By now most everyone already knows the results from last weekend’s GRC season opener in Barbados, and I won’t be getting into the results too much. What I really wanted to focus on are the changes with the newly re-branded Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship as well as some of the more significant moments. Here’s a run-down of what I observed (at least virtually since I wasn’t physically there and they didn’t have any live video streaming).
1. Improved Track Design
As many of you know, I’ve been very critical of the track design of past GRC events. In Barbados they did it right. They used the long straight at the Bushy Park racecourse that had a tightening left turn that then swept into a much tighter right turn. This design naturally gave cars plenty of room and still pushed them into a safer single-file running order as they came around the back side of the track. Case in point, there was not 1 red flag caused by a turn 1 incident. The only thing missing on this track (and likely at most future tracks as well) was some sort of elevation change. It would be great to see a track built on a hillside where some corners are off-camber for an added challenge, but the GRC portable track concept unfortunately doesn’t lend well to that. As it was though, this was the best track design I’ve seen since Twin Peaks in 2011.
2. More Heats and More Points
Red Bull GRC decided to change up the Heat races a bit. Since most of these events encompass 2 days, it just made sense to add an additional heat race to the mix. The first Heat is not points scoring, however it does determine starting position for the points scoring Heats that follow. The interesting bit is that the successive Heats will be completely changed up so drivers will face off against a wider array of opponents.
As an example:
Heat 2A was comprised of 1st place from Heat 1C, 2nd place from Heat 1B, 3rd place from Heat 1A, 4th place from Heat 1C, and 5th from Heat 1B. Heat 2B was comprised of 1st place from Heat 1A, 2nd place from Heat 1C, 3rd place from Heat 1B, 4th place from Heat 1A, and 5th from Heat 1C. And finally Heat 2C was comprised of 1st place from Heat 1B, 2nd place from Heat 1A, 3rd place from Heat 1C, 4th place from Heat 1B, and 5th from Heat 1A. Confused yet? It may sound a bit jumbled, but the change-up proved to make for some interesting lineups.
The Heat 2 and Heat 3 races now score in a 3,2,1,1,1 format. Then in the final they bumped up the points structure as follows:
1st place gets 50 points
10th 5 points
And all remaining participants receive just 1 point.
3. The “Other” Manufacturers Are Closer Than Ever
Ford is still the dominant force in the Red Bull GRC. Andreas Ericksen and Olsbergs MSE have had extremely strong manufacturer support and years of development. The job for everyone else is to at least catch up to them, let alone try and beat them. The other manufacturer teams of VW, Subaru, and Hyundai have been hard at work in the off season getting their upgraded beasts ready to duke it out with the Fords. That said, who would have guessed that Volkswagen would win the very first event of the season?
Andretti / Volkswagen – The VW Polo GRC Supercars driven by Tanner Foust and Scott Speed have already been used for years by Anton Marklund in the European Rallycross events and have even appeared at X-Games. The Polos were a natural substitute for the Andretti team while the Super Beetles are still being developed in Germany by VW. Right off the bat the Polos proved equally as quick as the Fords by winning multiple Heat races and with Scott Speed getting the first victory of the season on Sunday.
Subaru – Subaru Rally Team USA made massive strides in both speed and the handling of their cars. The practice times were right up with the Fords for a while. Although much closer than they were last season, the Subaru’s still appeared to be at a slight disadvantage to the Fords and VWs. Sverre Isachsen made it into the final and finished 6th overall, but only because he was the last DNF in the Final having completed 7 of the 10 laps. Subaru is definitely getting there, but they also had a mechanical issue with Bucky Lasek’s “Betty 2.0” that left Bucky out of most of the event. The good news is the difference is in the 10ths of seconds, which means it won’t take much more to be up at the front. I’m hopeful that they’ll have everything buttoned up and be podium capable come X-Games.
Hyundai – RMR made a number of changes the Hyundai over the off-season and Rhys Millen did make it into the final, but just barely. It sounded like the Veloster Turbos handled much better than they did in the past, but the car still lacked the overall speed of their rivals. Now with the full backing of Hyundai again and knowing where they are in relation to the other teams, I’d expect the RMR workshop to be pulling some long nights getting every ounce of power than can out of the what are arguable the best looking cars on the grid.
