Rallycross had its foundation event at Lydden Hill, UK, back in 1967. It started booming in Britain in the late '70s, became a hugely popular sport in Europe (particularly Scandinavia) in the '80s and its modern form has recently caught light here in the USA in the form of the Global Rallycross Championship. In the first of a three-part series, RACER editor David Malsher examines the GRC's intrinsic appeal.
I'm by no means an ageist snob regarding the young nor do I believe that racing was necessarily better in X, Y or Z era, but I can remember being absolutely floored when I heard that Colin McRae's presence at the X Games in 2006 had been a revelation to kids of a certain generation, who had played the Colin McRae Rally video game in the belief that he was a fictional character. For one thing, who'd name a fictional hero “Colin?” More pertinently, shouldn't kids who play video games also be aware of Google or YouTube or some other method of learning about one of the most devastatingly talented drivers ever to grace this planet?
Still, it was obvious, therefore, that Marcus Gronholm (LEFT) would be an even bigger revelation to fans of Global Rallycross. Never mind that the guy has 30 World Rally Championship wins and two WRC titles to his name, that he was Sebastien Loeb's only real rival until his retirement in 2007, nor that he took to the European Rallycross scene like a duck to water. He was a little known figure in the U.S., and though finishing second in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb caused a blip of recognition, it took his GRC achievements for him to really make an impression on America's motorsport fans.
You'll have heard of Global Rallycross but, like this writer, you may have somehow missed seeing it in person. So one of RACER's advertisers, Motegi Racing, who provide the wheels for several of the cars, took us out to the OMSE Ford team's test session in the grounds of Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month. The course was dull, there were no elevation changes, it was only 30sec long – and none of that mattered: The cars themselves provide the thrills.
Rumors that GRC might find its way onto the support bill at several IndyCar races next year is great news for IndyCar, great news for fans in general. There are certain aspects which may grate with race/rally purists…but there's so much more to recommend it.
To make any form of racing exciting enough to captivate new viewers, a car running solo has to look spectacular. That's an absolute must, because chances are that the cars are going to be on their own more often than in a pack. And all the other characteristics of entertaining motorsports will come as a natural consequence – a car that behaves spectacularly is going to swiftly sort the best drivers from the mediocre ones, and is more likely to induce mistakes.
A huge amount of power is one obvious way to make a vehicle spectacular, although it's not a necessity: Gilles Villeneuve could make a 240hp Formula Atlantic car as thrilling to watch as a 540hp F1 car. And watch a current World Rally Car: strangled to 300hp though it is, seeing one through the snows of Sweden or flying over the jumps of Finland, it's impossible to tear your eyes away. So it's not about power, per se, but rather the power-to-grip ratio.
But “standard” rallying has three main drawbacks for fans: 1) On any given day of a WRC event, in any given place, you're going to see each car just once (or twice if you stick around for the return leg). Obviously, there may be 100 competitors, but generally the fans only have eyes for the top 15 or so.
2) It's purely against the clock. Much though we'd love to have seen McRae vs Gronholm vs Carlos Sainz fighting wheel to wheel on the Col de Turini (can you imagine the onboard footage?), that's not the nature of the sport.
3) You have to drive out of your way to see some of the best action. The spectator superspecials are OK, but they're never going to be the heart of the WRC – nor should they be.
Global Rallycross addresses all these issues. Events are held on a relatively small circuit, the tracks are in easily accessible areas and there is potential fender-bending competition because they're running simultaneously.
And while WRC cars have lost some of their visual appeal on asphalt rallies due to the 300hp restrictions, the GRC has the answer to that, too. The OMSE-built Ford Fiestas, for example, as driven by Gronholm, Brian Deegan, Tanner Foust and others, pump out 600hp. That's barely less than the Group B monster rally cars of the mid-'80s and, with the aid of four-wheel-drive, they catapult from corner to corner in a manner that appears to match F1. However, their relatively high center of gravity and necessarily long suspension travel means the cars have far more longitudinal and lateral movement than anything else you'd see on a track. The input of the driver is reflected by the outward behavior of the car and it's plain to see even to the untrained eye, and that has to be a positive.
