Bacchanal is a word that’s commonly-used in the Caribbean to describe a chaotic or scandalous event (Thank you, Urban Dictionary). After one heck of an off-season, the first Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship (GRC) race for 2014 was most definitely a bacchanal. There were shake-ups, break-ups, switch-ups and some new team line-ups. Now known as Red Bull Global Rallycross, the first fixture was a big part of the Top Gear Festival in Barbados last weekend, and one of this year’s hottest tickets in motorsports. Here’s a look at who was who and what went down when engines were fired in a tropical paradise and the GRC’s new race format point structure was christened.
Rookies Showing Up and Out
Three rookie drivers made their debut in Barbados: Austin Dyne, Joni Wiman and Emma Gilmour. Dyne is backed by Barracuda Racing, an IndyCar team branching out into the Red Bull GRC. The twenty-two year-old Californian grew up in an Indycar family but also has experience racing karts, stock cars and GRC Lites. He secured a place in the final through the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ) but unfortunately a rear differential failure took the Ford Fiesta out of contention. The other rookie in a Ford is Finland’s Joni Wiman. He now occupies a spot on the Olsbergs MSE team relinquished by reigning GRC champion, Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen. Wiman is rally legend Marcus Grönholm’s protégé and the twenty year-old is definitely following in Bosse’s footsteps. Last year he won every single race on the GRC Lites schedule taking the championship with hardly any competition. This year he’s going toe-to-toe with some of the sport’s biggest stars and doing quite well. He went straight to the final through successful heats, but missed out on podium finish because of time spent in the penalty box for taking the joker lap twice, and then a second penalty for aggressive driving. Much like Heikkinen, he’s not here to make friends but to win. The third rookie is interestingly enough the most experienced professional racer. Emma Gilmour is a well-seasoned New Zealand rally racer and it shows. She came very close to winning the New Zealand Rally Championship and raced the New Zealand round of the World Rally Championship in 2012. Her fortitude and rally experience could make her a very formidable rallycross opponent. However, this sport is a different beast and the learning curve is merciless. She struggled in the heats and didn’t make the final cut from the LCQ. It would be foolish to write her off at this point because she’s holding her own out there, and that’s the very least we should expect from any of these rookie drivers.
True Blue Subaru
American manufacturer, Dodge, bowed out of the series which facilitated Travis Pastrana’s return to Subaru. Pastrana ended his run with NASCAR’s Roush Fenway Racing, leaving him with more time (and less pressure) to focus on the Rally America Championship. We haven’t seen the last of him in the GRC, as he’ll join Sverre Isachsen and Bucky Lasek at X Games in Austin, Texas. The zombie cat may have vacated the cars’ liveries but this team still brings a never-say-die attitude to the series. Isachsen made it to the podium twice in 2013 breaking a drought for the team, which saw driver, Dave Mirra finish the season in the LD Motorsports/Prodrive Mini Countryman. The Norwegian also known as The Viking avoided the LCQ but ended the final with a DNF. Before that he and Nelson Piquet Jr. had the sold-out crowd on their feet with some wild, hard racing. At least three times, Isachsen almost spun out but righted his vehicle at the very last moment. It was a breathtaking performance from the rallycross veteran who will most likely be on the podium this season. On the other hand, his teammate Bucky Lasek is a hard-luck case because this guy can drive, race competitively and even win but something always happens to take him out of contention. This time around a DNS in the third heat sent him to the LCQ where another DNS ended his day early. It’s tough to see a guy who still wins medals at X-Games miss the mark ever so slightly in the GRC. He has the talent do extremely well and hopefully this will be the season for him to take home some silverware. Besides wishful thinking, the new 2015 Subaru STI rallycross car that is supposed to be introduced later this year should definitely get them over the hurdles named DNS and DNF.
