Rallycross is dead. Rallycross will lose fans. Rallycross is a joke. That is what many people said at the end of 2018.
But, six rounds into the 2019 FIA World Rallycross Championship and it has been the most exciting, thrilling and entertaining season yet since its inception in 2014.
Kevin Hansen leads the standings with four events remaining with brother and team-mate, Timmy Hansen, just six points behind in second position. Despite recent misfortune, Andreas Bakkerud is still in championship contention in his Monster Energy RX Cartel Audi, lying 22 points behind Kevin Hansen.
The championship has seen five different winners from six events so far, including four first-time winners: Kevin Hansen in Abu Dhabi, Timur Timerzyanov in Belgium, Niclas Gronholm in Norway and Sebastian Eriksson most recently in Sweden.
To say this season has been crazy would be an understatement. Every qualifying session, the semi-finals and the final have seen drama and action in abundance with everyone knowing that they have now got a chance of reaching the latter stages of an event.
It was a tricky end to the 2018 FIA World Rallycross Championship after the demise of Audi, followed by Peugeot and Volkswagen. No manufacturer entries were left on the grid for the 2019 season. Plus, the loss of the sport’s biggest names including Sebastian Loeb, Petter Solberg, Mattias Ekstrom and the dominant Johan Kristoffersson left the championship weaker than it had ever been.
Nevertheless, when the on track action got underway, rallycross returned to its old roots of hard battles, close competition, maximum attack with the knowledge of knowing that anyone can win a race since the loss of the manufacturer teams with significantly bigger budgets than the privateer teams. A blessing in disguise perhaps for the series.
Round 1: Abu Dhabi, Yas Marina – Real Rallycross Returns
The opening weekend of the 2019 FIA World Rallycross Championship was largely dominated by the Team Hansen Peugeot 208s with Timmy Hansen winning Q1 and Q2. Drama struck in Q3 when Timmy and Bakkerud collided at very high speed as the two merged together after Hansen completed his joker lap. Bakkerud was at fault having thought it was the last lap so he did not slow down for the finish line. Both cars were out for the rest of the weekend, leaving arguably the two biggest favourites playing catch up for the rest of the year.
There was more drama in the final when Gronholm pushed Kevin Hansen to pass the Swede and cross the line first. The stewards awarded Gronholm a three-second time penalty for the incident, giving Kevin his maiden World Rallycross win.
Elsewhere, Liam Doran in his Monster Energy RX Cartel Audi S1 claimed his first podium whilst there were rolls and cars jumping kerbs as well as the return to close competition, side by side racing with a little bit of contact as the drivers put everything on the line.
Round 2: Spain, Barcelona-Catalunya – A Hansen 1-2
Timmy Hansen was unbeatable at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, topping each of the four qualifying sessions, winning his semi-final and winning the final. Only two other drivers have executed the ‘clean sweep’ (Bakkerud and Kristoffersson) and the day was made even better for Timmy as younger brother Kevin finished second.
Britain’s most decorated Olympian, Sir Chris Hoy, made a one-off appearance and scored world championship points on his début. At this stage, it did look like the Hansen brothers would go on to dominate the season but the next few rounds proved that they have got a serious fight on their hands.
Round 3: Belgium, Spa – New track delivers
2016 champion, Mattias Ekstrom, returned for a sole round at the new track in Spa. It was one of the greatest World Rallycross Championship events ever with the new circuit creating some of the best racing you will ever see.
Timmy Hansen and Timerzyanov were side by side for over a full lap in Q3 as they battled door to door through the fast turn one, up the hill to the hairpin at Eau Rouge, back down the hill into the right-hand turn and through the long left hand turn where the drivers gave the cars ‘full send’ as they drifted the cars sideways like they were drifting through the thick gravel before straightening the car for the jump over the finish line.
A criticism of the championship is that they no longer go to the traditional rallycross circuits and now just go to Formula One tracks and build a circuit with no character. The Spa track was anything but that and allowed the drivers to take very different lines in some of the corners and it was rallycross at its best.
Doran’s sideways driving style in particular suited the track characteristics and this was proven as he was the overnight top qualifier. Bakkerud would eventually top the qualifying standings but it was Timerzyanov who won the event after diving down the inside immediately in the final from the second row of the grid.
Round 4: Britain, Silverstone – Timmy defeats Bakkerud
Timmy Hansen and Bakkerud continued their increasingly tense rivalry with a slightly cleaner battle at the SpeedMachine Festival in Silverstone. Hansen won Q1 and Q2 before Bakkerud took top honours in Q3 and Q4.
