Track test: World RX Audi

Power to the people

Ever wondered how it feels to handle 560bhp on the loose? World rallycross champion EKS RX's Audi S1 provided the answer

With the anti-lag system activated, the EKS Audi S1 Quattro I’m aboard launches down the straights with a force that knocks the air from my lungs, and barely allows time to inhale before the brakes throw me against the six-point harnesses for the next corner. Beside me Edward Sandström is calmly positioning the car on the gravel and tarmac circuit, changing gears in a flash, his feet dancing across the floor-mounted pedals.

Fresh from winning the 2016 World Rallycross Championship, the EKS team is giving me a demonstration of its successful machinery. With the actual title-winning cars en route back to Europe from South America by boat, the team is using its other two near-identical S1 quattros for the private test day at a circuit in Belgium, one with latest developments ahead of the 2017 season, and the other for me to drive.

 Sandström, who has competed in a number of World RX events with the team, is to be my tutor for a couple of sighting laps but before he even starts the car up it’s clear there is a lot to learn. 

From the driver’s seat of EKS’s no001 chassis, which houses a 2-litre turbocharged engine harnessing in the region of 560bhp and 550lb ft of torque, he talks through the car’s left-hand-drive controls. The steering wheel contains buttons and switches for selecting pages on the digital display (although I did wonder if there would be any time to enjoy looking at the screen), windscreen wipers, radio and the sacred ALS anti-lag system, which creates the gun-fire-like popping and banging for which rallycross cars have become known. But, more important than the sound, it’s the ALS system that ensures the turbo (with 45mm restrictor) spools continually to remain constantly responsive. The effect is similar to the thrust of a passenger jet taking off. 

To the right of the wheel, above the main control panel, mounted to the large transmission tunnel are the sequential gear lever and large hydraulic handbrake. Sandström explains that to make best use of the car’s capabilities on the loose surface, I should aim to get it rotated on corner entry to achieve the most effective exit, before reminding me that I should only drive at a pace I felt comfortable with… Of course, in this situation the biggest prize is returning the car in one piece.

 The Swede also invites me to use the handbrake at the hairpin should I wish, but as he’s Scandinavian and effectively grew up on rally stages, he suggests that it’s an “artificial and lazy” way of rotating a car.

 Explanations done, the enormity of the challenge ahead becomes clear after a couple of laps of the circuit – even without Sandström being at full pace. While I’ve competed in rallycross before, largely in the Super1600 front-wheel-drive category, from the driver’s seat of the S1 I feel there should be L-plates attached to the rear bumper. Rallycross Supercars are renowned for being wild, fire-breathing monsters – four- wheel-drive hatchbacks capable of out-accelerating a Formula 1 car to 60mph on Tarmac and gravel – and there is more than a slight resemblance in appearance to their legendary Group B ancestors.

* * *

Especially in the case of the S1s run by EKS. In a little under three years the team has become one of the dominant forces in the reinvigorated World RX Championship. Much has been down to the enthusiasm and unrelenting drive of the team founder Mattias Ekström, who has competed in cars from NASCAR, DTM and WRC, but who claims nothing compares to the thrill of a rallycross Supercar. 

After a one-off drive in the European series in 2013, the Swede started his own team to contest the FIA World Rallycross Championship, which he would run alongside his DTM commitments.

EKS was born, and a pair of Audi S1 Quattro Supercars made their debut less than 12 months later. Another 857 days down the line, Ekström’s lifelong dream of winning an FIA world title was realised last season, beating the likes of Petter Solberg and Sébastien Loeb, the squad also securing the title for teams in the series finale.

“I started EKS for one reason, to win a world title,” says Ekstrom. “After we finished 2015, we did our development and a lot of homework. When we came to the first race we felt like underdogs, but we knew we had a good package. In the first five races we had the upper hand on everybody, and won three of them. No matter how good you are in this sport, you cannot buy victory, you have to go and get the job done. Everybody caught up a bit and the second half of the season was a bit more challenging. To win as a driver and also a team owner is something very special.”

* * *

Back on the Mettet circuit IN Belgium, my sighting laps are over and it’s my turn to take the wheel. But there’s a problem. Being significantly taller and rather less slight than Ekström or Sandström, I simply don’t fit and my knees hit the gearlever. The diligent EKS engineers move the floor-mounted pedal box forward as far as they can, explaining that the steering column will now be just between the throttle and brake. “You can left-foot brake though?” asks Sandström as I get in. At this moment, I’m not sure I can remember which foot is my left…

 Seldom does the opportunity arise to drive a World RX Supercar, never mind with a championship-winning team, and I was eager not to embarrass myself.

