Taking some three months to build and at a cost of six million Euros, the iconic Circuit De Spa Francorchamps situated in the Ardennes region of Belgium became the latest addition to the FIA World Rallycross calendar but was it money well spent?
One can only guess at just how long it would take to see a return on such an investment but in terms of racing and action, the circuit certainly delivered on this. And so in my eyes, it was indeed money well spent; this was backed up by the positive comments from the drivers and reactions from the fans.
Big Balls and a Small Brain
For the first time in almost one hundred years of Spa’s Motorsport history, competitive racing was seen in the wrong direction through the legendary Eau Rouge and Raidillion complex. The downhill section before the split is very steep, a 190km/h crest with a bumpy section whilst hard on the braking before the joker lap split is where “Big Balls and a Small Brain” are required, according to Monster Energy RX Cartel driver Andreas Bakkerud. Also, Spa is only the second World RX track to adopt a short asphalt start before going straight onto the gravel into turn one, something that I am in favour of.
Another stand out feature of this track is it’s banked curve, which has been likened to the Velodrome corner of Höljes, Sweden. “Full Sends” were in ample supply as the world’s best slung their 600 BHP RX Supercars sideways around the gravel in front of the grandstands. This corner produced some truly epic action and even got the attention of a certain onlooker, the now retired two times World RX Champ Petter Solberg, who thought “it would be great to go flat out through this gravel section”.
Another former RX Champ returning for some RX action was the 2016 Champ Mattias Ekstrom, sporting the number 40 on the door of his Audi S1. The 40 year old Swede was back for a one off drive, following on from some recent testing that he had undertaken in Höljes; which resulted in some new suspension dampers on the EKS run RX Cartel Audi’s.
Saturday morning arrived and it was time to go racing but the drivers had no track data, no reference points or onboard videos that could be studied, it was in effect a level playing field all around. GC Kompetition’s Anton Marklund set the benchmark in his Renault Megane RS during the first free practice session, nearly 300th of a second faster than Timmy Hansen, with Andreas Bakkerud setting the third fastest time.
Only a few days before the race weekend out of the blue came the shock announcement from ES Motorsport that they and Rokas Baciuska had parted ways “due to a contractual disagreement”.
Receiving the late call up to get behind the wheel of the Skoda Fabia was Belgium’s World Rally legend, Francois Duval.
Duval lined up on the grid in P1 for the first race of Q1 and finished second to Krisztian Szabo who had a mega start in the Audi S1, sighting that “the conditions suited him”.
Despite a bad start, Anton Marklund continued his pace on from Free Practice to win his Q1 heat ahead of Timo Scheider, giving reference to his new suspension upgrade for the event as a contributing factor. Marklund set the second fastest time of Q1 behind Andreas Bakkerud who beat Timur Timerzyanov who had a technical issue towards the end of the last lap.
The final race of Q1 was where we would really see just what kind of action this new circuit was capable of providing. Liam Doran blasted off the start line and simply blew the likes of the Hansen Boys and Ekstrom away. Liam and Timmy were side by side throwing their cars around the banked gravel corner as they both gave it their all for the win.
This is proper rallycross here!
Ultimately Timmy came out on top in this battle and although his time wasn’t good enough to continue on the Hansen clean sweeps that we observed last time out in Spain, the racing was more than enough to keep him happy, commenting “This is proper rallycross here!”.
In the run up to race weekend GRX Taneco had to pull Niclas Grönholm from competing in the race, due to a recent appendicitis operation. This was such a disappointment, seeing as the young Fin was second in the standings following his great results in Abu Dhabi and Barcelona.
In stepped Joni Wilman, who was originally booked to make only his second World RX appearance for the team in a third Hyundai i20 and what an appearance it would turn out to be! Wilman who has a background in single seater racing had an OK race in Q1 finishing third in his heat, but in Q2 he stepped up his game to take his first World RX race win “I am really happy, I gave it everything”.
As Q2 progressed the action really started to heat up, Doran was once again fast off of the start line to lead, leaving the rest behind to battle. On the final lap of Race 2, Kevin Hansen jokered and on the merge heading over the jump Timerzyanov pulled off one hell of an overtake from the outside to in and took P2 away from Kevin.
Race winner and Q2 top qualifier Doran who said that “the track suited him”, was unaware of the fight that was behind him. In the later stages of Q2 the sun came out and the track started to dry ever so slightly, Janis Baumanis and Guerlain Chicherit both won their heats also. And so on the opening day for this brand new circuit, it appeared that the Audi’s of the RX Cartel were getting to grips with the new circuit best.
Day 2 provided much better weather, the track was dry and dust became more prominent as the track evolved getting harder and faster, by an estimated two seconds. Norway’s Pal Try opened up the day with the first win of Q3, he said:
It was the most fun you can do with the paints on!
Mattias Ekstrom was finally getting back in the groove by winning his heat, while Timmy Hansen and Timur Timerzyanov were back at it once again making contact over the jump locked in a side by side battle. Timmy had a terrible race also making contact with Guerlain Chicherit and eventually finished in 4th, at this point he was way down in 10th in the standings, at this point fun as it may be, looking at the scoreboard it was not going well for him!