Both drivers won their respective semi-finals to line-up on the front row together. Bakkerud cheekily squeezed Hansen towards the turn one tyre wall on the inside, forcing the Swede to back out and concede the lead. Hansen was pushing Bakkerud until he took his joker lap.
Bakkerud responded on the next lap but Hansen emerged just ahead as the Norwegian completed his joker lap. Hansen became the first and so far only repeat winner in 2019 after a titanic battle all weekend.
There was misfortune for championship leader Kevin Hansen, when the 2016 European Rallycross champion spun in the joker lap on the final lap of semi-final one. This gave brother Timmy the championship lead and allowed Bakkerud to make headway too.
Round 5: Norway, Hell – An hour of Mayhem and Madness
Niclas Gronholm returned to the championship after missing the previous two rounds due to appendicitis surgery. The GRX Taneco driver returned with sensational wins in the opening two qualifying sessions and came out as the top qualifier.
Minutes prior to the semi-finals, the heavens opened on Hell with a huge downpour. The next hour of rallycross action was simply unbelievable. Grip levels, car setup, racing lines were all a complete unknown. In both semi-finals, drivers starting on the back row of the grid got the best start.
Liam Doran was a surprise semi-final winner amongst the craziness that developed with overtakes everywhere and mistakes at every corner. In fact, Doran looked set to win his first rallycross event until he lost drive and lost the net lead in the final.
At one point the debutant, Kevin Abbering, was on course for victory but in the end it was Anton Marklund who crossed the line first to take his first ever win ahead of Kevin Hansen and Gronholm.
The action did not end there though. Marklund was disqualified from the whole event when it was found that his GC Komptetion Renault Megane was not in compliance with the technical regulations. Heartbreak for the Swede and the team as his breach had no affect on the car’s performance.
Then, Kevin Hansen had also been given a one-second time penalty for ‘unsportsmanlike behaviour’ after he pushed Gronholm exiting turn one during the final. It all meant Gronholm won his first FIA World Rallycross Championship event, although not in the way he wanted to.
Round 6: Sweden, Holjes – A Wildcard Winner in a Magic Weekend
More madness followed a few weeks later in Holjes, rallycross’s equivalent of the Indy 500 or Le Mans. The most incredible and relentless action in qualifying one stunned the 50,000 passionate fans with rollovers, big contact and crashes, cars and drivers racing harder than ever but huge entertainment value.
Reinis Nitiss rolled his Hyundai i20 in Q1 before coming back to win Q2. The standings flipped from Q1 to Q2 with rain playing its part and saving championship leader, Timmy Hansen, who was down the order after Q1.
The action continued in Q3 and Q4 making Bakkerud the top qualifier. Sebastian Eriksson showed his talent and class qualifying second with the key championship contenders crucially advancing into the semi-finals.
Timmy and Kevin Hansen had an amazing battle in the semi-finals and the final, making contact and going side by side as they both lit their rear tyres up going into ‘Velodrome’.
A broken driveshaft, meant Bakkerud lost ground to the Hansens’ as the Monster Energy RX Cartel driver finished last in his semi-final, failing to make the final.
Eriksson was looking for redemption after a mechanical failure at Holjes in 2014 when leading the final. The 26-year-old won the semi-final and was right on the limit to prevent Kevin Hansen from overtaking him in the final. He just held on, despite a tap at the last corner on the last lap from Hansen, to win as a wildcard entrant in a car that has no major sponsors, hence why the Olsberg MSE Ford Fiesta is all white.
Johan Kristoffersson’s utter domination was nice to watch as he won 11 of the 12 events in 2018. But, everyone wants to see close competition in motorsport and this year’s FIA World Rallycross Championship has had exactly that. At least a dozen drivers can win each event and the drivers know that, so they do sometimes go over the limit but for the fans watching, it is thoroughly enjoyable and you just want to see more.
Unfortunately, there are only four more events remaining. Canada, France, Latvia and South Africa. The good news is that the championship looks like it will go down to the wire with Timmy and Kevin Hansen, Andreas Bakkerud and even Niclas Gronholm, who has missed two events.
If you have missed any of this year’s action, I urge you to watch it. If not, do not miss the remainder of this classic season because it guarantees to be thrilling and exciting – exactly what rallycross is all about.