There was a lot of intensity at the World RX of Latvia‘s double-header at the weekend. We saw everyone at the top of their game to try and topple Johan Kristoffersson who leaves Riga with a seventeen point advantage of Mattias Ekström in the championship.
Ekström’s victory on Sunday was arguably the biggest day of the 2020 FIA World Rallycross Championship so far, and Latvia showed that the title is definitely a two horse race as the rest of the field did not quite have the ultimate pace to match the leading pair.
Perfection needed to beat Kristoffersson
Never has the World RX seen so many tyre games in an event. With 12 tyres for each day and a high grip track which caused a lot of tyre wear, the tactics were crucial and Kyb Team JC got things seemingly spot on.
On Sunday, Ekström did not even complete a warm-up lap to save every little bit of life in the tyres he could but what set him up for the rest of the day was winning Q1.
His pace was incredible and in the first race of the day he was in the low 48s on his first lap on fresh rubber. Even with a small problem when his throttle stuck open, it was enough for Ekström to win the opening qualifying session.
This meant he was able to start saving tyres because he was in the prime position. Kristoffersson meanwhile could only manage fourth place in Q1 after a slightly tardy start.
Ekström won Q2 too to extend his points advantage so he used older tyres for the final qualifying session knowing that he could afford to finish down the order and still be the top qualifier.
This left him with six brand-new tyres left for the knockout stages. He used two new tyres in the semi-finals which left him with four new tyres for the final.
To execute this plan was incredibly difficult. All it would have took was one bad start in Q1 or Q2 or at the pivotal stages of the day in the semi-finals or final and Kristoffersson would almost certainly have won the round.
You can make as many plans as you want in rallycross but executing it and doing the job without any mistakes from the driver or the team is just so tough but Ekström was on top form in Latvia on Sunday.
But Kristoffersson retains his 17 point lead…
Remarkably after two rounds in Latvia, the gap between Ekström and Kristoffersson is the same as it was after the World RX of Finland.
We saw that on older tyres the VW Polo has a clear advantage and this is not just down to the car but the team and the way they can set the car up to minimise tyre wear.
As we all know by now, if Kristoffersson leads after turn one then he wins the race which is why we saw so much aggression from drivers knowing they have to put Kristoffersson into traffic or drivers who wanted to make the most of fresh rubber.
Saturday was a classic Kristoffersson demonstration and it was him who played the tyre game perfectly to have good tyres left for the final. He may have not been top qualifier but being one step ahead of the game is typical from the two-time champion.
Kristoffersson has scored 166 points after six rounds which is a new record. To put into perspective, Kevin Hansen had 131 points after half a dozen rounds last year so the standard has certainly gone up a few levels since twelve months ago.
It also shows how well Ekström is doing too and he must be thinking if only he did not have a problem in his semi-final on day one of Kouvola when he was leading.
The battle is definitely on in the championship but Kristoffersson has to be the big favourite and still has a handy lead if fortune does play a part in the remaining events.
Grönholm unable to make the most of his quick car
On pure pace it looked like Niclas Grönholm was in the game too but traffic at crucial stages of the weekend hampered his chances. A pair of fifth places is not what Grönholm would have wanted.
A few times this season Grönholm has failed to make the most of fresh rubber because of an average start which puts him into traffic and this is exactly what happened in Riga. Despite being the top qualifier on Saturday, Grönholm lost out to Ekström in his semi-final which put him back on the second row for the final.
On Sunday he used new tyres in Q3 to try and elevate himself up the order to start on the front row in the semi-finals but was unable to get out in front. Not only did he start on the second row for the semi-finals, but he had also used his good tyres when Kristoffersson and Ekström had not.
It just shows that executing the plan you have is just so difficult and Grönholm proved that in one race your chances of winning the event can disappear simply because of strategy.
Pace to find for Team Hansen
Timmy Hansen and Kevin Hansen will leave Latvia disappointed as the Peugeot 208 was lacking precious tenths to fight for victory.
Having won commandingly in Riga twelve months ago, Timmy Hansen will be slightly frustrated that the pace was not there to challenge Ekström and Kristoffersson. Despite getting the tyre strategy right, it looked like the front end of the Peugeot was lacking some grip compared to the VW Polo and the Audi S1.
The turn in of the car was a tad lazy and Riga is a track which requires a strong front end of the car to the car turned in so you can get on the throttle nice and early out of the corners.
Timmy and Kevin Hansen will be dissatisfied that even after they did some testing between Kouvola and Riga that they have not been able to close the gap to the VW Polo on outright pace.
There is a lot of work to do for team if they are to defend their teams’ title as Kyb Team JC lead the way over Team Hansen with a 43 point margin.
Bakkerud and Doran not able to make the final
It was an up and down weekend for the Monster Energy GCK RX Cartel team as both drivers made the semi-finals in both rounds in Latvia. Liam Doran was happy that his car had less issues but some reliability problems still struck the car which put him down the order in qualifying and for the semi-finals.
Doran was very aggressive to try and make the final on Sunday and found himself in third place at one point, only to be overtaken prior to the next corner. The quality and pace of the field is so strong now that track position is vital and this was Doran’s and Andreas Bakkerud‘s downfall.
Bakkerud showed that the potential of the car is there as he was third in Q2 on Sunday but the big story was his huge crash in the semi-finals after he made contact with Timo Scheider when going for an overtake at turn four.
The Norwegian has been released from hospital after a full check-up but there is a lot of repairs to do on the Renault Megane after a scary shunt.
Given the slow start to the season for Doran and Bakkerud, it was good to see a relatively clean weekend up until Bakkerud’s crash and they should be in contention for a podium or two later this season if they can keep improving the car.
Munnich improves whilst Nitiss maximises results
To finish with lets touch on a couple of other drivers. I thought Rene Munnich had his best weekend at a World RX event yet. He is still someway off teammate Timo Scheider, who continues to shine in the Seat Ibiza, but Munnich was much closer on pace than he has been so far in 2020.
Munnich should aim for a semi-final spot next time out at the World RX of Barcelona-Catalunya, a venue where Scheider has been on the podium in the past.
Reinis Nitiss gave his home fans something to cheer about in the ESmotorsport-Eigesa WRX Team Skoda Fabia on Saturday with a semi-final appearance.
A brilliant start gave the Latvians some hope that he could do something special and make the final but it was not to be. A solid weekend and we hope to see Nitiss back in the World RX very soon.