The Wolf Pack
GRC drivers are known for their aggression and occasional disregard for the laws of physics. However, they’re also very, very single-minded. Nobody’s goal is to finish. Everybody wants to win and none more so than these guys who are hungry like the wolf with no problems getting downright ferocious. Rhys Millen aka Mad Skills only had two starts in 2013 but is back for a full season with teammate, Emma Gilmour in hardy Hyundai Veloster Turbo rallycross cars. Millen made his name in Formula Drift while also conquering Pikes Peak and Hollywood as a stunt driver. He’s definitely one of the best known drivers in the lineup but has only stood on the GRC podium once in his entire career. Heats were tricky this time around but he got into the final through the LCQ, despite connecting with a tire barrier but that didn’t hamper him. After some hard racing, Millen ended up as one of five drivers who didn’t finish the race. Another world-class driver who suffered under a dreaded DNF is Sweden’s Patrik Sandell. This is his second full season with the Olsbergs MSE team but you’d never know it. He’s one of those rally drivers who took to this sport like a fish to water, earning two podiums and two heat wins last year. During the offseason he trained hard to take his place in the winner’s circle in 2014. Changes in the Olsbergs MSE camp have left Sandell in place to make a serious run for the championship. With nine rounds left on the schedule, it’s best to keep an eye on him.
One driver who switched to Ford is Nelson Piquet Jr. who will be competing full-time this season for SH Racing. He has an F1 and NASCAR background but struggled last year because he wasn’t in a purpose-built rallycross car. Now the Brazilian finally has the right equipment to take his place among this sport’s great drivers. We saw colorful flashes of brilliance from him last year and expect nothing but the most from him in 2014. He proceeded to the final after winning in the heats, but that finale round was – bacchanal. Piquet Jr. was at the center of drama with Sverre Isachsen in last season’s Vegas finale, but I’m pretty sure nobody expected them to be at it again but they certainly did! In fact it was so chaotic that TV cameras didn’t have much time to follow the race’s actual winner for the bedlam going on behind him. Despite all that Piquet Jr. narrowly missed the podium to a driver who’s either out front, passing the leader or hunting them down – Brian Deegan. The longtime Rockstar Energy Drink driver came very close to winning the championship in 2012 and managed to finish in fourth place overall last year with three podiums despite Heikkinen’s historic run. Deegan also competes in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series but that doesn’t distract him at all from this competition. He’s very much in the game and doesn’t just talk a big game. The General brings it, in your face, at full-throttle. Deegan’s path to the final was through the LCQ where he was narrowly bested by Canada’s Steve Arpin. The Royal Purple Racing/OMSE2 Ford Fiesta driver is a fan favorite and often perceived to be as sweet as maple syrup but that’s all over when he gets behind the wheel. Arpin has fire in his belly and despite struggling through the heats, he pulled it together to win the LCQ and second place in the final – a career best to date. It’s about time for you to shine, Mr. Arpin.
What the Block!?!
Ken Block was having a brilliant weekend at the Top Gear Festival. He raced against Lewis Hamilton in an F1 vs Rallycross race car showdown. Fans were absolutely thrilled to see in person the man whose Gymkhana YouTube videos had inspired so many them. He performed brilliantly in the rallycross practice, during the heats and secured a frontline position in the final, but in an instant he was out. It was awful watching Ken Block crash. Awful. He walked away unscathed but it could have been so much worse. Respect to the Hoonigan Division Ford Fiesta’s builders because it performed well up until the crash and protected him from serious harm, but that little thing called physics will get you every time. It was also frustrating, like watching NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. They are their sports’ most popular drivers, but hardly ever win. Block has only one GRC victory and Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 win snapped a 55-race losing streak that began in 2012. They’re two of the least under, underdogs in all of motorsports! When they do win, fans and non-fans alike party like there’s no tomorrow. So just in case he happens to be reading this:
Dear Mr. Block (You too, Dale),
please don’t make us wait two years until you win again, pretty please.
