The FIA World Rallycross Championship presented by Monster Energy breaks new ground when it visits Belgium for the World RX of Benelux this weekend with a daunting challenge in the shape of the famed Eau Rouge lying in wait.
Like the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi, venue for round one, the iconic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, nestling in the Ardennes mountain range, makes its debut on the World RX calendar.
A daunting, 913m purpose-built rallycross layout with a banked final corner and an intimidating sequence through Eau Rouge – confronts the 20 drivers entered for the event.
And, if we thought we had seen the last of Mattias Ekstrom in the world championship, we were wrong. The 2016 world champion, returns to take on the class of 2019 for the third round. He is reunited with his title-winning Audi S1 from the JC Raceteknik stable.
The 40-year-old Swede admits that watching the first two World RX rounds on television got his competitive juices flowing again. “Being on the sofa at home watching Abu Dhabi, I started to imagine racing again and going through Eau Rouge at 200km sideways. It started to become very tempting,” he explains.
In a glittering five-year world rallycross career, Ekstrom has recorded 10 event wins and stood on the podium on 22 occasions. He is also a two-time DTM champion.
Ekstrom will be partnered in JC Raceteknik’s two-car team by Belgium’s Enzo Ide, a GT endurance specialist who won the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup in 2016. He knows every inch of the Formula One circuit well having competed in the 24 Hours of Spa in 2012. But the World RX track is an altogether different matter.
Like the rest of the field, he has yet to turn a wheel on the new rallycross circuit which means they all start from a blank sheet of paper and an empty data store.
Spa-Francorchamps will be a leveller – and provide the chance for Team Hansen MJP’s dominance to be broken.
Timmy Hansen was unstoppable at the previous round in Catalunya two weeks' ago, recording a clean sweep of victories to close the gap to his younger brother Kevin at the head of the drivers’ standings.
Though even the elder Hansen admits that the visit to Belgium presents unique challenges. “We are racing on the most iconic place in motorsport,” he said. “From what I’ve seen of photos, it looks like a very interesting circuit especially going up through Eau Rouge and the hairpin.
“It’s always a big test going to a brand new circuit but it’s a new circuit for everybody. It’s going to be difficult to learn the layout quickly, so we have to be on our toes,” he added.
Asked how many laps of the track he would walk in preparation, “about 100”, he said.
Besides Ekstrom, there are other additions to the entry list. Ide’s compatriot Gregoire Demoustier will run a Peugeot 208. Demoustier competed at world rallycross level in 2017-18 combined with world touring car and sports car duty.
Finland’s Joni Wiman also returns after last appearing in World RX four years ago. Wiman joins GRX Set in a Hyundai i20. “It’s a big thing to be back in the World RX and I am grateful to the team and sponsors, who made this happen,” Wiman said.
“I have raced many of these World RX drivers in various situations and I know there won’t be any giveaways, but I am confident, that combined with the experience of GRX, I will be up to pace.”
Wiman was set to join a three-car GRX line-up alongside Niclas Gronholm and Timur Timerzyanov. However, Gronholm, who lies second to Kevin Hansen in the drivers’ standings, was a late withdrawal with illness.
Timerzyanov is relishing competing at Spa. “I’m pretty excited about World RX heading to the famous Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, and the fact the we will go flat out through the legendary Eau Rouge, gives me goose bumps already,” the Russian, sixth in the early title chase, said.
“But putting the emotional thrill aside – it’s a new venue for everyone and it all will come down to being able to figure out the right set-up in the few Free Practice laps.”
A late addition to the entry list is Francois Duval. The Belgian replaces Rokas Baciuska in the ESmotorsport – Labas Gas Skodia Fabia. The ex-Ford works World Rally Championship driver has made previous appearances in World RX at Belgium, France and Latvia from 2014-2018 as well as several European races.
He has four times been Belgian Driver of The Year from 2004-2008. Last weekend he recorded a win in the French Rallycross Championship at Chateauroux.
"I am very happy to finally be present for this first world rallycross event on the Spa-Francorchamps track," he said. "All was done at the last minute. I know it will not be easy to be competitive against top teams and top cars but I will drive without pressure, essentially for fun and for my fans."
Andrea Bakkerud recovered from a torrid opening round at the Yas Marina Circuit to grab a podium behind the Hansen brothers in Barcelona and will challenge strongly along with his Monster Energy RX Cartel team-mate Liam Doran in their Audi S1s.
Oliver Bennett, who had an eventful outing in Catalunya in the Xite Racing Mini Cooper S1, is seeking a change of fortune.
ECU issues and a roll in Abu Dhabi was followed by front suspension problems in Spain. "There was a large pot hole on the entrance to the gravel after the start-finish line that was high speed and directly under a braking point,” Bennet explained.
“We had a new design arm on for Barcelona, and every time it hit that hole it would bend. It was only a matter of corners before it snapped in Q2 and Q4.
“We knew what the issue was in Barcelona, we just had no way of fixing it there, but it’s been sorted for Spa.”
The entire GCK squad showed impressive pace in Barcelona with Cyril Raymond finishing fifth in his first World RX final in the Renault Clio. His GCK Academy team-mate Guillaume De Ridder will be on home ground.
Hungary's Krisztian Szabo will look to build on the 10 points he collected in Barcelona in the EKS Sport Audi while ALL-INKL.COM Muennich Motorsport’s Timo Scheider hopes to have put car troubles behind him.
Team STARD’s Jani Baumanis, consistent to date, lies fourth in the standings and will be looking to consolidate in his Ford Fiesta. Pal Try, part of the driver rotation at STARD, having debuted in Abu Dhabi and sat out Barcelona, reappears as does Frenchman Herve Knapick in the Citroen DS3.