WRX headlines first Speedmachine Festival

For the first ever Speedmachine Festival in the UK, the FIA World Rallycross Championship (WRX) obtained a capacity grid for what would be round four of the 2018 season. The championship is normally made up of fifteen permanent drivers from different teams but the Silverstone round attracted ten additional drivers, looking to create history as the first international RX winner of the new WRX British GP. In terms of the championship the leading driver was 2017 Champion Johan Kristoffersson, who came into Silverstone off the back of two wins and led the way by nine points in the PSRX Volkswagen Polo R. Johan’s closest challenger was no stranger to the Silverstone Rallycross venue as Frenchman Sebastien Loeb won the opening round of the British Championship in the Team Peugeot Total 208. Loeb was a winner last time out in the WRX, taking top spot in Belgium and referring back to March; the pace he showed made him a favourite at Speedmachine. Lying third in the standings after three rounds was Kristoffersson’s team mate and multiple Rallycross champion Petter Solberg on sixty-five points, only ten adrift of Johan. A regular at the venue during its production with media activities, Solberg couldn’t be ruled out as a potential winner due to experience and talent. Focus would massively be on the top three in the championship but the next two may have surprised some, but Andreas Bakkerud (EKS Audi Sport) and Timmy Hansen (Peugeot Total) so far were consistent in WRX and both came into Silverstone off the back of practice in the British opener, scoring podiums behind Loeb. The points gap wasn’t significant for these two but both would be cautious of 2016 WRX champion Mattias Ekstrom in the other EKS Audi Sport S1. Difficult opening rounds left Ekstrom forty-six points adrift of top spot but where ever he goes in Motorsport he is a favourite for victory due to his driving style and pace.

The good thing about the WRX is always the wildcards and in Silverstone attracting ten there was potential for upsets in semi-final positions or even the overall podium. With the British round gaining International interest, it was talent from BRX joining the international stage, with British Rally Champion Mark Higgins leading the charge in the Albatec Racing Peugeot 208, alongside Oliver Bennett and Ollie O’Donovan. Bennett was no stranger to WRX in 2018 after competing at Catalunya and Portugal in the Mini Cooper S Supercar, whilst former BRX Champion O’Donovan has regularly raced the WRX British round in a Ford Fiesta. A regular at the WRX British round in previous season had been 2013 British Touring Car (BTCC) Champion Andrew Jordan and in 2018 he returned to Silverstone as the first of three outings for the MJP squad. Competing in the Ford Fiesta for the Austrian squad, Jordan would partner 2014 WRX runner up Toomas ‘Topi’ Heikkinen at Speedmachine and two other rounds. With Topi returning to the WRX after a season away, another Scandinavian was doing the same at Speedmachine as Sweden’s Anton Marklund competed in his first World RX event since dropping to Euro RX and taking the title in 2017. Marklund would be driving the Volkswagen Polo for his own the Marklund Motorsport team, partnered by another former Euro RX title winner, Norwegian Tommy Rustad. The other wildcards were WTCC and Formula E campaigner Ma Qing Hua in a Team STARD Ford Fiesta, making history as the first Chinese driver to compete in WRX, Frenchman Herve ‘Knapick’ Lemonnier in a Citroen DS3 and lastly Euro RX front-runner Tamas Karai in an Audi A1 Supercar.

VW seem the team to beat in Qualifiers

Conditions were perfect at Speedmachine on Saturday for Rallycross action and with the field split into 5 races in each qualifier; Q1 would get underway Saturday morning. Friday’s free practice and morning warm up didn’t really show who would be the fastest over the weekend but when the chequered flag had fallen at end of Q1, the pace of Petter Solberg was daunting for the rest of the field. In a race going up against Sebastien Loeb, Solberg managed his laps to perfection and would break the timing beam three tenths of a second faster than Mattias Ekstrom, who won his opening qualifier in the EKS Audi Sport S1. Sebastien Loeb would end Q1 as third fastest, only slightly ahead of the other PSRX VW PoloR of Johan Kristoffersson. The second EKS Audi completed the top five at the end of Q1 with race winner Andreas Bakkerud using experience from British round to good use. The pace of the Hyundai I20 looked impressive with Niclas Gronholm sixth quickest for the GRX squad, ahead of Peugeot’s Timmy Hansen. Timmy would be ahead of Brother Kevin in the third Peugeot whilst the second Hyundai I20 of Timur Timerzyanov sat just behind in ninth. Rounding out the top ten was British wildcard Mark Higgins, going well so far on his WRX debut in the Albatec Racing Peugeot. Unfortunately for one British wildcard expected to go well the weekend had started off badly as Andrew Jordan in the Ford Fiesta run by MJP squad retired with damage on lap two after sitting in squad place.

