Epic, breathless, action-packed – take your pick. The final race of last weekend’s RX2 International Series presented by Cooper Tires round at Lohéac in France (30 August – 1 September) was a fast-paced thriller from lights-out to chequered flag – and it ended with Ben-Philip Gundersen’s second victory in swift succession.
Already laying claim to the move of the weekend in Q3 – leaving his braking as late as he dared into Turn One to sweep all the way around the outside of his adversaries and snatch the lead from fifth on the grid – Gundersen was on a mission in the final. This was quite possibly the most exciting and unpredictable race in the history of the official FIA World RX feeder series, with a plot line that changed from one corner to the next.
Some 75,000 enthusiastic spectators lapped up the drama as the Norwegian got the better of defending champion Oliver Eriksson over the course of an explosive last lap. The Swede held on for second from Sami-Matti Trogen, with the SET Promotion teenager replicating his rostrum result from the same event last year following a quartet of fourth-place finishes earlier this season.
Eriksson took the top spot in the intermediate classification after setting the pace in both Q1 and Q2, though the championship leader endured a rougher ride in Q3 and Q4, coming off worse in first corner squeezes on both occasions. Nonetheless, he had already done enough to remain at the summit of the standings.
Gundersen ran the Swede closest, with his Q3 heroics vaulting the Norwegian up the overall order into second place. Jesse Kallio’s Q4 success produced a similar effect as the Finn kept his title aspirations intact in third.
After sitting an impressive second overnight, Trogen ultimately slipped to fourth due to traffic in Q4, with Fraser McConnell battling back from broken suspension in Q2 to secure fifth position courtesy of a trio of top five performances.
Latvian brothers Vasiliy and Nikolay Gryazin were evenly-matched in sixth and seventh respectively – although the latter, making his RX2 debut at the weekend, would have featured higher up but for a late slide in Q4 that cost him time. William Nilsson was next in his maiden appearance for Team Färén, putting a first corner spin in Q2 behind him with top four efforts in both Q3 and Q4.
The semi-final line-up was completed by reigning EuroRX TouringCar champion Steve Volders, former X Games gold medallist Petter Nårsa – who got quicker with every run on his series bow – Anders Michalak and home hero Damien Meunier. The Frenchman lost ground in Q2 with a puncture, but delighted the partisan crowd by narrowly making the cut.
That meant Simon Olofsson, Albert Llovera – who enjoyed arguably his most competitive RX2 outing to-date, posting a top ten time in Q2 – American newcomer Lane Vacala and local specialist Yann Le Jossec missed out. The latter showed flashes of form, but an electrical issue that ruled him out of Q1 and a last lap collision in Q3 ultimately sealed his fate.
From pole position in the first of the semi-finals, Eriksson led team-mate Kallio throughout, with the top two pulling away from the chasing pack and the Finn closing right onto his title rival’s tail by the chequered flag.
In the third OMSE car, Jamaica’s McConnell saw off Nikolay Gryazin – the pair indulging in an energetic and entertaining wheel-to-wheel scrap along the way – for the remaining final spot. Volders wound up fifth, surviving a coming-together with Michalak that pitched the Swede into a spectacular roll and prompted a re-start.
In the second semi-final, Gundersen found himself needing to fend off a feisty-looking Trogen on the opening lap, and the Finn kept the pressure on as the pair sped clear of their pursuers. Vasiliy Gryazin ensured SRT would be represented in the final by taking the flag third – albeit some way back from the top two – with Nilsson just missing out in fourth after an early joker tactic left him stuck in traffic. Meunier placed fifth, while Nårsa’s challenge was scuppered by a puncture.
If ever there was a candidate for race of the season – scratch that, make it best race in RX2 history – this, surely, was it. Eriksson withstood the initial threat posed by Gundersen through the first corner, but further back there was a change for third as Trogen muscled his way past countryman Kallio and McConnell followed through – then immediately darted for the joker.
Gundersen got a run on the race leader starting lap two, only to find the door shut solidly in his face, but there was greater drama unfolding behind. Gryazin tried to relieve Kallio of fourth at the last corner and – as the pair drifted wide – the opportunistic McConnell took advantage to pass them both. The Finn and Latvian would subsequently come together again at the same place, resulting in a spin for the OMSE driver that rooted him firmly to the foot of the order.
Up at the front, meanwhile, new second-placed man Trogen was ramping up the pressure on Eriksson, with early joker Gundersen in third and on a charge. The top two waited until the last lap to play their jokers, but by then it was too late and the JC Raceteknik ace was through – just. Eriksson tried to fight back into the penultimate corner, but Gundersen held his ground and forced the championship leader wide to secure his fourth career RX2 victory and move up to third in the title standings.
The Swede had to get swiftly back on the gas to hold onto second place, with Trogen and McConnell both fancying a late sniff of the runner-up spoils and the Finn crossing the line sideways in the three-way squeeze. Less than 1.7 seconds blanketed the top four at the flag, with Gryazin and the frustrated Kallio completing the finishing order.
The result sees Eriksson carry a 21-point margin over Kallio into the 2019 RX2 season finale at Cape Town’s Killarney International Raceway on 9/10 November – as the South African circuit prepares to stage a dazzling duel for the coveted crown.
