Only one point separates Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen from securing the 2013 Global Rallycross Championship after he scored his fifth-straight victory this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The 22-year-old Finn has driven his Ford Fiesta ST to the podium at all seven of this year's races.
“That wasn't luck,” a confident Heikkinen said after the race. “I chose the best spot on the grid and took the start; after that, nothing else could stop me.”
Heikkinen, the fastest qualifier, used his lane-selection advantage to choose the second spot on the starting grid, giving him room to race without the risk of being squeezed off the inside of the track. After a quick reaction and strong start, he emerged first through the tricky first dirt corner and immediately charged into the Joker lap – a shortcut lap configuration that every driver must take once per race.
After that, he was unstoppable for the 10-lap Final. Challenger Tanner Foust kept the pressure on in his own virtually identical Ford Fiesta ST and began to close the gap until a flat tire late in the race left him more focused on defending his second-place position from the hard-charging Subaru of Sverre Isachsen.
“I can't believe nobody passed me because I overshot so many turns trying to slow down,” said Foust, who ultimately crossed the line in second. The runner-up finish was the second straight for Foust in the Rockstar Energy Olsbergs MSE Ford Fiesta ST and third podium appearance this season.
Isachsen finished third, making it a second podium of the year for Subaru.
Not so fortunate was fan favorite Ken Block, who was setting blistering times early in practice until he rolled his Hoonigan Racing RX43 after hitting a dirt berm. He wound up on his wheels with nothing but cosmetic damage and went on to secure a commanding heat race win. Block's Hoonigan Racing RX43 Ford Fiesta showed excellent handling characteristics on the challenging 40 percent dirt course and Block was able to get huge air over the course's jump feature. But his rivals left him in the dust off the start of the Final when a mechanical problem left him down on power and he was unable to contend for the lead.
There was disappointment also for first-time U.S. competitor Henning Solberg. An electrical issue left the Norwegian unable to qualify his Dodge Dart, placing him last in the seeding list. Then, after he made an impressive move to charge to the front off the start of his heat race, mechanical trouble returned and he was unable to contend.
Solberg appeared in place of Bryce Menzies, who made it two-for-two in Michigan in the TORC championship, where he races in the Pro-2 category. Timur Timerzyanov, who substituted in the 199 Dodge Dart for Travis Pastrana – who raced NASCAR Nationwide this weekend -- also had mechanical problems but was able to finish in fifth-place overall.
The Dodge team was not the only one showing signs of stress after running six races in seven weekends in the series an aggressive competition schedule. Even the dominant Olsbergs MSE Ford squad faced an engine swap for Patrik Sandell and an issue that sidelined Brian Deegan when he couldn't refire his ailing car during competition.
By contrast, the Subaru team looked stronger than they have all season, capping off a good weekend with Isachsen's podium finish. Dave Mirra earned his first appearance in a 2013 Final after a spirited drive during the Last Chance Qualifier that saw him work his way into the lead, passing Timerzyanov on the final lap. Although three cars advanced from that Last Chance Qualifier and he had looked set to advance comfortably, he said later he felt he so rarely had a chance to take a checkered flag that he didn't want to miss the opportunity.
Isachsen says the three Subaru team cars have undergone testing and development in recent weeks that is showing the potential of the platform and the improvements will continue. “I have several secrets up my sleeve,” he says.
The 10-corner course at Atlanta Motor Speedway used much of the tri-oval and pit road sections of the track, and included a 40 percent dirt surface that was loose and rapidly developed ruts. The tabletop jump returned to the oval front-stretch, while two long straightaways allowed the 600-horsepower cars to show their speed.
As warned before X Games last weekend, officials have begun issuing black-flag penalties with increased frequency. Isachsen had to make a trip to the penalty box for a stop-and-go penalty after contact with Heikkinen during his heat race. Scott Speed also had to serve a penalty after a clash with Steve Arpin. Isachsen disputes the call, saying “the officials should read the rulebook,” but after finishing on the podium he says he'll put it behind him.
The Lites class, a development series for up-and-coming drivers that runs alongside the Supercars at all domestic rounds of the championship this year, saw fierce competition and incredible driving. The fourth race of 2013 saw Joni Wiman continuing his unbeaten streak, followed by 15-year-old Mitchell DeJung in second-place, and Sebastian Eriksson rounding out the podium.
Heikkinen may clinch the championship just by showing up at the start of next month's race in Atlanta – if there are fewer than 16 cars in the field he would earn that single point even for finishing last – but the young driver plans to fight to keep his winning streak alive. “There's only one point more but we want to win the rest of the races,” he says.
In addition to leading the Global Rallycross Championship, Heikkinen also has a dominant position in the Sylvania SilverStar zXe Cup. The sub-series awards a $20,000 bonus to the driver scoring the most points in four Speedway rounds and will be decided at the next race, September 22, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In addition to Heikkinen, Block, Foust, and Deegan all remain in the hunt.