Bakkerud was clear out in front to take the win and with it, winning the session as well; continuing on the RX Cartel dominance. The final race of Q3 saw another amazing performance from the GRX stand-in Joni Wilman. Wilman was up against Doran and left it until the final lap when Doran jokered to take the lead and with it his second heat win.
Xite racer Oliver Bennett opened up Q4 with a win but that didn’t come without a bit of rubbing between him and Guillaume De Ridder. Bennett has had a torrid start to the season with two non scoring rounds in Abu Dhabi and Barcelona, he now finally gets some points on the board, all be it only 3.
Anton Marklund was back on the pace winning Race 2 ahead of Timo Scheider, after a bit of side by side action between them up Le Rouge, they both advanced to the Semi Finals along with Cyril Raymond.
Unfortunately for the Belgian World Rally star Francois Duval, Q4 would be the end to his Word RX outing. With a spin at Turn 1 clearly something had broken on the Fabia, he was last seen on a flatbed recovery truck heading back to the pits. Time will only tell if he will return or who else will continue to drive the ES Motorsport Skoda Fabia for the rest of the season, we await with anticipation.
Q4 would be the last chance for Timmy Hansen to mount a recovery, he launched his Peugeot 208 off of the line to take the lead into Turn 1. Meanwhile Szabo and Chicherit came to blows over the jump leaving Szabo in the wall, only to be showered in gravel by Chicherit as he exited his stranded Audi, Szabo was not impressed!
Timmy “Had to have a good result” and was crossing his fingers that he had done enough to make the semi-finals, he did indeed by setting the fastest time of Q4; moving him up from P11 in Q3 to P4 in Q4.
Despite his Q4 DNF, Krisztian Szabo had also done enough to make it through, he joined Liam Doran and Janis Baumanis in advancing.
With two qualifying heat wins under his belt, Joni Wilman was clearly making a statement here by winning a third in Q4. Playing it cool to secure his place in the semis along with team mate Timur Timerzyanov. The GRX boys were joined by Kevin Hansen, Mattias Ekstrom and Andreas Bakkerud. Bakkerud was top qualify once again, something he had not achieved since Portugal last year.
In the first of the Semi Finals, although Bakkerud was quickest off of the line; given him the odd nudge along the way was Timerzyanov who was all over the back of him. So much so that Bakkerud had to post the fastest lap of the day on Lap 2 in order to keep him at bay.
Behind this battle was an equally good one between Liam Doran and Kevin Hansen. Kevin struggled at the start in the middle of the pack and did tap the wall, the best that he could fight for was the last remaining place for the final but that British Bomb Doran was not about to give that up too easily. The pair gave it their all with side by side racing and a bit of contact over the jump to boot, in the final moments of the race they brushed the wall before crossing the finish line. It was Doran who secured the final place in the final along with team mate and race winner, Bakkerud and Timerzyanov. S
Kevin’s brother Timmy would also have contact in his semi final with 2016 Champ Mattias Ekstrom, who would end up in the wall and down in last place. Out in front that man in the Hyundai i20, Joni Wilman was once again showing his worth posting the fastest lap of the day on Lap 4. Timmy who was now in third chasing Baumanis responded by beating Wilman’s fastest lap on Lap 5 but it was too late in the day to gain any further positions.
Wilman, Baumanis and Timmy secured their places in the final, this was amazing, Joni Wilman the GRX substitute driver had made the final of only his second World RX, someone get this man a permanent drive!
The drivers lined up on the grid for the final of the first ever Spa World RX of Benelux. Bakkerud was on pole with a brand new set of shoes on his Audi S1 but that wasn’t enough of an advantage because it was the Russian Timerzyanov who made it into Turn 1 first.
Wilman touched the wall but was able to carry on and at the hairpin Doran out-broke himself and went into the back of Baumanis, suffering damage to his Audi. In a thrilling final Timerzyanov who led the race from the start went slightly wide when he jokered on the final lap. Everyone held their breaths willing him to carry the momentum and he did, with enough time in hand to re-merge back in front of Bakkerud to claim his first ever World RX victory.
After six years of trying, this, his 64th RX event, was a truly magical career milestone for the Russian for which he celebrated with a donut and climbing on the roof of his GRX Hyundai i20. The Grönholm RX team were so pleased and after their “2 & 1/2 years of hard work” to get their first victory was an immense result for them.
Joining Timur on the podium in 2nd place for what was “a solid weekend” was Monster Energy RX Cartel’s Andreas Bakkerud and with surely what was “The Revelation of Round 3” Joni Wilman on the third step.
After dominating the first two rounds of the Championship and what could be considered a disappointing result in Spa, the Hansen boys still remain at the top of the drivers’ standings.
Kevin (69 pts) leads older brother Timmy (58 pts) while the very much man of the moment Timur Timerzyanov (53 pts) moves up into third. Team MJP Hansen remain at the top of the teams standings on 127 points but are just a single point ahead of GRX Taneco, while Monster Energy RX Cartel’s efforts at Spa moved them up closer with 94 points in third.
The next round of the FIA World Rallycross Championships heads to Silverstone in Great Britain for the Speed Machine Festival where it hosts only its second appearance in the Championships.
WORDS BY ANDY COOK – XLERATE