Just a fortnight after his big crash at the FIA World Rallycross race in Latvia, which left him with various injuries that required surgery, Norwegian ace Petter Solberg made a surprisingly quick return to action at last weekend’s round eleven of the Championship in Buxtehude, Germany, on the famous Estering circuit.
On 25 September, just five days before the German race, Solberg underwent surgery on the collarbone he broke as a result of the crash, and against all odds, made the seemingly not too sensible decision to race on the coming weekend, after intense treatment in the days immediately after the operation. Amazingly, despite Saturday’s horrible weather conditions, the Norwegian was third in the overnight standings.
As the weather changed radically on Sunday, Solberg went even further, qualifying fastest in both Q3 qnd Q4, and beating Sweden’s Mattias Ekström as the top qualifier. A not-so-easily-predictable semi-final victory catapulted him into pole position for the all-important final, and then only running wide at the Estering’s infamous turn one on the two opening laps prevented him from winning; still, he finished a respectable fourth overall, behind winner Mattias Ekström, second classified Timmy Hansen and third-placed Toomas Heikkinen, but far ahead of his PSRX Volkswagen Sweden team-mate as well as newly-crowned world champion, Johan Kristoffersson, who even missed out on the final.
“It was my decision to race. I was really low after the crash in Riga. I thought it might all be over. The pain was so bad, I knew straight away I had hurt myself and broken ribs. Honestly, I thought it was finished, said an emotional Petter Solberg.
“After some time and talking to the medics and surgeons, I knew I could take the operation and then think about the race. My family and all the team around me, we stayed very quiet and thought a lot about what to do. I wanted to drive.
“I had to make a lot of preparation for this, we made some special armour to go under my overalls to keep the collarbone still. But all the time, I was a little bit scared, just waiting for the big bang and somebody to hit me from behind. I had a couple of nudges, but nothing big.
“The final was a shame, but I can’t think to that. I really wanted the win, the dream story, but actually what we have achieved, what I have done to come from the hospital to the track to race in the final is like a big, big win for me and for my family and the team.
“There were tears after Riga. I was so frustrated, to come back like this is incredible. If we made this like the film, the people wouldn’t watch it, they wouldn’t believe it.
As for Kristoffersson, his first event as a World Champion didn’t exactly go according to his hopes: the Swede arrived in Germany with his sight aimed at a record-setting tenth consecutive podium, sixth victory in a row and seventh of the season, but had to go home disappointed after not just struggling to hook his VW Polo up for the qualifying rounds, but also being involved in the usual turn-one contact at the start of his semi-final, which he closed in fifth place. No final for the super Swede, then, but his Championship title remains tightly in his grips.
“It wasn’t my weekend this time, but the incredible run had to end some time,” said Kristoffersson.
“But, you know, I am still super-happy with my season, how can I not be? It’s been amazing and we still have one more race to come.
“This weekend belongs to Petter. He’s been a real hero to do what he’s done. I saw a little bit behind the scenes, what he put in and how hard he worked to just get to free practice – trust me, he really is the big hero!”
At the Estering, PSRX was fielding a third car for local rally champion, as well as long-time VW Motorsport test driver, Dieter Depping; the German managed no better than sixteenth in the qualifying phase, but still enjoyed his time with the team.
He said: “I have to thank the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden team for the help they’ve given me both ahead of the event and during the race meeting. The team and the Polo GTI Supercar are just brilliant.
“The actual racing was so intense, the feeling on the grid waiting for the lights to go green was incredible! I have really enjoyed the weekend and have even more respect for what Petter and our world champion Johan do now!”
A month-long break separates the second race on German soil from the season finale in South Africa, on the all-new RX layout built at the Killarney International Raceway near Cape Town (10-12 November). With this year’s crown now firmly in the hands of Kristoffersson, Solberg will certainly have to work very hard to defend his second place in the Championship, as his gap to 2016 World Champion and Estering winner, Audi’s Mattias Ekström, is now reduced to just one point.