Marcus Gronholm's Olsbergs' Ford Fiesta was the "In Focus" star of of the September 2012 issue of RACER. (Rick Graves photo)
Andreas Eriksson runs Olsbergs MSE, the Swedish company whose American arm is based in Huntington Beach, Calif., and runs the five front-running Ford Fiestas in Global Rallycross. He's also created a proposal for Super Car Lites, a 320hp feeder formula into GRC. And unlike many motorsports people with strong engineering backgrounds, he's not afraid to admit that in rallycross, the cars are not necessarily the stars: it's about drivers.
RACER: What is the appeal of Global Rallycross, and is it especially important to attract attention while the World Rally Championship is going through traumatic and uncertain times?
AE: I don't want to say that one branch of the sport can replace another, but I do believe rallycross does combine the best bits of other branches of the sport. To get to Formula 1 today, the road is very hard and also very expensive, and so many people don't reach it because it not only requires talent and money but also things like you need to be the right size! It's like trying to be a supermodel: there are many gorgeous girls out there but there aren't many that get to be models and real stars.
Rally is tradition and I think rally will be with us forever; but I think it will need to go back to what it once was, where it was always an adventure, a big journey, and the teams and drivers found it really tricky. There is an image problem, and to improve your image you need to create stars, and to create stars, you need people following it. You can't create stars in World Rally because people don't follow it as much as they did. Sebastien Loeb is the biggest name but he's not a huge star – not like the stars of rallying in the '80s or '90s. But in my eyes, rally drivers are the best in the world when it comes to combining skills.
Now, on the American side, you have the IndyCar guys, the NASCAR guys, the off-road truck guys, motorcycle riders and then also regular rally drivers, and what GRC can do is take all these guys and put them together and see who's the best. That can make rallycross big. Another important thing is that rallycross is a sport where you can show all of a driver's skills, not just one element. You can be a really good driver just because you think and analyze. You can be a really good driver because you're extremely fast on asphalt and you know the lines and you're consistent. You can be a really good driver because you're extremely fast on gravel. Rallycross combines these demands.
R: How significant is manufacturer support for this as the globalization of brands – Ford is a prime example – means the Focus and Fiesta are being heavily pushed here as people downsize on engines and cars?
AE: It is very significant, and I am surprised it has taken this long for small cars to really catch on in this country, because the internet has helped people understand life all around the globe. For Ford and all manufacturers, taking part in motorsports is all about selling cars. The truth is that there are no bad cars on sale today, so to influence people's purchase requires brand awareness. Ford recognizes this, and recognizes that it needs star drivers to help them with that. Well, to get stars, you need to be involved in a sport that creates stars. Rallycross has been going 45 years, but now its evolution is catching up with the commercial demands of the auto industry as a whole. In four or five years, it will be really interesting to see where we are.
R: How much coverage is GRC getting in Europe?
AE: When we do anything with Marcus Gronholm, it gets more coverage than World Rally! Higher than DTM, higher than anything except Formula 1, I think. So having European stars is important. They write about Ken Block quite a bit because they know about him and his videos and WRC efforts. I would say every motorsport media outlet knows about GRC, and the X Games really caught on, too. I took Tanner Foust to Europe and he did well and showed the European drivers that Americans can drive, and now they want to come and beat him on his home ground. So there are some big names – manufacturers and drivers – who are going to be coming in the next year or two years. And now the FIA has approved for IMG to be the promoter of rallycross, the FIA Rallycross championship will replace the European Rallycross, and the idea is for it to become a world championship status. To be honest, that has come one year earlier than I thought. That's how big the enthusiasm for rallycross is.
R: And are you satisfied with the entertainment factor within GRC?
AE: Well, there is always room for improvement in any sport. But I want to say that this is the closest to Group B rally cars that you can come. I want to recreate the Group B era but in controlled form on the track. And you can create really great tracks; if you have enough room, you can have cars that can slide 1,000ft without problem. I know what people love to see because it is what I love, too!
R: What do you think should be GRC's priorities now?
AE: I think we need one IndyCar driver to prove the series' reach; we need one NASCAR driver for the same reason. I think we need a winter series where people can test drive and get some feeling for it and then we also need the young guys coming up. GRC needs good drivers; not just drivers with a big name. The defining quality for success is not the best cars but the best drivers. I know Petter Solberg, for example, and I think he would be good for the series – he's very fast, he's a showman. The rally guys who are ending their careers are big names and they help the profile of the championship, no question, but we also need the young guys starting their careers. If we get that mix, then we're looking good.