I press the starter button and pull the sequential gearstick towards me into first, compress the small release lever just behind and push the gearstick away from me into reverse. It’s helpful there’s an engineer to direct reversing from the garage, as the Audi’s double-plane spoiler fills the rear window, above the rear-mounted cooling package.

Surprisingly, at slow speeds, the Audi is remarkably straightforward to drive. The clutch is light and the power steering nimble enough to feel easy, but reassuringly firm and precise. Driving towards the pit exit I pull second, then short-shift to third before drawing onto the circuit in second, the clunks of the transversely mounted Sadev gearbox bringing an immediate smile to my face.

Sandström, now in the passenger seat, signals to start the first lap and I pull third, then immediately fourth gear as we shoot off down the start straight. My passenger indicates that I should activate the ALS, and once my right thumb has pressed the inconspicuous blue button, it’s like a rocket has been planted under the car. The revs immediately rise and I’m in fifth gear in a blur, braking for the first corner before I know it… way too early as it turns out. Thankfully, the four-pot stoppers work incredibly effectively. 

The team has already conducted a day of running at the circuit. This means there is now a single clean line in the unsealed surface, deep gravel clearly marking the line less preferred by the professional drivers, but even so I’m cautious on the first lap. While the clean line is a good marker, running wide onto the grip-less loose gravel could result in disaster. 

Having been instructed not to leave the ground over the circuit’s large jump (to save any unnecessary damage), I’m also wary over the track’s large kerbs, but the car barely notices them, the Ohlins dampers absorbing everything in their path. There are also large holes in the second loose section, especially following a chicane lined with tyre-stacks on the back straight, which even Ekström later describes as eye-wateringly narrow. 

Building in confidence to get on the throttle earlier in each corner, coming into the hairpin on the third lap, which includes a surface change from loose to tarmac, I decide to disregard Sandström’s quip about use of the handbrake and give the large lever a tug as I turn in, after grabbing second gear, and the rear of the car rotates gracefully to the left (the handbrake includes a rear-diff release to break drive to the rear wheels). Getting quickly back on the throttle, the Audi continues to drift sideways on the asphalt, requiring half a turn of opposite lock to maintain a true course.

 Bang, third, bang, fourth, we’re off down the straight again out of the hairpin towards the loose gravel. I’m careful to release the lever quickly after each change so as not to keep activating the electronic gear-cut, which allows for seamless gearchanges when hard on the throttle. While flat-shift is fine on the tar, a slight touch of the clutch is required when changing up on the slippery loose to break drive while the wheels are spinning. For a moment, I feel like I’m on top of the monstrous creation, but then remind myself of the alarming prospect of racing against five similar cars on a track barely wide enough for two.

After five laps, it’s time to return to the garage and I turn off the ALS as we slow down into the pit lane. However, the car’s idling high – the engineers discovering that due to the pedal box being moved, the throttle cable (the current race cars have fly-by-wire) is sticking slightly. The pedals are adjusted again, meaning that for my second run, I have no option but to left-foot brake.

Thankfully, the S1 feels more natural to drive with my left foot covering the brake and I push harder on both the middle and right pedals through the lap, wanting to get the most of the experience but also aware that I’m driving within a small window of the car’s capabilities. The harder use of the throttle brings the chirrup of the anti-lag (akin to late 1990’s WRC Subaru Imprezas) to my attention at every lift of the pedal. A gear higher now in a number of corners, I only allow myself time to glance down at the gear display indicator to check where I am before changing down, feeling for when to change up, probably too early every time.

Not once do I have time to look at the dash, but am later relieved when Sandström admits that the Supercar is so intense to drive that he doesn’t have time to pay it much attention either.

From previous experience I know all too well the clatter of dirt and pebbles thrashing the underside of a rallycross car, but it’s a mark of how well built the S1 is, and the noise that the 2-litre turbo engine emits, that I don’t notice the ‘gravel in tumble drier’ effect. The harder I drive, the more the car moves around on the loose, but it’s pleasantly predicable, even on the near-slick Cooper 17-inch control tyres. Enticing me to push harder, it results in a small excursion wide into a gravel trap. One of the traits of the aggressive anti-lag system is that it constantly pulls the car forward, even when off throttle. I’ll put the moment down to that… 

I had been shaking with adrenalin after the first run, but following the second it takes me a few moments to vacate the drivers’ seat, pleased that Sandström is complimentary about my time behind the wheel. I suspect he is just glad to have survived.