Ben-Philip Gundersen (1st): “What a great feeling! It’s difficult to describe. We all know how fast Oliver [Eriksson] is and how rarely he makes mistakes, and my three previous wins in RX2 have all come either without him in the final or with him having problems. To defeat him head-to-head on-track at last – in a straight fight and on pure pace – is fantastic. This is my most satisfying win yet in RX2 – the hardest-earned and it’s always rewarding to beat the best. I was on the outside of the grid for all of Saturday’s qualifying races, which meant my main aim was simply coming out of the first corner still in one piece, but in Q3, I got a really good start so I knew I just had to send it. That was probably the turning-point of the weekend for me. I certainly felt the pressure from Trogen in the semi-final, and I had to push really hard in the joker to stay ahead. There wasn’t much left on the table there, but when I was following Oliver in the final, I could see he was sliding around a bit whereas I had really good traction, so I went for an early joker to try to get the undercut. It was a crazy end to the race, with a bit of contact on both sides and we leaned on each other quite a lot, but it was a really fun battle. After our difficult start to the season, it seems things are properly coming good now and I need to thank all the guys at JC Raceteknik for working so hard to give me a great car – this is a team victory above anything else.”
Oliver Eriksson (2nd): “We had the speed throughout the qualifying races, but Turn One just got the better of us in Q3 and Q4 – it’s always tight into the first corner at Lohéac, and being on the outside or mid-grid really isn’t where you want to be. That left us in traffic and it’s tough to fight back here with so few overtaking spots, but I just made sure to take no risks as I knew we still had enough in hand to end up as Top Qualifier. It was a close battle with Jesse [Kallio] in the semi-final; he was really narrowing the gap towards the end – he got faster and faster as the weekend progressed, and I had to focus on maintaining my pace so as not to give him any opportunities to attack. The final was more of a struggle, though – my car was sliding around a bit and I didn’t have quite the same feeling. Ben-Philip [Gundersen] stuck his nose up the inside a couple of times, so I really tried to get the hammer down when he jokered and it was a very tight merge after my own joker on the last lap. I never give up until the chequered flag has fallen, but he had the inside line for the last corner. It was a hard but fair battle and this time he came out on top, so congratulations to him. Looking at the bigger picture, we’ve extended the lead in the championship and whilst I obviously want to win each race, the title has to be the main focus. The fight goes on to the season finale – it’s going to be a blast!”
Sami-Matti Trogen (3rd): “Lohéac seems to suit me pretty well! I came back here this year with happy memories and in confident mood, and I had a good feeling again right from the outset. We quickly managed to settle down into a strong rhythm in free practice and kept that going into Q1 with the second-fastest time. We lost out a bit in traffic in both Q3 and Q4, but the pace was still good. It was close with Ben-Philip [Gundersen] in my semi; I felt I had an edge over him and really wanted to be on the front row for the final, but he is not an easy man to get past so we had to settle for second. The start to the final went well and I managed to get Kallio for third, and when Gundersen took the joker I pushed hard to try to put some pressure on Eriksson. It all got a bit busy on the last lap, and there were three of us side-by-side heading towards the chequered flag. I was in the middle, but I knew I just had to keep my foot planted and I crossed the finish line sideways, which surely must earn ten-out-of-ten for style?! Seriously, though, it’s great to score the second podium of my RX2 career and now I’m looking forward to a strong end to the season in South Africa.”
Andreas Eriksson, RX2 International Series presented by Cooper Tires CEO: “What a weekend we have had here at Lohéac! The racing was first-rate – particularly in the final, which was one of the most exciting we have ever seen in RX2. There was so much action I didn’t know where to look, and the battle between Ben-Philip Gundersen and Oliver Eriksson in particular was outstanding – two hard-chargers, neither willing to give an inch and only one space on the top step of the podium. Congratulations to Ben-Philip for his second consecutive victory, and to Sami-Matti Trogen for his first top three finish of 2019; having come close on so many occasions this year, it was somewhat overdue. The French crowd also had two local heroes to cheer on in Damien Meunier and Yann Le Jossec, both of whom put on a good show. Now, we move on to South Africa – and the final instalment of this season’s title fight.”
1. Ben-Philip GUNDERSEN (NOR) JC Raceteknik 6 laps
2. Oliver ERIKSSON (SWE) Olsbergs MSE +0.500s
3. Sami-Matti TROGEN (FIN) SET Promotion +0.730s
4. Fraser MCCONNELL (JAM) Olsbergs MSE +1.624s
5. Vasiliy GRYAZIN (LVA) Sports Racing Technologies +3.395s
6. Jesse KALLIO (FIN) Olsbergs MSE +12.708s
1. Oliver Eriksson (SWE) 163 points
2. Jesse Kallio (FIN) 142 points
3. Ben-Philip Gundersen (NOR) 128 points
4. Fraser McConnell (JAM) 119 points
5. Sami-Matti Trogen (FIN) 105 points
6. Vasiliy Gryazin (LVA) 91 points
7. William Nilsson (SWE) 57 points
8. Simon Olofsson (SWE) 56 points
9. Anders Michalak (SWE) 55 points
10. Steve Volders (BEL) 51 points
The 2019 RX2 International Series presented by Cooper Tires will comprise seven rounds in support of the FIA World Rallycross Championship presented by Monster Energy, visiting Spain, Belgium, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, France and South Africa.