4. Red Bull GRC Race Control is Spot On
There were a few penalties issued over the weekend and only two red flags. In all cases the judgments made by race director Tim Mayer were justifiable and well executed. I really can’t stress enough how important it is for a series to equally enforce the rules even when a well known top driver is affected. Sometimes the decisions they make are not the popular choice, but they must make the right choice. Hats off to Tim Mayer and the Race Control team for making some tough calls and doing it in a well executed manner.
5. Top Drivers Are Still Human
Mistakes do happen, but over the weekend we saw errors that went from crazy to full on brain farts. In his first Heat race Ken Block cut across the noses of Scott Speed and Patrick Sandell at the start, causing a collision. The cars muscled on, but Block was assessed a 10 second penalty for “rough and aggressive driving.” This was a bit unusual that he was so aggressive seeing that he was significantly faster than anyone else in practice and seeding. Block’s biggest mistake however was in the Final. On the last turns of Lap 1, Block was passed by Joni Wiman and to try and get back by he attempted to cut the corner a little bit too much. His car hit the curbing and launched into the air, rolled on its roof, and then collided with the barricades on the front straight bringing out the red flag and emergency crews. Thankfully Ken was okay and walked away. I’d say that final corner was a Right 4 DON’T CUT!
Block wasn’t alone though as Tanner Foust had an awful weekend. After winning his first two heats rather handily, Foust made a major mistake on the final lap of Heat 3. He was well in the lead when he took the jump cockeyed and went too far. The damage from the hard landing caused the passenger side door to fly off and at least one tire puncture. He continued on as any race driver would, but the damaged car spun out on the tarmac placing it in a dangerous position and the red flag was thrown. Foust was disqualified from Heat 3 for not pulling his damaged car off the racing line, so he was stuck having to go into the Last Chance Qualifier. The LCQ is when the brain fart hit. For some unknown reason, Tanner Foust who is arguably the most experienced GRC driver as he has competed in the GRC since its inception as well as in Rallycross in Europe, ended up taking the Joker lap twice which shaves off about 2 seconds. He was called in for a penalty stop and go for the incident, but with the LCQ being only 4 laps he never stopped. They assessed a 10 second penalty to Foust’s time which meant that he did not make it into the final for the first time in a long, long time. Total brain fartiness there.
6. F1 Experience Translates Well to GRC
Former F1 drivers Scott Speed and Nelson Piquet Jr. have shown once again that their open wheel Formula 1 driving experience has some advantages. It isn’t known whether it is the necessary quick reaction times or the ability to smoothly accelerate such high horsepower machinery from their F1 driving past that are the keys to their success in Barbados, but one thing for sure is that they are serious threat to the usual suspects we have been used to seeing on the podium in seasons past.
Nelson Piquet Jr. – Piquet Jr. was 1st in his Heats 1 and 2, and finished 2nd in Heat 3. He had a good second row starting position for the final and battled his way into a 4th place finish overall. Being in the faster SH Racing Ford Fiesta machinery worked well for Piquet Jr. vs. the old heavy EVO he drove last year. He’s now 4th in points just 3 points behind Brian Deegan who has only committed to racing a limited schedule of 4 events. With results like this Nelson Piquet Jr. could be a threat all season.
Scott Speed – Speed had no issues adapting to the Andretti Autosport VW Polo Supercar by winning his Heats 1 and 2, and finishing 2nd in this third Heat giving him a great starting position for the final. Capitalizing on Block and Wimen’s mistakes, Speed jumped into the lead and took home his second GRC season opening win. Scott Speed is now the points leader that everyone will be charging after next month at X-Games. The question is, will he be able to hold onto that points lead longer than last year? If Speed continues to perform like he did in Barbados, it will be quite a while before anyone can knock him off that top spot.
