The action on-track was every bit as scorching as the temperature in the paddock at Lohéac this weekend (1/2 September), and amidst a succession of drama-fuelled races, through it all came Oliver Eriksson to claim his third victory of the 2018 RX2 International Series presented by Cooper Tires campaign and increase his championship lead.
Eriksson was rarely the fastest in France – a circuit that he readily admits is not the best-suited to his driving style or prior rallycross experience – but he produced a series of calm, composed and mature performances throughout the qualifying stages, semi-finals and final to ultimately take the chequered flag first.
The Swede – who now holds a 14-point advantage in the overall standings heading to the South African season finale at the end of November – benefitted from a last lap error by Henrik Krogstad and put his car in the right place at the right time to reach the top step of the rostrum in front of 80,000 enthusiastic spectators packing the circuit banking and grandstands.
He was joined there by SET Promotion’s Sami-Matti Trogen – the youngest driver in the field recording his first podium finish in only his fifth RX2 start – and Olsbergs MSE team-mate Guillaume De Ridder, who duly kept the title fight alive with just one round now remaining.
It was De Ridder that dominated the qualifying phase in France, taking a clean sweep of quickest times on Saturday to top the intermediate classification. Eriksson was a regular thorn in his side, however, with his trademark lightning starts and commendable consistency securing him second in the table.
Third was Team Färén’s Nathan Heathcote, who came within a scant six hundredths-of-a-second of winning Q4 on what was unquestionably a breakthrough weekend for the reigning MSA British Rallycross Champion, with JC Raceteknik ace Henrik Krogstad producing a sensational turn-of-speed to battle back from Q2 contact for fourth.
Fifth was Trogen as the Finnish teenager increasingly proves his potential at RX2 level, with JC Raceteknik duo Sondre Evjen and William Nilsson closely-matched in sixth and seventh, the latter replicating the impressive form that he displayed at Lohéac this time last year.
Jami Kalliomäki (SET Promotion) enjoyed a strong run in eighth, ahead of Conner Martell (Team Färén), who found himself turfed off at Turn One following contact in Q3 but dug deep to secure his semi-final berth. The remaining semi-finalists were title contenders Vasiliy Gryazin (Sports Racing Technologies) and Ben-Philip Gundersen (JC Raceteknik) – both similarly delayed by incidents – and SET Promotion’s Simon Syversen.
De Ridder had to get his elbows out to fend off a fast-starting Heathcote into Turn One in the first semi-final, and with the Briton running wide on the exit, Trogen took advantage to dart through into second. Worse was to follow for the Team Färén driver when a nudge from Gundersen turned him around on the entry to the joker, dropping Heathcote behind team-mate Martell and leaving the Norwegian’s car carrying significant bodywork damage.
Up at the front, De Ridder edged clear of Trogen to take a comfortable win, while behind, Martell staunchly defended against the frustrated Heathcote. Gundersen took the chequered flag fifth before a penalty for the opening lap collision relegated him to sixth, behind JC Raceteknik stablemate Nilsson, whose hopes of reaching the final for the third time this season were torpedoed by an oil pressure sensor failure.
In the second semi-final, following a textbook start, Eriksson held sway at the head of the pack despite constant pressure from Krogstad, the Swede remaining in control from lights-to-flag. Kalliomäki made an early bid for third, but contact pitched him spectacularly into the air and off the track – making him, for those fleeting moments, quite literally a flying Finn. Evjen ultimately grabbed the last available final spot in third, with Gryazin and Syversen just missing out.
Krogstad took the OMSE drivers by surprise at the start of the final, ducking inside Eriksson on the exit of Turn One before snatching the lead from De Ridder a couple of corners later. After soaking up early pressure from the Belgian, once his pursuer jokered on lap three – rejoining behind Trogen – Krogstad inched away and the Norwegian looked to be on-course for a popular breakthrough victory in the official FIA World Rallycross Championship feeder series.
That was until the last lap, when a spin only two corners from home spelt heartbreak for the JC Raceteknik rookie as all of his rivals swept past. Eriksson was the first to scramble through, having leapfrogged his team-mate during the jokers, with Trogen and De Ridder arriving as one. It was the Finn that had the inside for the final corner, allowing him to follow Eriksson across the line in second for the maiden podium finish of his RX2 career, with De Ridder a disappointed third – albeit still in the title fight. Martell, Evjen and the crestfallen Krogstad completed the finishers.
The result leaves Eriksson with an extended 14-point margin over De Ridder at the summit of the Drivers’ standings, with 30 still to play for at Cape Town’s Killarney International Raceway on 24/25 November – and a straight two-horse duel for the coveted crown.
