The Race of Champions returns this coming weekend. No, not the old Brands Hatch non-points Formula 1 race – more’s the pity.
We’re talking about the star-studded head to head knock-out competition that draws champions and legends from the disparate worlds of rallying, Formula 1, IndyCar and even NASCAR.
It’s alarming to realise the ‘modern iteration’ of the RoC is getting on a bit. The competition was launched way back in 1988 – 34 years ago, and just five years after Keke Rosberg won the last of the original Brands F1 races to carry the name. The great Michèle Mouton and Fredrik Johnsson devised the event originally as a means to showcase the talents of rallying’s biggest stars, and in tribute to the late Henri Toivonen who had died two years earlier in Corsica. His name still adorns the winner’s trophy today.
First held at the old Montlhéry circuit near Paris, the RoC grew from its rallying roots and what became a regular home in Gran Canaria into a stadium-based entertainment show that drivers relished as a means to let off steam after the slog of a long season.
Back in his pomp, try getting Michael Schumacher to turn up for an awards bash (I did. And failed every time!) Then ask him to have a crack at competing in something far outside his comfort-zone. Now guess which one he went for. Schumacher loved the RoC and although he never won the individual competition, he and Sebastian Vettel dominated the parallel Nations Cup for Germany over six consecutive years between 2007 (at Wembley) and 2012.
It’s one of the pleasing aspects of the relaunch this weekend that Vettel returns, paired this time with RoC debutant Mick Schumacher. But the pair will be up against it to win another Nations Cup for Germany, given the major format change. For the first RoC since 2019, the event has been reinvented as a snow and ice challenge, run on a parallel circuit with a signature crossover on the frozen Baltic sea in Pite Havsbad, Sweden. The rally drivers and rallycrossers will inevitably feel much more at home than those used to racing on black-top.
“I want to step up and out of W Series to showcase the opportunity it has given me”
What’s also inevitable is the strong theme of sustainability – let’s face it, it has to be – and that’s reflected in the choice of bespoke rallycross vehicles: RX Supercar Lites that run on 100% fossil-free biofuel, the electric-powered RX2e, the new electric 1000bhp FC1-X SUV and a more traditionally-powered Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport. Speaking of which, a taster event was run for the Porsches last weekend and was won by Swedish Carrera Cup ace Pontus Fredricsson, against a field of drivers that included Jan Magnussen and Le Mans winner Marc Lieb.
The roster of stars lured to the ice this coming weekend is astonishing and a testament to how cherished this curio event remains among racers. Along with Vettel and Schumacher, the entry features (deep breath…): Valtteri Bottas, Mika Häkkinen, Sébastien Loeb, Mattias Ekström, four-time World Rallycross Champion Johan Kristoffersson, Helio Castroneves (fresh from his Daytona 24 Hours victory), Colton Herta and Jimmie Johnson (also coming straight from Daytona), Tom Kristensen, Oliver and Petter Solberg, and Timmy Hansen. A few pots and trophies have been won among that lot.
Representing Britain in the Nations Cup will be David Coulthard, a two-time RoC ‘Champion of Champions’, and two-time W Series queen Jamie Chadwick, who somewhat surprisingly is the only female on the list. As her Extreme E exploits last year have proven, Chadwick is game for a challenge that puts her far outside of what she knows – and perhaps the RoC will also be a pleasant distraction from the tricky situation she currently finds herself in.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” she told us last week. “It’s one of those things I’ve been watching forever growing up, so to be competing in it and alongside DC who has won it is a pretty cool experience. I haven’t been given loads of information. What I know is it’s on ice and there are quite a few electric cars, which favours me a little bit with the Extreme E experience. But it’s going to be an awesome experience and opportunity. It’s always a great cast. We’ve definitely got our work cut out with the Swedes and the Nordic drivers, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Chadwick hopes her electric off-road experience can help at RoC
Andrew Ferraro/Extreme E
Chadwick recently pocketed the prize money for winning her second W Series crown: a cool $500,000 (£370,000), to go with the same amount she won at the end of the inaugural season in 2019. So $1m over three years? Nice work, Jamie. But it’s frustrating to hear she doesn’t yet know where and in what she will be racing in 2022.
“I’m still working on that,” said Chadwick, who has stepped down from her Veloce Racing drive in Extreme E to focus on her circuit-racing ambitions this year. “I’ve said publicly before that I want to step up and out of W Series to showcase the opportunity it has given me and the platform I now have going forward. It’s still difficult, even with the prize money.”
She wants to race in the FIA Formula 3 Championship, but what she told us just highlights how tough it is for anyone from any background to climb the single-seater ladder today. “The next step is still four times the budget I have. It’s still not the easiest so we haven’t been able to confirm a programme just yet.”
Has she ruled out a third season in W Series? “I’m not ruling it out,” she says with care. “It’s one of those things. I want the opportunity to race in something like F3 and progress, but we’ll see. If those opportunities don’t come about we’ll need to re-evaluate. But that is the ultimate goal.”
W Series still has its critics, but there’s no denying it provides a crucial free hit to a motor sport minority who wouldn’t otherwise be competing at such a level. “I’m genuinely not sure I’d be racing without it,” Chadwick openly admits.