7. Watch Out for the Rookies
Joni Wiman – Most had an inkling that the young Finnish driver Joni Wiman would be very competitive, but I don’t think many estimated he’d win 2 Heats and be right alongside Ken Block in the front row of the Final. Joni won every round of the GRC Lites last season, is the protege of 2 time World Rally Champion Marcus Gronholm, and it was Joni’s pass of Ken Block on that first lap in the final that caused pressured Ken Block enough to make a mistake. He’s a remarkable driver, however Joni unfortunately had some issues of his own when the final was restarted after Block’s car was removed from the course. Like Foust, Joni did the Joker lap twice and had to do stop and go penalty which was worsened by a stall when he tried to leave the penalty box. If Joni hadn’t made that mistake, he would have won the season opener. Watch out, because this kid is already running at the top.
Austin Dyne – When I talked with Austin Dyne at the Media Day in LA, he was extremely confident that he’d be competitive in his first season of Supercars. This was because he was going to be able to focus 100% on just GRC this year. Last year Dyne was competing in a regional NASCAR series while also competing in the GRC Lites. The combination of different machinery and driving styles meant that his performance in both suffered. Those problems are obviously gone as the Barracuda Networks/Bryan Herta driver was 5th overall in the 2nd practice session and then finished the heats with one 2nd place finish, two 3rd place finishes, and finished 3rd in the LCQ to get into the final. Not bad for a rookie, not bad at all. Although he finished 9th in the final with a DNF, Austin Dyne’s potential for podiums or even wins is obvious.
Emma Gilmour – The lady can drive that’s for sure. Unfortunately for Emma, the RMR Hyundai Veloster Turbo had some nagging mechanical issues that prevented her from being on pace with the rest of the drivers out there. Although much has been said about Emma being the first female driver in the GRC, I think her biggest challenge is that this was her first door-to-door experience in the Supercars which will take a bit of getting used to. I’m hopeful that Emma will have an improved car at X-Games and can really show what she is capable of. One thing I love about Emma is how amazing she is at interacting with her fans. I asked her if she could give me a rally pace-notes description of the track and she sent me the following response:
That’s just brilliant isn’t it? As a stage rally fan I was able to visualize much of the track from that description alone. I hope she does this for every event!
8. Lack of Internet Video Frustrates Fans
Although the Red Bull GRC was clear that Barbados was going to be tape delayed, they need to face the fact that we live in an instant access to information society. One suggestion was avoiding the Red Bull GRC twitter account if you didn’t want to know the results before the TV program aired the following weekend. Yeah good luck with that. You’d also have to avoid every driver twitter account and umpteen hundred other news and fan accounts and web sites along with it for an entire week. Red Bull GRC needs to embrace the instant information community by offering at minimum a raw video feed with no commentary if they are not able to offer Live TV. Two web cams covering opposite corners of the track I think would have been plenty sufficient to satisfy what the serious fans were searching for. In my talk with Christopher Leone a week ago he stated that the NBC commentator Townsend Bell was busy qualifying for the Indy 500 and offering a commentated web stream was not possible. I personally don’t think the fans care about commentary as much as they want to see what’s happening on the track live. To their credit the Red Bull GRC social media channels did an outstanding job of giving a play-by-play of the action via Twitter, but the reality is that the fans want live video and I heard many a complaint.
9. Red Bull Global Rallycross is a Serious Championship
The Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship showed that it is no longer a fringe motorsport, but is now a true championship where they are taking the racing to a new level. They showed it in not only the quality of racing, lack of red flags, and equal enforcement of the rules; but also in how serious they are about the safety of their competitors. I want to send a huge shout out to Race Control and the safety crews for the quick handling of Ken Block’s incident. Looking at videos, it was literally 2-3 seconds after his car came to rest that I saw emergency vehicles entering the race course. This shows me that trained professionals with a practiced protocol were able to spring into action at a moments notice. This is what every professional motorsport requires, and it was executed perfectly. Great job, and I’m looking forward to seeing the action from X-Games.
For those of you that didn’t “watch” the results online, tune into NBC on Saturday 1:00 PM Eastern Time to watch all the action that I couldn’t.