Oliver Eriksson (1st): “That was certainly unexpected! I knew coming here that some of the others would have an advantage over me as it’s not my natural surface and I really had to fight in every race, so to end up on the top step of the podium and with an increased championship lead is amazing. At the end of the day, RX2 is all about developing our skills, and I learnt a lot this weekend – it’s a constant curve of progression and I’m a better driver for every single lap I spend in the car. We weren’t quite as fast as Guillaume [De Ridder], but we were always within a tenth-of-a-second or so, and with so many quick drivers here, that consistency was very important, I think. Getting the starts right was another key factor, and of course we needed a bit of luck, too, but our strategy worked out and we stayed out of trouble in what was a pretty insane final at times, which ultimately paid off. I really feel for Henrik [Krogstad]; he drove so well and did everything right until just a couple of corners from the end. It’s tough sometimes, but for me, it’s been a great weekend, and awesome to share the experience with so many passionate fans. As a Swede, Höljes will always be closest to my heart, but as a rallycross driver, I have to say, this is probably the most enjoyable event I’ve ever competed in.”
Sami-Matti Trogen (2nd): “It’s a great feeling. I had a challenging start to my RX2 career earlier this season, but things are really beginning to come good and after reaching the final for the first time in Canada, it’s fantastic to make it onto the podium now, too. The level of competition in this championship is so high, and I’m still lacking a lot of experience in relation to most of the other drivers – particularly with regard to the car, which is very different to what I drove before and a big step-up. I felt optimistic coming to Lohéac, though, as I’d raced here in the RX Academy and we had a very positive pre-event test, and I think my circuit racing background helped, too, given the very unique nature of the track surface. The qualifying races and semi-final all went well, and while my start in the final wasn’t the best, I could immediately see we had good pace and our strategy played out perfectly. It was a hectic last lap, but we managed to avoid the chaos and to come out in second place was brilliant and a big confidence boost going forward. It proved what we’re capable of, so now we need to take this momentum with us to South Africa to finish the season strong.”
Guillaume De Ridder (3rd): “I can’t help but feel disappointed with the end result. We were the quickest all weekend and I got a good start in the final to exit Turn One in the lead. I wasn’t aware Krogstad was so close on the first lap, but we were still right on his tail and in the perfect position to attack when we decided to take the joker on lap three. We thought there was enough of a gap back to Trogen in fourth, but I got a push from behind on the entry, which sent me into a half-spin and that meant I rejoined behind Sami-Matti. After that, the race became a lot more complicated and third was the most we could do. It obviously makes the championship a much longer shot now. The two retirements we had at the start of the season really hurt us, so it was always going to be an uphill battle – particularly with such fine margins between the drivers in RX2 and the fact that the points-scoring system makes it difficult to claw back ground – but I will come out fighting in South Africa. All I can do is drive flat-out and give it everything I have, and whatever else happens is out of my control.”
Andreas Eriksson, RX2 International Series presented by Cooper Tires CEO: “Lohéac is one of the biggest and most popular events on the international rallycross calendar, and for good reason. Once again, the weekend has delivered a thrilling blend of on-track action and off-track entertainment, in which the RX2 drivers played a major role. To see so many fans both at the circuit and lining the streets of the village for the Friday afternoon parade was a real validation of the growing popularity of this motorsport discipline, and hopefully they all enjoyed the superb show our boys put on for them. Now, though, we are already turning our focus to South Africa – and what promises to be an appropriately spectacular conclusion to our exciting second season.”
1. Oliver ERIKSSON (SWE) Olsbergs MSE 6 laps
2. Sami-Matti TROGEN (FIN) SET Promotion +0.557s
3. Guillaume DE RIDDER (BEL) Olsbergs MSE +0.921s
4. Conner MARTELL (USA) Team Färén +1.969s
5. Sondre EVJEN (NOR) JC Raceteknik + 2.949s
6. Henrik KROGSTAD (NOR) JC Raceteknik + 5.053s
1. Oliver Eriksson (SWE) 154 points
2. Guillaume De Ridder (BEL) 140 points
3. Henrik Krogstad (NOR) 108 points
4. Vasiliy Gryazin (LVA) 95 points
5. Ben-Philip Gundersen (NOR) 90 points
6. Sondre Evjen (NOR) 88 points
7. William Nilsson (SWE) 78 points
8. Conner Martell (USA) 69 points
9. Jami Kalliomäki (FIN) 69 points
10. Sami-Matti Trogen (FIN) 63 points