 I’ve just about regained my composure when, for his final run of the day testing the other S1, Ekström invites me for a ride as his passenger. The world champion fires up the engine and we are off, starting with a flat-out blast down the main straight – the team collecting start data; the first few seconds in a five-minute rallycross race are ever critical to success. 

The acceleration is nothing like I have ever experienced. Forget taking off in a 747 or launching a Bugatti Veyron, having done 0-60mph in two seconds flat I’m literally pinned into the rear of the passenger seat until ‘Ekky’ hits the brakes from flat in sixth at about 120mph.

Four brutal laps follow, Ekström showing every bit why he’s world champion with millimetre-perfect accuracy on both surfaces, rotating the car long in advance of apices, applying a combination of aggressive steering inputs, heavy throttle use and the odd tug on the handbrake.

And, there’s the jump. The Swede barely lifts for the launch after the first corner, the Audi flying through the air, tilted slightly to the left. Prior to the first landing I wince, but the dampers do an amazing job at absorbing the 1300kg car’s return to earth and thereafter it’s a joyous experience, despite the sensory overload.

Ekström asks for my thoughts as we return to the paddock. An intelligible response escapes me: the experience has left me literally lost for words.

Rallycross roars back from the dead

Fifty years after it was conceived as a TV ratings winner, the hybrid racing series has found a new lease of life

On February 4, 50 years ago, the late Chris Amon and team-mate Lorenzo Bandini started the opening round of the 1967 World Sportscar Championship. Aboard a Ferrari 330 P4 at Daytona 24 Hours, the pair would secure victory the following day. But while Enzo Ferrari’s machine was making headlines in America, across the Atlantic in a corner of Kent, not far from Dover, a new motor racing discipline was just beginning.

Lydden Hill, one of the UK’s smallest circuits, was playing host to the first ever rallycross event and, now in its 50th year, the discipline is arguably stronger than ever.

The concept for the mixed-surface competition was created by ABC TV’s World of Sport director Robert Reed, who formed the idea while working on a weather-hit Harewood hillclimb in November 1966.

“The hillclimb was the first event that we laid on live. It was terribly wet and slippery and cars trying to get up the hill were all over the bloody place,” says Reed. “To get back to the paddock, they had to slide their way down a cart track. I was watching from the London control room, and enjoyed watching the cars struggling to move about. I said afterwards that I thought it had been better than if the conditions had been fine and all they’d done was go up the hill. By pure coincidence, the next week the phone rang, and it was Bud Smith from the 750 Motor Club, and he asked if we would like to televise trials. I said, ‘No, but I’ve got another idea...’ ”

Reed’s idea was to reproduce the RAC rally in a single afternoon. All he needed was a circuit with tarmac, loose surfaces and grass. Smith liked the idea too, and an outside broadcast unit was acquired from ABC with a date - February 4, at Lydden Hill in Kent. Smith roped in friends to help, while race and rally driver John Sprinzel (who then conceived the name for the sport, an amalgamation of rally and autocross) arranged for some ‘name’ drivers, including Vic Elford. 

“Within a couple of months, the RAC had authorised it as a sport and Bill Chesson, who owned Lydden, was very helpful. We did three races that day,” says Reed. “The idea being that it could fit in between the horse racing, and if there was a delay, we could just put another race on. It was perfect for television. The phone rang at the end of the day and we were asked to do another. That was rallycross.”

Having recently parted company with employer Ford and persuaded Porsche to give him the first competition 911, in which he finished third on the Corsican and Monte Carlo rallies, the versatile Elford was invited to compete at Lydden. “I went to the Aldington family, which was the Porsche importer at the time. They had just taken delivery of the first four 911s in England, one of which was a showroom demonstrator, which they lent me. It even came with shiny hubcaps, and I won,” he explains. Cars raced four at a time, with the likes of Roger Clark also competing. “My wife was at home and she kept getting calls from the Aldingtons asking what on earth was going on, seeing the car getting battered racing on the TV, but on Monday morning all was forgiven because they were receiving countless calls asking about this new little car from Germany. I loved to race whether it was on a track or a muddy field, so having that lot all together suited me down to the ground.” Brian Melia finished second in a Lotus Cortina and Tony Fall completed the top three in a Mini Cooper S.

From those humble beginnings, the dual-surface sport spawned events around the UK and by 1969 rallycross had also begun in Europe. The first European Rallycross Championship was held in 1973, won by Ford Escort driver John Taylor.

