Before YouTube, we just had that WRC video. Every time my high school friends got together, at some point we’d inevitably end up crowding around a PC and watching three and a half minutes of rallying set to Linkin Park. For the fiftieth time. It combined everything we loved and aspired to — masterful driving, exotic locations, and insanely-modified performance cars that looked like cool versions of our own rides. It was so good that we were willing to put up with music from a quasi-Nu Metal band fronted by a man named “Chester.”
FIA World Rallycross takes the factors that made that video connect with so many people — the jumps, the cars, the dirt and the talent — and puts them in a more intense, super-concentrated form. Instead of a course that runs for miles through a remote forest, World RX sets up in an urban center. You’re not limited to seeing your hero fly past just once, because you can watch drivers lap after lap, race after race, and watch them adapt to the circuit and fine-tune their cornering arpproaches. Dramatic wheel-to-wheel racing, open access to the paddock, and a variety of entertaining support series events make this an extremely fan-friendly form of motorsport.
When I arrived in the paddock in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, for the Canadian round of the FIA World Rallycross Championship, all the thrills from that old rally video came back. Petter Solberg! Sébastien Loeb! An RS-model Ford! Marcus Grönhom’s….son! I was surrounded by rallying greatness. There were WRC champions, tons of manufacturers, and the international prestige that an FIA World Championship carries. It struck me that this is a series on the ascent, and I was eager to soak it all in.
The cars, up-close, are fascinating machines. They’re front-engined, 2.0-liter, 600-hp AWD monsters that can reach 60 mph in less than two seconds. The radiators are in the rear to minimize being obstructed by dirt, dust, and contact. The ducts, bodywork and fender extensions look like they were done, one-off, by hand, because they were. Massive suspension travel makes it so the cars appearance changes throughout the lap: slammed low under heavy braking, and tilted back with the nose in the air under hard acceleration. The abuse that these cars endure makes their fascias rough, chipped, and pockmarked. Once the weekend begins, it doesn’t seem to matter how they look, only how they perform.
The event kicked off with a Friday evening driver’s parade through the center of town, where fans and curious passersby were welcome to check out all the cars and interact with drivers up close. Ford Performance brought me to Canada to get a taste of FIA World RX and to see the brand new Ford Focus RS RX in action, fresh from winning the previous two events in Europe.
In 2013, Ford Fiesta ST R/X emerged out of a collaboration between Ford Performance, M-Sport, and Ken Block’s Hoonigan Racing Division. The package was extremely competitive, and was eventually offered to other teams. Now, Fiesta R/X cars can be found in rallycross paddocks all around Europe and the world.
This year, Ford, M-Sport and Hoonigan have raised the bar higher. Whereas the Fiesta looked like a widebody, modified Fiesta with a wing, the Focus RS RX resembles something like a DTM car with ground clearance. It’s a much more complex shape, meaner, sharper, and flatter looking than anything else on the grid. Part of me wonders if this is the start of a new arms race of wild, unlimited rallycross cars from manufacturer-supported teams — time will tell.
The car’s eye-popping livery was created by street artist Felipe Pantone, and looks like nothing else in this series, or any other. The jagged black and white lines set off the key hits of fluorescent and simulated chrome. I like to think of it as a vaporwave-drenched tribute to World War I “Dazzle” camouflage.
Based on the Focus instead of the subcompact Fiesta, the Focus RS RX has a longer wheelbase than the outgoing car, which presents advantages as well as challenges to its drivers, Ken Block and Andreas Bakkerud. Ken admits he’s had to adapt his driving style to the car, which has more stability and grip on tarmac but has less of the oversteer that he prefers. But the potential benefits, once the package is dialed in, should keep the competition awake at night. In the German Final at Hockenheim, while all the other cars drifted through the fastest tarmac corner, “I just drove around them on the outside,” Block tells me. He finished third, earning the first podium for the Focus RS RX. Block’s teammate Bakkerud followed that up by winning in Sweden and dominating his Norwegian home race, becoming the first driver to ever win in all 4 Heats, their Semi-Final and the Final in one weekend.
2016 was supposed to be a development year for the team, the first step in a three-year agreement. The car wasn’t ready until April, and since the team had precious little pre-season testing, there were some teething issues in the early rounds of the season. But as the car became more sorted, it’s shown its strength in the mid-season, and Bakkerud now sits third in the FIA World RX championship.