(except your rivals)
Das Auto? Dos Autos for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross
The Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team with drivers Tanner Foust and Scott Speed was officially revealed at the Chicago Auto Show, ending months of speculation among rallycross fans. The addition of another manufacturer is positive overall, especially one with a WRC pedigree, and hopefully more will follow suit. (I’m looking at you Honda and Toyota.) Volkswagen of America, Inc. is the title sponsor for two GRC events at Washington, DC and New York, NY. Choosing these particular drivers for their team was pretty much a no-brainer. Foust is one of the series’ best-known personalities with an enormous growing fan base, thanks in no small part to his co-host duties on Top Gear USA. Just this week, Volkswagen launched a marketing campaign for the Golf GTI with a clever interactive YouTube video and contest with GoPro, starring Foust. In addition to setting two world records as a Team Hot Wheels driver, he’s well worth every penny. However his two GRC championships and runner-up overall position in 2013 didn’t help him get into the Barbados final. The weekend started out promisingly with two heat wins but started to go downhill in the third one, when he overshot the tabletop jump, slamming into the ground, losing at least one tire and the passenger side door but still kept going. This brought out the red flag and officials called the race since it was on the last lap, sending him to the LCQ. There he made a rookie mistake and took the joker lap twice. Foust was handed a ten-second penalty, which excluded him from the final. Foust-less finals don’t happen often in this series and after a trying 2013 season, the former champ doesn’t need results like this.
Scott Speed on the other hand had a marvelous weekend but it wasn’t perfect. Mechanical gremlins caused him a DNF in the second heat, but winning the last one secured his place in the final – where he worked magic. Speed was one of last year’s breakout stars. This former F1 driver who was making a living in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series won the controversial season-opener at X Games Brazil, and then proved it wasn’t a fluke by winning again at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His superior car control on multiple surfaces was on display in Barbados and well, his name isn’t Scott Slow. Probably the best part of his winning performance was that it wasn’t about being the fastest but being the smartest and luckiest. At the restart after Block’s accident, Speed was chasing Joni Wiman but took the lead while the young Finn served his penalty, and maintained it while the rest of the grid fell into mayhem. Then he slowed down, just enough to maintain his lead but not lap the battling race cars and avoiding the chaos. It was brilliant and showed a practical understanding of this kind of racing, as well as his competitors. He finished the race on top and with his equipment in much better shape than the other finalists. Now that his focus has shifted completely to rallycross, the sky’s the limit for Scott Speed.
A Final Word
The Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship has stepped up their game and put their foot down to curb overenthusiastic drivers who think the quickest way to pass the car ahead of them is to wreck it. Race teams will surely welcome that because cars will last longer and turnaround between races should be less costly. The TV broadcast on NBC was well done. Announcers Tes Sewell and Townsend Bell were competent, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and probably well-prepared because they also didn’t call the race live. We’ll see how they handle it when they’re on for Round 3 in Washington, DC, June 22nd at 2:00pm.
Until then we’re looking forward to Round 2 on Saturday June 7, 2014 at X Games in Austin, TX. It will be broadcast live on ESPN from 12:00pm to 2:00pm and then ABC from 2:00pm to 6:00pm. Marklund Motorsports’ Anton Marklund and Topi Heikkinen will be competing, in addition to Travis Pastrana as mentioned earlier. Off-road racing master, Ricky Johnson, is also scheduled as well as the British Bomb, Liam Doran. Sparks flew last season between Doran and Heikkinen, so who knows what’s going to happen! The GRC Lites race will be streaming live on ESPN3 from 11:30am to 12:30pm. (All Times Eastern) We’re already seeing the product of that development series in the supercar class, so try not to miss that one. You can connect with the Red Bull Global Rallycross via their official website http://www.redbullglobalrallycross.com/ and social media channels for real time race updates and live-tweeting with fans from around the world:
Live Timing: http://www.redbullglobalrallycross.com/timing-and-scoring/
GRC Live Radio: http://www.downanddirtyshow.com/category/grc-live-radio-2/