The BBC jumped on the rallycross bandwagon in the autumn of 1968, Murray Walker beginning more than two decades of commentary that he still recalls fondly. “My wife and I used to go to Lydden weekend after weekend. It’s a great little circuit and there were great names like John Button, the incredible Norwegian driver Martin Schanche, Franz Wurz, Barry Lee, Keith Ripp and John Welch in rallycross,” says the commentary legend. “The TV was tremendously popular and there was a wonderful spirit of camaraderie and fun. It was made for television and television made it. They were, and still are, short, sharp, noisy, aggressive, tremendously exciting races. The sport generated some fantastic characters and the crowds were enormously enthusiastic and knowledgeable. It was just great. Of all the motorised sports, motocross and rallycross are my favourites. I’m not being disparaging to F1, but rallycross has got competition, drama and spectacle that Formula 1 sadly lacks. I’m delighted that it’s doing so well again.”

* * *

The sport’s boom came in the late 1980s, following the ban of Group B cars from the rally stages in 1986. In a period of economic strength, the machines flooded in with drivers and teams from across Europe, with crowds in excess of 25,000 attending the popular end-of-season Rallycross Grand Prix each December at Brands Hatch. Drivers like Schanche, British driver Will Gollop and Finns Seppo Nittymäki and Matti Alamäki were the headline acts, Gollop winning the European title in 1992 at the wheel of an MG Metro 6R4.

Gollop’s title would be the last for a Group B car, the European series banning the monstrous machines for 1993. Subsequently, they also vanished from the national scene.

Rallycross, too, was in danger in disappearing. Over the next two decades events were barely promoted and spectator numbers – aside from the hardcore fans – dwindled. There was little onus on circuits to improve aging facilities and the European Championship became a selection of individual events run by organisers who cared little for the other rounds. The television product became stale, and certainly wasn’t live. Increasingly it became seen as a muddy, low-rent discipline and in a world where all motor racing away from the glamour of Formula 1 struggles to speak to the masses, rallycross came close to vanishing completely. 

In that period, while the most successful rallycross driver ever – Swede Kenneth Hansen – dominated, racking up 14 European crowns, those within the sport realised it needed wider promotion to get back onto mainstream TV, where it began.

The most proactive of those who could see that the need for external influences was British journalist Tim Whittington, who after several years of behind-the-scenes work approached the FIA about pushing the sport further. The governing body responding that it liked the notion, but marketeers were needed. 

* * *

By late 2011 Whittington had made his way to global sports marketing giant IMG, who took over the promotion of the European Championship for 2013, immediately attracting rally star Petter Solberg. 

“We were the promoters of world speedway and felt the short, sharp races, the format and the stadiums were very good for live television and live audiences,” explains Rob Armstrong, IMG’s head of global motorsport. “As a sports marketing company, that’s what we look for in our motorsports, not for the things that might satisfy tradition but things that have a commercial potential. We had great success with speedway and we wanted to find something on four wheels that was similar. We had a TV producer at the time who knew Tim [Whittington]; we got together and started talking about rallycross. We could see the parallels with what we liked about speedway, but it was different. We could see the potential and it went from there.”

The sport grew into a FIA World Championship after just a year under IMG’s leadership. With that tag came further manufacturers and star drivers. Solberg remained as a privateer and claimed the title in 2014 and ’15.

In the current era of social media and the internet, at its 50th birthday rallycross is surpassing its previous heydays, now attended by up to 80,000 people at events taking place around the globe, and broadcast in more than 170 countries worldwide with a viewership in excess of 25 million. Even outgoing F1 driver Jenson Button has made strong indications that he intends to follow in his father’s footsteps by competing in the discipline.

Having run as a privateer with a minor degree of factory support through his career – largely from Citroën – Kenneth Hansen’s team was one of those to attract works backing, and Team Peugeot-Hansen won the World RX team title in 2015. For last season, the squad employed the services of nine-time world rally champion Sébastien Loeb.

In other teams, American Gymkhana YouTube star Ken Block brought Ford Performance while two-time DTM champion and Race of Champions victor Mattias Ekström won his first FIA world titles. 

“I feel honoured to have been so successful in the past, and to still be involved today,” says Hansen. “We always believed a lot in the sport, and knew that somehow it needed to get to the people so they could see it. Now it’s definitely going in the right direction – people around the world know what rallycross is. It’s great, the sport is worth that and more.”

Hal Ridge