With Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen coming off of four-straight wins, the Global Rallycross Championship is all but decided as the series heads into its seventh of nine rounds with its first-ever stop at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Three rounds and a maximum of 63 points are remaining for any one driver to score and Heikkinen leads closest challenger Tanner Foust, the two-time defending champion, by 39 points. Ford locked up the manufacturer's title at X Games.
It's a remarkable turn-around for Heikkinen, whose 2012 season was noteworthy due to multiple DNFs for overly aggressive driving and a massive crash at X Games that shattered his ankle and sidelined him from the championship. He finished the season in 14th, with a season best fourth-place result.
“Last year, I wanted to win too much,” he observes. “Now, if I finish third I'm still happy. I don't need to hurry up anywhere and I really enjoy the driving.”
But in a sport that often sees race-ending crashes in the first corner, consistent results also require a sixth-sense for traffic – and perhaps a little luck. While Heikkinen was celebrating last weekend's win in Los Angeles, Ford teammate Foust remarked that the young driver must still be “feeding his pet leprechaun.”
A dozen battle-scarred competition cars will return to the championship this weekend in Atlanta after a quick turn-around from last Sunday's L.A. race. Among them, a series newcomer who is no stranger to rally fans.
Norwegian Henning Solberg (LEFT) will make his first appearance in a Dodge Dart rallycross car. He will substitute for Bryce Menzies, who has a scheduling conflict with the TORC short-course off-road championship this weekend, where he is leading the championship.
Although better known for his World Rally Championship campaigns, Solberg – the older brother of 2003 WRC champion Petter Solberg – has plenty of rallycross experience. He ran the 1995 European Rallycross Championship season in a Ford Escort Cosworth before he switched his focus to rally competition and this year has contested several European Rallycross events.
“It's fun with two Norwegians in the GRC,” says Puma Subaru team driver Sverre Isachsen, a fellow Norwegian and a longtime friend of Solberg's. The pair worked together when Solberg drove the Swedish round of the European championship this year and finished a season-high fourth.
“It will be good fun,” says Solberg. “I'm looking forward to race against Sverre.”
Both drivers began their competition careers in Bilcross, a grassroots Norwegian rallycross format. This will be Solberg's first race in the Global Rallycross Championship and his first time behind the wheel of the Dodge Dart.
Travis Pastrana will also miss this race due to a scheduling conflict, with the NASCAR Nationwide series, and two-time European Rallycross Champion Timur Timerzyanov will return to the series behind the wheel of the Dodge team's other Dart.
For his part, Isachsen will be under the microscope this weekend. He, along with Heikkinen, received an official notice of probation prior to X Games for aggressive driving. And some are looking askance at the bronze medal Isachsen scored there – a first medal for Subaru since they debuted in rallycross in 2010. Isachsen jumped the start and there has been debate whether it may have been a tactic rather than an error.
Global Rallycross Championship races are often won in the first corner. The driver who gains the hole shot has the significant advantage of clean air and can run his own race while his rivals battle it out behind him, losing time on every lap.
At last weekend's race, Isachsen launched just before the green to slide through the critical first corner of the Final unchallenged. He was shown a black flag and reported to the designated penalty box, where he served the minimum stop-and-go penalty before being waved back into the race.
But the race Isachsen rejoined was less competitive than the one he started. Several other drivers who started with the light – notably Ken Block, Liam Doran, and Brian Deegan – crashed out while battling through the first corner. Even after serving his penalty, Isachsen was able to claw back onto the podium. No doubt his starts will be under close scrutiny on Saturday.
Drivers competing this Saturday are also vying for the Sylvania ZxE Cup and its $20,000 purse awarded to the driver who scores the most points in four speedway rounds. Heikkinen leads the chase for the Sylvania ZxE Cup, followed by Block, and Patrik Sandell.
The GRC Lites development series also returns this weekend. Joni Wiman is leading that championship, having taken three-straight victories.
The Global Rallycross Championship from Atlanta airs on ESPN2 starting at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10.