Next page: Inside the new Super Car Lites class.
R: Which is where Super Car Lites comes in…
AE: Right. I want to build something where people can have rallycross careers, they haven't just come from a different walk of life. I want 17- and 18-year-old guys coming in and choosing this is what they want to do until they're 40 or whatever. To make sure we have a sport that does that, there needs to be a feeder class underneath that creates great drivers.
So I wanted to do this right. I wanted a car that is exciting, a car that is not car-manufacturer labeled although this car obviously has adapted Fiesta panels on it at the moment. It will be a one-make series, although what body is on it, I don't mind; I'd leave that to the promoters. My priority is to make sure that the cars are all equal, and that the guy who's really fast in one of these Lites cars will then be able to leap up to GRC level and, given one day of testing, he's good enough to reach a GRC Final. That's how good I think I can get him or her in this Lites car.
R: So the Lites car will handle just like a lower-powered GRC car.
AE: Yes, but not just handle. I want all the key elements from the GRC car in the Lites car – not just in terms of its behavior but how it reacts to certain changes. As well as teaching a driver how to handle a GRC car, the Lites car will teach drivers how to adjust their equipment. It's important for a driver to know what changes affect his car in what way because when you get into the GRC, damper settings and things like that can make the difference to who's fastest. A driver needs to know how to influence his car to tune it into his driving style, the nature of the track. So we will make everything as adjustable as possible.
It will sound really good, but it won't have a turbo because I want the two classes to sound distinct from one another. It will have over 300hp. The GRC cars are about 1,300kg [2,866lbs] with the driver, and the Lites will be 1,100kg [2,425lbs]. The size of tires will be the same, but I'm trying to make the cars handle the same even if the power to grip ratio is different. The braking power is the same as in the GRC car, but with slightly smaller front discs and the transmission is the same. And so on the gravel part of our test track, this Lites car was only 0.3sec slower than a GRC car. I was pleased with that.
R: And the cost?
AE: My target from the beginning was $100-150,000 and it probably is actually closer to $150,000. But my goal is not to work down to a price. The idea is to have good quality equipment – we design everything, and then the chassis is built by Avitas in Turkey, the wheels are Motegi Racing, the engine is Mountune in the UK, and we then have a very rigorous quality control here at OMSE. I'm also trying to achieve a point where the car will never break. Seriously, I want it to be like a Swiss clock. But the most important question is running costs, because anyone can buy a car but not everyone can run it. So that's the key. We want it so that everything will be in a book – there will be no hidden costs for customers.
I want the engine as good as possible but they must be evenly matched, so I have them built as 25-unit run – Mountune can do 40-engine runs and make every one the same, which is one of the reasons we work with them. And we'll do chassis rebuilds 10 by 10. One of the biggest problems that teams in all sports have is the variability of quality from batch to batch so having them all coming through one place and in bulk loads should eliminate that worry.
Another point I want to make here is that I will also be setting up a facility whereby all the ECUs can be checked, to make sure everything's equal. It's always hard to make guarantees in motorsport but there are some guarantees that have to be there especially in a one-make series, right? The whole purpose of Lites is to create and recognize stars that are worthy of graduation to the GRC cars, so you don't want anyone stealing an advantage by playing with the ECU and getting a different torque curve or more horsepower.
R: I understand there's been a lot of interest…Actually, I know there's a lot of interest. Some of the names that have come up have surprised me.
AE: I have IndyCar teams that want to run cars, NASCAR Nationwide teams, Drifting teams, too. So I can't say it loud but I'm pretty sure we'll have a lot of Super Car Lites running in 2013. We will have a big test in January with cars with some significant improvements on this model and it will take half a year to get enough of them ready. Probably the series debut will be in May or June, and hopefully we will have a series of six races next year, each one supporting a GRC round.
R: And you're working with the promoter on this?
AE: Ha! I have thought about it many times – “Should I be a promoter or should I run a race team?” and I decided I want to run a race team. My company from the beginning was Motor Sport Evolution – that's what I do. And Olsbergs came in and so we are OMSE now. So a race team is what we are. But, of course, I want to help the promoter in any way I can. And so I want the winner of the Super Car Lites series to have really earned it, and I want what he or she has earned to really be something, and I want that to mean promotion to the GRC cars where he or she can take on names that are already stars. We have momentum and we must build on it.