The 2018 World RX of Spain took place last weekend at the Barcelona Grand Prix circuit as the start of the 2018 FIA World Rallycross Championship in what can be described as changing and challenging conditions.
With Saturday a complete washout due to heavy rainfall and driving conditions described by Team Peugeot Total driver Sebastien Loeb as “The worst he’s ever raced in” and Sunday seeing bright sunshine and a drying track, what conclusions can we draw from the opening round of World RX?
THE NEW TURN ONE
The start line has been moved for 2018 so that the competitors take off from the bottom of the hill at turn ten on the Curcuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. This meant that a left turn hairpin took the drivers onto the rallycross circuit and would be the scene of quite a few questionable overtakes.
The best example of this being the Esktrom – Solberg incident in the World RX Supercar Final which I will talk about later on. The move of the start-line to this location did offer a good overtaking opportunity in all of the races that took place over the weekend, however the tyre stack placed on the inside of the kerbs would also see some action too.
THE BIG THREE TO THE FRONT
After the domination of PSRX Volkswagen Sweden last year, the other Manufacturer teams have been hard at work to close down their advantage. EKSRX has now become EKS Audi Sport and Team Peugeot-Hansen has morphed into Team Peugeot Total and all with the aim being to close the gap.
Spain offered a glimpse that we could be in for a much closer season, despite the variable of wet conditions on Saturday and dry conditions on Sunday. There was an equal spread of fastest Qualifying times between Mattias Ekstorm (Q1), Petter Solberg (Q2 and Q3) and Timmy Hansen (Q4) which gave a glimpse of hope.
Come the Semi-Finals and Timmy Hansen was suddenly looking like an event winner. The Team Peugeot Total driver was so far ahead in Semi-Final two that he had “checked out, he’s in another postcode!” in the words of World RX Commentator Andrew Coley. Heartbreak came though as the 208 WRX crawled to a halt on the last lap.
However the warning shots had been fired. Whilst Solberg, Johan Kroistoffersson, Esktrom and Andreas Bakkerud were fighting hard, Peugeot were ready to pounce and they had the pace to show this. There is more to come here and Loeb has already confirmed the car is in constant development in the first half of the season.
GCK COMPETITION AND GRX TANECO IMPRESS ON DEBUT
2018 sees Guerlain Chicherit’s GC Kompetition team up with Prodrive to enter two Renault Megane’s into the championship with Chicherit in one car and former FIA European Rallycross Vice Champion Jerome Grosset-Janin in the second car.
With conditions on Saturday proving a handful for the experienced World RX teams, seeing both of the GC Kompetition drivers holding places nine and ten after the first two Qualifying sessions was a positive sign.
Add in that Grosset-Janin missed the Final by just over a second after chasing Timmy Hansen originally for the win shows that the new cars have the pace already.
Marcus Gronholm’s GRX Taneco team gained the talents of Timur Timerzyanov to drive alongside Niclas Gronholm and the team is running two ex-WRC Hyundai i20 Supercars converted to Rallycross use. To be clear this is a private effort, but others are watching.
For the team to get both drivers to the Semi-Finals was the aim and they achieved this. However, Gronholm making it to the Final and finishing fourth in the Supercar Final is an added bonus.
THE LOEB – HANSEN SWAP
Sebastien Loeb had a difficult 2018 World RX of Spain but managed to salvage good points through team tactics. After Q2 on Saturday he was in eleventh place and he ended Qualifying overall in thirteenth place overall, behind team-mate Kevin Hansen.
Whilst Team Peugeot Total are running three cars this year, only Loeb and Timmy Hansen are eligible for Manufacturers points. Come the start of Semi-Final Two, the younger Hansen had stepped back to allow team-mate Loeb into the Semi-Finals. But why did this happen I hear you ask?
Peugeot want that first World RX drivers title to happen this year. Its why their Rally Raid programme has been closed down so that resources are diverted to World RX this season to make this goal happen.
THE EKSTORM – SOLBERG INCIDENT
With the addition of a tyre barrier on the inside edge of the turn one kerbs, the new first corner for this year offered a good overtaking chance. However controversy would highlight this move as well in the World RX Supercar Final.
With Solberg in Pole Position and Ekstrom alongside, fireworks between the two former World RX Champions is almost a requirement now. Ekstrom got a good start off the line and comes over on Solberg. Suddenly the tyre barrier is flying as Solberg makes contact with it and is out of the race.
Whilst Ekstrom won the race on the road, Disqualification was waiting for him afterwards handing the victory to Kristoffersson.
Was this a fair move? Well the Stewards thought so, however you can be sure that Ekstrom will be out level the playing field in Montalegre this weekend at the 2018 World RX of Portugal. Knowing that any early advantage can be used to build up a big lead, Ekstrom and the rest will want to stop the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden steamroller quickly.