport, and I’m so grateful to OMSE for giving me this opportunity; it’s also good to have some fast team-mates to compare data with and learn from. Now I need to go back home and get practising on Dirt Rally to prepare for the upcoming events and keep this positive momentum going.”
RX2 International Series presented by Cooper Tires CEO Andreas Eriksson was happy with the way the weekend worked out for everyone,“What a fabulous first weekend for RX2!” he exclaimed. “The racing has been tremendous throughout, and the calibre of competitors that we have in the field is clear for all to see. As early as the first free practice session, the top four were covered by less than one tenth-of-a-second.
“Each and every one of them put on a super show for the spectators at Mettet, and it was also good to witness so many fans come along to the RX2 autograph session in the paddock on Saturday, which proves that our drivers are already beginning to make names for themselves. What I have seen this weekend leaves me in no doubt – the future of our sport is in safe hands indeed.”
The next challenge for the RX2 grid will come at the end of this month, as the series will race in support of the World RX of Great Britain at Lydden Hill, 26-28 May.