GRC Round 4: X-Games 18 – Was there any doubt?
Editor’s Note: Mike Shaw (@oregonwings) continue to provide us with excellent insight to the Global Rallycross Championship. My apologies for the delay in the release of this and a post that will be released tomorrow. Those of you know me know what’s been occupying every scrap of my spare time lately. –Doug Patterson
The X-Games round of the Global RallyCross Championship was supposed to be an epic battle. We have had 2 time World Rally Champion Marcus Gronholm dominating the season in his Ford Fiesta, and then coming into the foray from France is Gronholm’s former rival in the WRC and arguably the best driver in the world, Sebastian Loeb. Loeb came to Los Angeles right after winning yet again at the Brother Rally New Zealand. That win marks his 72nd individual WRC event victory and once again places him well in the points lead and on track for possibly a 9th World Championship. Regardless of whether or not you like Loeb, he is a force to be reckoned with. He isn’t just fast, he’s also calm and knows when to dial it back to conserve his car, tires, or whatever else he needs to win. Measuring risk is a huge part of WRC events, but would it hold true in a sprint type event like the Global RallyCross Championship? Gronholm already proved he has the speed, skill, and now has the experience of two years in the GRC as an advantage. Loeb on the other hand is driving a much higher horsepower version of his WRC car with only limited testing he did prior to X-Games. The clock was set to a countdown for what all hoped would be a great battle of WRC Champions past and present.
What of the rest of the field? Tanner Foust has shown that even with his European RallyCross experience he has only been able to play runner-up to Gronholm so far. Foust does have an advantage with more testing as he is running both ERC and GRC events this season. The other big names of Ken Block and Travis Pastrana have been completely absent from the podium thus far. Block and Pastrana have both missed competing in finals due to mechanical failure or damage caused by other drivers. Both have vowed to finish strong at X-Games, and historically have done well at the southern California event. Could this finally be their time to shine? Farther down the line, the Subaru team with Mirra, Isaachsen, and Lasek have had a tough time keeping pace with the smaller lighter Fords, as has the Hyundai team of Rhys Millen and Stephan Verdier.
Sadly, the big hype of X-Games 18 Global RallyCross was mostly over before it even started. Last year the jumps were made of dirt, but this year it is are more portable steel structure. During practice the young Toomas Haikkenen found out just how cold, hard and immovable that steel was when he went too slow over the jump and collided nose first right into the super structure. The car fell to the ground upside down and began to catch fire. Thankfully Toomas was able to crawl to safety and his only injury was a broken ankle and some nasty bruises. In yet another practice session incident the following day, two time WRC champion Marcus Gronholm came down hard after the jump and collided with a concrete lamp post that was left exposed between a couple of barriers. This caused Gronholm’s Fiesta to stop almost instantly and the ensuing impact gave him a concussion. Gronholm was sent to the hospital for evaluation and recovery, and sadly was not able to return to compete.
So that really left Loeb, Foust, Pastrana, Block, and Deegan as the most likely candidates for X-Games gold. There was no “joker” lap with the X-Games round of GRC and the jump was converted into a table-top style jump to improve safety after the Haikkenen incident. Due to the removal of the joker and the extra tight course design for the X-Games, whoever got in front at the first turn was likely going to be the winner. The drivers were well aware of this and gave it their all when the lights went green. Almost every heat race had jumped starts or collisions in the first turn. This caused a number of broken cars, red flags, and restarts. Most notably was the incident with Travis Pastrana. He had a clean hole shot to the first turn and when he hit the brakes Andy Scott in his SAAB punted him from behind into the wall. His car was too damaged for him to continue, and wasn’t even able to make the LCQ (Last Chance Qualifier). Scott on the other hand was given a penalty position, but was able to continue which many found quite unfair.
The final was highly predictable, even after 2 separate restarts. Loeb had the pole position, and with only one Ford team driver in the front row with him. Unfortunately for Ford, Foust and Deegan were in the second row alongside the MWRT Ford of Ken Block. Unsurprisingly, Loeb nailed the start and leapt into the lead and went clean through the first turn. After a little rubbing, the rest made it through but this time it was Block who came out of the group in front. Try as Block might, there was no catching Sebastian Loeb. Loeb’s lead just kept getting larger and larger at each turn with his quick clean driving style. Loeb has such a gift for knowing the limit of his traction and stays perfectly on the edge. Block was fast, but his constant sliding and drifting through the corners made him significantly slower, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that on his final lap, Block had a flat left rear tire. It was great to see Ken Block finally finish well in GRC, but sad for the others that got caught up in the first turn shenanigan, especially Travis Pastrana. In the end it was Sebastian Loeb with the X-Games gold, Ken Block with silver, and Brian Deegan was able to hold on to the third spot.
Next up was New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
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