Left to right: Tanner Foust, Brian Deegan, Marcus Gronholm (photo courtesy Ford Motor Company)
THE PRINCIPAL PLAYERS…SO FAR
Gronholm is a modest man who doesn't feel the need to whip the crowd into a frenzy. He's not a Ken Block-type showman, not a smoothly eloquent Tanner Foust-like character who likes needling his opponents in his annoyingly charming fashion, nor does he have the aggressive “what are you looking at?” persona of Brian Deegan. Even after he's won, Marcus frequently looks bewildered by the hoopla – I'm just doing what I'm paid to do.
Gronholm won the first two rounds of the 2012 season but an accident and injury in the third round, at the X Games in LA, took the Finn out of the series for the remainder of the season. And, without wishing to sound cruel, that may have actually benefited the series: Foust taking his second GRC crown attracted more attention since the 39-year-old Denver, Colo. native who looks barely more than half his age has a strong following. The fact that Foust has also competed in European Rallycross – and finished second in the 2011 ERC championship – shows that the guy once worshipped for his skills in Drift competitions and his movie stunt driving is actually a very serious competitor with a great talent.
Deegan, too. His easy transition from freestyle motocross to Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series trucks to rallycross suggests a major and very versatile talent, and if all the GRC events were held on loose surfaces, his flamboyant driving style would likely see him at the top of the points table. Block, meanwhile, just needs to add consistency to his game; anyone who's seen his famous Gymkhana videos knows the depth of his talent and car control. He also has a great deal of charisma and probably has more fans among GRC spectators than most of the other drivers combined.
If he has a rival in this department, though, it's Travis Pastrana, whose X Games performances and amazing stunts have made him a household name. Dalliances with NASCAR haven't yet diluted that, either; GRC is far closer to his daredevil métier, and he and the sport can help each other's reputations grow.
Samuel Hubinette, a successful Formula D driver, Rhys Millen – rally driver and drifter – and a trio of Brits (Liam Doran, Andy Scott and David Binks) are other drivers with top-five finishes to their name in the past year.
My criticisms are few and it should be borne in mind that this modern version of a sport that started in 1967 is only in its fledgling form right now.
• The man-made jumps should be made less of a punishment to the car and more demanding for the driver. Jumps that send a car rocketing but give ample run-off area on the other side aren't really going to separate the field's class end from its tail. Have the cars flying lower and faster and follow the jump with a rapid change of direction. The greatest rally drivers of all time have an ability to make a car land in such a way that it's set up for the next turn.
• More teams/manufacturers, please! There are a few strong teams in there, and there is variety of machinery – Ford Fiesta, Subaru Impreza, Dodge Dart, Hyundai Veloster, Saab 9-3, but there should be more. Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda and Kia should dive in ASAP. Each has compact cars it should be promoting.
• More famous drivers. If GRC is on the bill at IndyCar races, I want to see Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon in there. At NASCAR races, I want to see Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Tony Stewart making guest appearances. And how about Petter Solberg (currently rideless in WRC) and the semi-retired Sebastien Loeb, who won the X Games round so convincingly this year? There needs to be a strong core of drivers, and then cool guest aces.
• There needs to be fewer single-file areas – some areas of some courses are a little too reminiscent of auto-testing, so they need to be eliminated.
• More fast corners. Even I can handbrake a car around a hairpin. I want to see Gronholm or Foust in a 90mph four-wheel drift, because I can't do that and they can.
• Improved camera angles. TV coverage has been a bit hit-or-miss – the X Games round looked great, the round supporting the Texas IndyCar race didn't. GoPros mounted every which way on every car, and lower trackside cameras would capture the amazing acceleration of these beasts. If you need an example of how to do it, just watch the car chases in Ronin, directed by the late, great John Frankenheimer.
The basic product of Global Rallycross is a true thrill to watch. Let's convey that.
In part 2, we'll talk to Andreas Eriksson, the man whose Olsbergs MSE company builds the 600hp Ford Fiestas which have so far crushed the GRC field.