The second set of qualifiers to end the WRX action on Saturday saw a fightback from the rest to overhaul VW as Team Peugeot Total’s Timmy Hansen battled hard to set the fastest time, in race four when he took victory in a tight race. Race five of Q2 was expected to be the most dramatic and even though Mattias Ekstrom was again on fire, the Audi driver had to settle for second yet again. Having to settle for second place in his qualifier behind Ekstrom, Petter Solberg had done enough to be the overnight leader after going third fastest in Q2. The second Audi was again in the top four at the end of another qualifier as Andreas Bakkerud survived contact in race five, in a heat where he battled Hansen, Kristoffersson and Sebastien Loeb. Niclas Gronholm had yet another strong race to end up eighth and be in contention of a semi-final spot, whilst the Renault of Jerome Grosset-Janin was again proving their pace is improving by taking victory in race 3. Euro RX competitor Tommy Rustad was going well at the end of Q2 in his Marklund Motorsport Polo but Q2 saw disaster for wildcard runner Mark Higgins, as after finishing top ten in Q1, he had to retire the Peugeot in Q2 race with broken suspension after a heavy landing over the jump.

The action on Sunday got underway with Q3 and with drivers hungry to secure a semi-final place, VW were back on top, but this time it was the No.1 of Johan Kristoffersson. In race four of Q3, Kristoffersson did enough to keep Sebastien Loeb at bay and with it, the fastest time of the session. Loeb’s time in second gave him second overall in Q3 and after a titanic race five between VW and Peugeot, Timmy Hansen and Petter Solberg showed the strength of the manufacture teams. After being second quickest in Q1 and Q2, Mattias Ekstrom fell to fifth fastest ahead of Niclas Gronholm in the GRX Hyundai I20, who again had a strong qualifier to cross the line sixth quickest. Andreas Bakkerud also lost time in Q3 in the second Audi to end seventh, ahead of Kevin Hansen’s Peugeot. There was success for British wildcards Mark Higgins and Andrew Jordan in Q3 as both won their qualifying races but unfortunately previous results were leaving them outside semi-final spots with final qualifier around the corner.

Late Sunday morning would see the final qualifier of the weekend for the WRX field and yet again it was the No.1 PSRX Volkswagen Sweden PoloR on top as Sweden’s Johan Kristoffersson was starting to put his marker down on the weekend ahead of the crucial semis and the final. Top spot in Q4 handed Kristoffersson maximum points so far by ending the qualifiers top of the intermediate classification.  The heat that Kristofferson competed in had one of the closest battles of the weekend on track as a mistimed Joker lap for Audi’s Mattias Ekstrom left him on the rear bumper of Timmy Hansen, who was losing speed in the Peugeot. The pace of Hansen affected Solberg as well as Ekstrom, resulting in both only managing times to end Q4 eighth and tenth. The quickest on track to get anywhere near Kristoffersson was Sebastien Loeb, meaning for semi-final two Loeb would be on pole position. The other Audi of Andreas Bakkerud went third fastest after taking victory in race four of the qualifier, whist the third Peugeot of Kevin Hansen was ever improving, finishing fifth just behind Kevin Eriksson’s Olsbergs MSE Ford Fiesta. The manufactured run Renault built by Prodrive and run by GC Kompetition’s would qualify for the semis as Frenchman Jerome-Grosset Janin ended Q4 sixth fastest.

