May 10th, 2011

Event: FIA European Rallycross

There can sometimes be a bit mud-slinging between me and a couple of mates about what is better, rally racing or circuit racing. Acting like a non-governmental organisation I wanted to resolve the conflict by finding the middle ground. The motoring middle ground came in the shape of the FIA European Rallycross at Lydden Hill.

Rallycross is a blend of circuit racing, off-road racing and rally competition. It is the best of both worlds and condensed into a frantic four lap dash in highly turbocharged WRC-based machinery. It actually started out as a TV show in 1967 where rally drivers were invited to blast around Lydden Hill for a bit of a laugh. But not it has turned into a massive international motorsport with a nomadic pack of enthusiastic (and slightly mental) fans.

Cars come in three classes; TouringCar, Super1600 and Supercar. The three classes are split by engine sizes and by what wheels the power is going to. The big daddies are the four-wheel drive 600hp+ Supercars which can accelerate from 0-60mph in 1.9 seconds – which is faster than an F1 car. Power can be adjusted by how much boost the turbochargers are running but for FIA competition they are set to 550hp and 600lb/ft of torque. But it is possible to turn them all the way up 800hp in a 1300kg stripped out Fiesta. Bonkers.

Having stupid amounts of power and such short wheelbases you can see the cars scrambling to put the power down. When launching off the line after a full anti-lag firework show the tyres look like they are ploughing the tarmac in the search of grip. Cornering can be an interesting affair as the cars need to be set up for both tarmac and gravel. By cocking a leg on turn in they spend half the corner on three wheels and then the second half of the corner understeering if it is a front wheel car, or oversteering out of the corner in the RWD or 4WD classes. It is fantastic to watch the car wriggle around for grip, find it, then shoot off into the next corner and repeat the process.

With over 60 races per weekend and over 80 competitors to whittle down to one winner in each class, Rallycross is one of the most hectic racing weekends I have ever been to. There is always something going on track. The weekend isn’t the traditional rally or circuit race scenario.

The event starts with two free practice sessions, they offer competitors who have flown in from all around the world a chance to learn the track but don’t have any results. Next each driver gets one run of four laps in the timed practice session. This is all about setting the fastest single lap and the results of this session determine the grids for the first qualifying heat. In the qualifying heats each race starts with five cars lined up together across the track. The slowest five cars from timed practice start in the first race, the next five in race two, etc. The last two races in each class are for the fastest drivers. The third heat grids are formed by the combined results of the first and second heats. Then the cars go in to the finals from D (the slower drivers) to A (the faster drivers). The winner of each final is then promoted to the next stage until they reach the group A final. So theoretically you could be one of the slowest in qualifying but claw it all the way back to win the whole event. Confusing? Slightly. But you soon get used to it. It is structured like this to provide maximum entertainment for the spectators. But if this doesn’t excite you enough rallycross has one more trick up its sleeve – the Joker Lap.

The Joker Lap is something that should be incorporated into every form of motorsport. It adds an extra section of track which adds at least two seconds to a lap. Each driver must pass through the extra section once in every race. However the choice of which lap to do this is up to the driver – so there is a bit of strategy involved. If a driver forgets to take the Joker Lap they have 30 seconds added to their race time. The exit of the Joker Lap is designed so that cars on the standard lap and Joker Lap are at similar speed. The driver on the standard lap has right of way but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a bit of argy bargy for position.

After spending the weekend in the sun speaking to some fervent fans and taking lots of photos I had plenty of ammunition to take back to the pub and settle the score between rally racing and circuit racing. With fast, loud, exciting and competitive racing Rallycross is the ultimate middle ground.

For hundreds more photos from the event check out our Flickr here.

Words: Rowan Horncastle

Photos: Rowan Horncastle