For most of the year, the French village of Loheac in Brittany, north-west France is home to around 600 people. This year in early September, the village’s centre welcomed 75,000 spectators at round nine of the FIA World Rallycross Championship.
The French event is the most visited on the World RX calendar. While Lydden Hill in the UK is regarded as the ‘home of rallycross’ and Holjes in Sweden is the sport’s festival weekend, Loheac is regarded as the ‘Mecca’ of rallycross.
It is even more significant this year as rallycross is on an upward curve in popularity since the sport’s promotion was taken over in 2013 by marketing giant IMG. Together with the FIA it turned the series into a world championship by 2014. As well as an increase in viewing figures, via both television and the internet, the sport is experiencing an upturn in on-event spectators at every round.
Yet while rallycross is growing faster than many other four-wheeled disciplines, accessibility for the fans hasn’t changed. A general admission ticket allows access to almost the full perimeter of the Loheac track and spectators have full access to the paddock after the action.
High-profile drivers like Petter Solberg, Yvan Muller and Mattias Ekström stand just feet away from the spectators’ vantage point outside the team’s awnings and such is the enthusiasm for the sport that even late in the evenings, long after the racing has finished, fans still wander the paddock.
THE RIGHT MIX
The current blend of new and old, from fans to drivers, teams and circuits in the World Rallycross Championship, is providing a diverse range of experiences for the growth of the sport. The mix of circuits in World RX is that of traditional tracks such as Loheac, with new venues like the Trois-Rivières in Canada. While these new territories are all about attracting new fans to the circuits via social media, the internet and television, the more traditional venues mean the sport’s promoters are also required to maintain the support of traditional rallycross addicts.
Local hotelier Pascal Le Coguic feels the sport’s progress is evident in Loheac, but also believes that rallycross is strong in itself and not just riding a wave of high-profile names. “Just by walking in the paddock you can sense the evolution and professionalism of the sport,” he says. “Everything is a lot better organised than before, from hotel reservations to the event as a whole. There’s a higher attendance than ever, which comes with obvious financial benefits to the region.”
That formula of new mixed with old is evidently working. The sport is aiming itself at a younger demographic than the average motor racing fan – the short race format of a rallycross event is perfect for a generation more familiar with watching clips on social media than viewing longer races
For double DTM champion turned EKS rallycross team owner and driver Ekström, that aspect is a key attraction. “The way the sport is operating, with short heats, powerful cars and allowing the fans to be very close to the teams is what really attracts me,” he says. “You need something to balance out a two-hour Formula One race for kids who get bored after a 30-second Facebook clip. I really believe in rallycross as a sport, a concept, for entertainment and because value for money is high for the fans.”
In May this year, the two disciplines met at Hockenheim, giving Ekström’s touring car colleagues an opportunity to view rallycross first hand. “A lot of them think the cars are pretty fast, but they think the paddock life, like having a truck and a tent, is not DTM or F1 standard. For me, motor racing is not about the hospitality or how big your paddock facility is, it’s the racing, how much entertainment value there is and how great the cars are to drive.”
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
Reigning World RX champion Petter Solberg thinks the level of competition in rallycross is especially high. “The last few years have been a massive step in how the sport is promoted, the teams, the development of the cars and drivers,” he says. “It’s been a huge step, but there is still a long way to go. [But] It’s not that any rally or race driver can come in and just clean the floor with everyone, it’s not like that at all. There are a lot of drivers who have rallycross experience and then you have DTM, F1, WTCC, WRC drivers – it’s no walk in the park.”
While Ekström and Solberg and their respective teams are relative newcomers to the highest level in rallycross, fellow Scandinavian Kenneth Hansen has seen it all. The head of Team Peugeot-Hansen believes that it’s imperative the sport grows while maintaining its traditions.
“We have always had a very good sport, but to make the best fruit of it, we needed someone to make it into a package. We knew that not everything would always be as we wanted, but we want the sport to grow up and really be seen by the world. For us, it has been a big, big step.”
The final word on the Loheac weekend is left to Hansen, whose team and son Timmy won in front of Peugeot’s adoring home crowd, just down the road from the marque’s nearest factory in Rennes. “To win at Loheac, in France with Peugeot and for the French people in that atmosphere at a rallycross event, it’s absolutely magic!”
TM Racing has been actively involved in the genesis of the new engines together with the CIK-FIA, and they have demonstrated optimism about the future of these engines.
Mr Drudi, how can you explain your optimism towards the OK engines?
- The previous generation, the KF, appeared at a time when the budgets of international competition had soared, while, in parallel, economic conditions deteriorated. High-level karting has suffered greatly from these two factors, losing its popular appeal in favour of a very wealthy clientele. The top level of competition will always be expensive, it cannot be otherwise, but the base of the pyramid should be strengthened with more affordable access for a large number of competitors. TM Racing has never wanted to launch its own-brand series, preferring to compete in the CIK-FIA categories. That is why we are excited about the arrival of these new engines, which are both simpler and cheaper. On this point, the effort by manufacturers to stay within the price set by the CIK-FIA proves their involvement in broadening the base of competitors.
How did the development phase the OK engine go?
- TM Racing participated in their development in close cooperation with the CIK-FIA for three years. The deadline was tight between the publication of the final regulations and the approval date, about four months, but we worked hard and the challenge was met on time. We are in the midst of testing the final versions for the 2016 season. The OK-Junior is very close to the previous KF3 which was probably the best engine ever from a CIK-FIA regulation. However we have needed to familiarise ourselves with the OK, as the maximum speed has increased by 1000 rev / min over the KF.