Plenty of Drama in Semis and Finals

The first semi-final was always going to get hearts pumping with adrenaline as PSRX locked out the front row with Kristoffersson and Solberg on the front row. As the two joked about keeping apart on live TV, that didn’t really go to plan as lights went green. On the run to turn one, the two made contact, lifting Kristoffersson’s Polo into the air and smashing into the tyres on turn one. The carnage resulted in damage for Tommy Rustad’s Polo as he saw a gap, not realising there were tyres on the track. A red flag had to be deployed and race restarted, as the VW crew frantically went to work fixing up Kristoffersson’s and Solberg’s Polo on the start line. On the restart, Kristoffersson made no mistake to lead this time round and disappeared to record a stunning race win. Behind the No.1 VW there was plenty of contact around turns 1 and 2 involving Kevin Eriksson, Petter Solberg and Tommy Rustad, as Bakkerud escaped into second. Once the dust settled Eriksson had slipped to the rear after a half spin and Solberg and Rustad were going wheel to wheel. After a few laps of hard racing, Solberg came to halt along the main straight and his Speedmachine WRX weekend was done. Kevin Hansen broke clear from the chasing pack to record a spot in the final and did enough to leave Tommy Rustad in fourth.

In semi-final two, Sebastien Loeb was the favourite from pole position but with Mattias Ekstrom alongside, it was expected to be a tight turn one.  Loeb got the better start as Ekstrom slotted into second as behind Timmy Hansen made it a Peugeot 1-3 ahead of Niclas Gronholm’s Hyundai.  The second Hyundai I20 of Timur Timerzyanov struggled from row three and would battle all race with the Renault of Jerome Grosset-Janin.  As the front three looked comfortable to qualify, Timmy Hansen suffered a huge blow at the final corner, as on lap five spun entering the straight due to a puncture. The damage resulted in a DNF and Timmy handed third to the Hyundai of Gronholm, promoting him to the final.

For the final it was interesting to see whether any tactics would be played by the team mates of Audi and Peugeot but when the lights went green, any Peugeot were about to play went out the window as Loeb bogged down, lying last into turn one. Kristoffersson sat in first on the opening lap chased hard by the two Audis, as Bakkerud got the better of Ekstrom around turn two and held position over the jump. Recovering from the back, Loeb had to joker early and when the rest of the field started to go that way, Loeb pounced for his podium position, running side by side with Ekstrom into turn one and getting the better of the Audi. The fight was on between the two but Loeb held firm and recorded another podium in the 2018 WRX season. Johan Kristoffersson was unbeatable out front taking the flag by a second with Bakkerud delighted in second. With one Peugeot on the podium, there was unfortunate drama for Kevin Hansen, as he limped over the line in sixth position, as a puncture destroyed the rear tyre.

WRX Speedmachine Final:

  1. Johan Kristoffersson (SWE) = 04:00.899
  2. Andreas Bakkerud (NOR) = 04:01.758
  3. Sebastien Loeb (FRA) = 04:02.245
  4. Mattias Ekstrom (SWE) = 04:02.848
  5. Niclas Gronholm (FIN) = 04:04.731
  6. Kevin Hansen (SWE) = 04:30.882

Eight rounds remain in the 2018 FIA World Rallycross Championship after the completion of Speedmachine and Johan Kristoffersson’s dominance of the event means the VW driver and reigning champion had extended his lead in the WRX standings. Securing maximum points of thirty due to victory in qualifiers, the semi and the final pushed Kristoffersson onto treble figures, with a point’s tally of 105, fourteen ahead of closest rival Sebastien Loeb. The top three at Speedmachine are now the current top three in the WRX standings as Loeb is eight points ahead of Norwegian Andreas Bakkerud, as second in the final had promoted the EKS Audi Sport driver ahead of fellow countryman Petter Solberg by three points. Solberg may have had a disaster by not making the final but his performance over the weekend along with Kristoffersson taking overall victory means the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden squad continue to lead the WRX teams’ standings, as the series moves to Norway on the 9th June. To keep up to date with the FIA World Rallycross Championship, please visit www.fiaworldrallycross.com

WRX Standings after Four Rounds:

  1. Johan Kristoffersson (SWE) = 105 points
  2. Sebastien Loeb (FRA) = 91 points
  3. Andreas Bakkerud (NOR) = 83 points
  4. Petter Solberg (NOR) = 80 points
  5. Mattias Ekstrom (SWE) = 80 points

To see more photos from the first ever Silverstone Speedmachine Festival, please click here.

Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs.

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