The GP3R circuit (short for Grand Prix de Trois-Rivières) is a semi-permanent street circuit in the center of town. It’s less than a mile in length, with a mix of 59% asphalt to 41% dirt, and has the longest straightaway on the FIA World RX calendar. Fans are intimately close to most of the action, and if you’re fortunate enough to have photo access, you can get even closer.
I was set up outside the turn 9 and 10 double-apex sequence when I first saw the cars on track Saturday morning. Peering through my lens, I must have flinched and stepped back the first fifteen times a car came around. They were so close, sliding towards me and drifting past the barrier where I stood. You hear it, and then a storm of furious energy and tire-squealing comes from around the corner. You’re close enough see the driver’s eyes, focused sharply on the next corner ahead.
It was here that I observed the differences to how the drivers approached the corner, how the cars handled differently, and which setups were working or not working. One car after another clipped the apex in Turn 9, crunching over a sharp grade change in the pavement, forcing the left-front of the car into the ground under extreme suspension compression. And then Sébastien Loeb’s Peugeot 208 WRX came through the corner. He was already sideways as he entered Turn 9, as if the nose was already pointed to enter Turn 10. He slid just outside the grade chnage, unaffected — the car stayed flat through the entire arc. It was beautiful. In the next running group, more drivers picked this up, and the precision of the oversteer from Petter Holberg’s line in his Citroën DS3 was even more spectacular, and more sideways.
In what other form of racing can you clearly see the drivers working like this? Sports cars and formula car drivers are trained to perform like metronomes. Rallycross drivers manage chaos. It was even more spectacular during the Heats and races on Sunday, when three or four cars would manage this same corner sequence nose-to-tail.
The weekend opens with some practice sessions, and then there are four Qualifying Heats, with five cars in each Heat. The low car count keeps the competition tight, and makes it possible to race on dirt — any more cars, and two-thirds of the grid wouldn’t be able to see in front of them. The quickest drivers in the Heats move on to two Semi-Finals, where the quickest three in each of those races moves to a six-car Final showdown on Sunday. The races all start from a standing start, arranged side-by side. During each Qualifying Heat and race, the drivers must take a “Joker Lap” once in the race, which is a longer corner in the dirt section.
I won’t presume to know why the rules are organized the way they are, but I think the idea is to get a lot of cars on track, in a lot of different sessions throughout the entire weekend, so there are plenty of chances to see wheel-to-wheel action from the top-level Supercar class.
In between the top-level World RX Supercars heats and races, there are supporting events during the day. The RX Supercar Lites are 310hp, mid-engined Fiestas that offer up-and-coming drivers a place to compete. Formula Drift Canada put on an exciting show that was a thrill to photograph. And Supercross bikes utilized special dirt-jump section in the middle of the course.
Over the course of two days of running, Drivers may radically change their lines through some corners and they build familiarly and as track conditions change. Asphalt gets rubbered in and dirt and dust gets dispersed further throughout the circuit. That corner sequence that I shot from on Saturday became a lot dustier on Sunday, and passing cars shot dirt and debris towards all the crews lining up for pre-grid at the next race.
Shooting the action on the dirt was the best. They approached over the hill, you took your shots, and than ducked behind the well as the dirt, rocks and dust flew over you. Since the track is less than a mile in length, it wasn’t long before they were back on the next lap (the quickest lap time of the weekend was just over 0:47 seconds). A local Québécois photographer I spoke with told me that at this event last year, a rock managed to hit the glass on his lens, which did $600 in damage. Racing Is Dangerous, as they say, and there’s few places you can stand where that’s more clear!
Petter Solberg put on a dominating performance throughout the Qualifying Heats and his Semi-Final, but struggled in the Final. In the end, Timmy Hanson took victory in the Peugeot 208 WRX, with Andreas Bakkerud’s Ford Focus RS RX picking up second place.
The FIA World RX season resumes for the seventh round in Lohéac, France on September 3-4. I will definitely be tuning in, and I’ll probably recommend that a few of my friends from high school watch it, too.
Ford Performance flew us out to attend the event and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of FIA World Rallycross and the Ford Performance Team