It was an action-packed fifth round of the Global Rallycross Championship at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend that saw Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen earn his third straight victory and extend his lead in the standings as the season passed its mid-point.
“It's getting better now,” a smiling Heikkinen said after the race. “But we have four rounds to go and there is still a lot of work to do.”
The 22-year-old Finn, who was just a teenager when he debuted in the United States with a win in 2010, has had a strong year. He has finished on the podium at each of the first five championship rounds.
Ken Block, who looked unstoppable after setting the fastest qualifying lap in his Hoonigan Racing Ford Fiesta RX43, had to settle for second place. Brian Deegan battled back from the last-chance qualifier to take third in his Rockstar Energy Drink Metal Mulisha Ford Fiesta.
“It's first-corner roulette,” said Block, who went four-wide into the treacherous first corner during the final but surrendered the holeshot to Heikkinen after making contact with Subaru driver Sverre Isachsen. “I did everything I could to win but I got punched by Sverre in the first corner and that was it.”
It was Block's second podium finish of the year. He earned a second-place finish in Munich late last month.
For his part, third-place Deegan said everything after the heats was an unexpected plus. After taking big damage to his car while bumping with Heikkinen during an action-packed heat race early in the day, his car returned to the pits on a flatbed truck and Deegan said he was doubtful his team could get it fixed.
But, with just a 12-minute turn-around before the last chance qualifier, his mechanics on the Olsbergs MSE squad pulled through to weld a broken sub-frame and sent the driver back to the start under orders to take it easy or risk further damage. Deegan, who thrives under pressure, made an impressive comeback to advance from the LCQ to the back row of the nine-car final where he surged from the back row to ultimately cross the line in third. “I survived the race and it wasn't the most exciting driving, but it's a big bonus day for me to come back to the podium,” he said.
It was Deegan's second visit to the podium in two weeks. He took third at last week's race in New Hampshire.
In the final, Heikkinen, Block, Sverre Isachsen and Patrik Sandell approached the narrow first turn a risky four-wide. In rallycross, where passing is a challenge and contact-heavy traffic is an omnipresent danger, the driver to emerge first from the tough first corner after the start has a huge advantage and drivers typically put it all on the line. Contact is inevitable.
Heikkinen touched the brakes a moment earlier than the others to avoid a squeeze, while Block and Isachsen tangled and Sandell slid wide past the turn. Heikkinen slid through the inside and emerged with the race lead. “I saw a space and I took it,” said Heikkinen. “I was a little bit lucky, but I'll take it.”
After the dust settled, Block rallied to give chase but didn't have the pace to overtake the leader. An encounter with lapped traffic in the waning moments of the race slightly slowed Heikkinen's pace, but he held on to take the checkered flag.
The 22-year-old Heikkinen is the most consistent top finisher in Global Rallycross Championship competition this year – a marked contrast to his uneven 2012 performance. Last year, he found himself on the wrong side of officials who disqualified him from two rounds for overly aggressive driving. He then suffered an enormous crash at the X Games in Los Angeles, coming up short on the 70-foot gap jump and fracturing his ankle in 15 places. After missing two rounds, he returned to fight out the final two races of the season and wound up a mid-pack 14th in the points.
This year, he has emerged with a new sense of maturity that could make him unstoppable. Although still aggressive, the young driver has developed a keen eye for traffic that allows him to move through the pack without suffering the collateral damage that was the hallmark of his 2012 season.
With four rounds remaining, Heikkinen has a commanding lead of the points with 96, some 34 points ahead of second-place Deegan.
“Topi is fast and he's got the skills, but he's had a lot of luck going his way,” observed Deegan, who competes alongside Heikkinen on the Olsbergs MSE Ford team. “It's not over yet and I'm just hitting my stride.”
Heikkinen also leads the Sylvania zXe Cup, a sub-series that will award a $20,000 purse to the driver who scores the most points in four of the U.S. speedway contests this year. In addition to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway rounds, the battle for the cup includes upcoming contests at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The unusual rallycross configuration at Bristol Motor Speedway made use of pit lane, the front stretch, and the infield of the traditional NASCAR oval. Each lap saw drivers made abrupt transitions from the flat apron onto the 30-degree banking, and back. Heavy loads during these transitions meant many cars suffered flat tires and drivers had to be careful not to overstress their suspensions, or their tires.
Favorite Tanner Foust, the two-time defending champion who had been looking for redemption after a last-corner crash in New Hampshire, found himself relegated to the last-chance qualifier after a brush with the wall at the top of the high Bristol bank resulted in a pair of flat tires. He advanced to the final, but was unable to challenge the leaders and finished seventh after getting caught in a tangle with Liam Doran and Isachsen that damaged his intercooler.
“Tanner his having some sore luck,” observed Doran after the race. “To have one of the best drivers in the championship wind up in the LCQ – that's not supposed to happen.”
Doran, who returned to U.S. competition after sitting out last week's round in New Hampshire due to obligations at home in Europe, also suffered damage in the multi-car smash and wound up ninth. Isachsen finished fourth.
It was the third podium sweep for Ford, by far the dominant marque in the series this season, with seven cars in this weekend's 13-car field. Ford leads the manufacturer's championship with 186 points to Subaru's 60 and Dodge's 59.
The next stop for the Global Rallycross Championship is Los Angeles, where the series rejoins ESPN's four-day action sports event, the X Games, after two stand-alone contests. The race is set to take place Aug. 4 at Irwindale Speedway.