What do you think are the main qualities of the OK engines?
- I believe that all of the brands will be very similar with regard to performance. In OK, everyone will use a simplified power valve and an identical exhaust. In addition to the reduced purchase price, these aspects will help to develop the market, particularly in the national championships. Expect tighter races than in the past, which is excellent news. Like most professionals, I will carefully watch the Junior races, for the first time using an engine without a clutch. For Seniors, the choice of reducing the weight of the OK class helps maintain a high level of performance with a simpler machinery that has a wider range. It is a good option for an advanced karting category and will become very attractive. Driving an OK will be much more fulfilling than a KF.
I should add that the CIK-FIA has worked hard to complete regulations that meet the expectations of all parties concerned as much as possible. It is also very good promotion for the new engines. These efforts need to be highlighted because they are going in the right direction. More drivers will be race in these categories, and most federations, circuits and professionals will be satisfied. As I am passionate about racing, I am very excited by the OK engines. I hope the ASNs and professionals will take their part by facilitating their development for a broad range of drivers. At TM, we are all very excited to start the 2016 season!
KartingSportSportKarting00Monday, November 30, 2015 - 10:02amMonday, November 30, 2015 - 10:02am
Mattias Ekstrom finished Argentina RX in second place, while Norway’s Petter Solberg was crowned the 2015 World RX Champion after securing the third podium spot.
Argentina marked the final round of this year’s World RX presented by Monster Energy and both Solberg and Team Peugeot-Hansen’s Timmy Hansen could have taken the 2015 World RX drivers’ title in South America. With a 26 point-lead going into the event, however, Solberg had successfully gained enough points at the Intermediate Classification to be crowned the 2015 World Champion.
“It’s unbelievable to win another championship – and I want to thank my hard working team, who have travelled all round the world with me and share my passion for this fantastic sport,” grinned World RX Champion Solberg, who last week celebrated his 41st birthday. “It is not easy winning your second World RX title: nothing in rallycross is certain and I have been a bag of nerves today. Rallycross is full of talented drivers and my team have fought so hard for this all year. We have a lot of meetings coming up, and with some manufacturers, so we will see what happens. What is most important is that I have a fantastic team and family that support me. I will be back in 2016 for sure!”
Larsson’s win today makes him the eighth different driver to take a victory in this year’s World RX. He also won the final Monster Energy Super Charge Award of 2015 after beating the others to the first corner of today’s final.
“I will remember this win my whole life – I can’t stop smiling,” said Larsson, whose father Lars is a two-time European Rallycross Champion. “We have one of the smallest teams in the paddock and my guys work so hard – it means an incredible amount to take this win, especially at the end of the year. The final was like driving on ice and Mattias [Ekstrom] was so close behind me, it was a great battle. I’m sure there will be a big party tonight!”
Third-placed Ekstrom commended Larsson on his efforts. “I have to say Robin did a great job – we had a really good fight. I’m happy for Petter too, he deserves to win the Championship. We’ve showed a lot of consistency in our last four races and I think we can come back even stronger next year.”
Fourth place was taken by Janis Baumanis, the Latvian’s superb drive in the World RX Team Austria prepared Fiesta rewarding him with his best Supercar result to date. He explained: “It’s a perfect end to the year: firstly, I win the Super1600 Championship and now I get a top five result in World RX – it couldn’t be better!”
Hansen brothers Timmy and Kevin both reached the Argentina RX final but tricky track conditions saw the duo knocked out of podium contention when they made contact with each other on the fourth lap. At just 17 years and six months, Kevin
Hansen made history this weekend after being the youngest driver to race a Supercar in World RX. With only a short test ahead of Argentina, his fifth place finish is all the more impressive. Kevin’s older brother Timmy finished sixth overall in Rosario and ends the season second the drivers’ standings – the Team Peugeot-Hansen driver having amassed a total of three World RX victories over the course of 2015 [Norway, France and Turkey].
In the battle for third place in the drivers’ championship, it was Team Volkswagen Sweden’s Johan Kristoffersson who took the accolade over Ford Olsbergs MSE driver Andreas Bakkerud. The two drivers were separated by a handful of points going into today’s event but Bakkerud’s early exit from the first semi-final saw Kristoffersson score enough points to take third. “My engine went in the semi-final so we had to stop but thankfully we had enough to beat Andreas by two points,” explained Kristoffersson.
In the 2015 teams’ championship, Team Peugeot-Hansen had already accrued enough points at the previous round in Italy to win the coveted title. Ford Olsbergs MSE finished second in the teams’ standings, while SDRX claimed third.
Paul Bellamy, World RX Managing Director for IMG, commented: “Results don’t lie: over the course of the season both Petter [Solberg] and Team Peugeot-Hansen have proved themselves worthy winners of their respective championships. It’s also been great to witness our eighth different winner in World RX this weekend – congratulations to Robin on his debut RX victory. It’s great to see so many different drivers capable of winning in World RX, and this fact coupled with fantastic door-to-door racing means we are getting interest from more and more TV channels. Today we had an encouraging number of broadcasters take our two-hour live show. Next year promises to be another fantastic season, I expect to see many drivers capable of winning the championship and look forward to making the sport even more spectacular for our fans.”