Flavio Alonso pushing the Peugeot 206 in the quarter finals of the Race of Champions.
The Michelin Race of Champions is a motorsport event unlike any other. Every year, the Island of Gran Canaria plays host to top stars from the worlds of rally, circuit and bike racing. This year's field included two current F1 drivers, four WRC stars, two NASCAR drivers, two members of the Le Mans-winning Bentley team, the Speedway world champion, a Moto GP rider and an X Games legend. Each competed head to head in a quest to be crowned as the best of the best.
The event is the brainchild of former rally star Michele Mouton and was foundered 15 years ago to commemorate the death of Group B hero Henry Toivonen. Back then, the competition was restricted to rally drivers, but the introduction of competitors from other disciplines has broadened its appeal. "It's fantastic for fans to see a Formula One driver compete on dirt," explained Mouton, "but it has to be a proper event. If the circuit was Mickey Mouse, they would only come once."
A high-speed roll took Travis Pastrana and his Mitsubishi out of Sunday's race.
The Circuit Ciudad Deportiva Islas Canarias was designed by Mouton herself and is cut into a quarry near Las Palmas, the capital of Gran Canaria. Two cars race side by side, crossing at the midpoint, and the mixture of dirt and tarmac was designed to give the racers a chance against their friends from the forest. The sentiments are sincere, but it's the rally drivers who tend to dominate--last year's winner, Marcus Gronholm, was preceded by Harri Rovanpera and Tommi Makinen.
Marcus Gronholm takes out Gilles Panizzi in three close heats.
Gronholm was back to defend his title, but testing commitments meant that he was unable to take part in Saturday's Nations Cup. This competition was introduced in 1999 and each nation is asked to enter a rally driver, a racer and a biker--the French team, for example, comprised WRC runner-up Sebastien Loeb, Toyota F1 star Olivier Panis and world 250cc rider Randy de Puniet.
The rally drivers drove Group N-spec Subaru Impreza WRXs, while the racers piloted Mitsubishi Evo VIIIs. The bikers competed in Race of Champions buggies, which were powered by a 170-bhp Honda Blackbird motorbike engine. These proved a handful, especially for those unfamiliar with four wheels. "The only competition car I've driven is an indoor go- kart," said World Superbike rider James Toseland. "That thing's only got 10 bhp less than my Superbike."
Marcus Gronholm at home in the Peugeot 206.
The competition always throws up a surprise package, and in 2003 it was X Games star Travis Pastrana. He won every race and was almost 2 sec. faster than the next best biker. The American sported a permanent grin: "I get to drive against the guys I watch on TV," he enthused. "I've been trying to get into this race for the last three years, so I'm very excited to be here."
The U.S. team caused a major upset in 2002 by winning the Nation's Cup. This year, Pastrana and his teammates, Casey Mears and Boris Said, made it as far as the semi-finals. They were eventually beaten by an all-star team led by Gilles Panizzi and Cristiano Da Matta. The all-stars also triumphed in the final against a Spanish team that included Champ Car driver Oriol Servia. It was a strange result: They weren't exactly a national team, but they were worthy winners.
Sebastien Loeb flies to victory.
The Race of Champions proper took place the following day and was fought out by the fastest men from the Nation's Cup. Pastrana found himself in the quarter-final against Gronholm. "This is just awesome," he exclaimed. "I'm up against the man." Unfortunately, Pastrana's enthusiasm got the better of him, and he rolled an Evo VIII in spectacular fashion. Back in the paddock, he was far from downbeat: "It felt great until I realized I'd just rolled a nice car. That sucks. It's way better than a motorcycle crash, but it's more expensive."
The U.S. team: Said, Pastrana and Mears.
Said hadn't qualified for the Race of Champions, but he took the opportunity to hitch a passenger ride with Sebastien Loeb. "It's unbelievable what they do," he said at the finish. "Of all the drivers I've met, I think the rally guys are the best in the world. It's amazing how on the edge they are and yet how in control they are. It's such a hostile environment, the average person would just panic."
Unsurprisingly, the semi-final line-up was made up of the World Rally stars. Loeb beat Francois Duval, while Gronholm took care of Panizzi. The Loeb/Gronholm final was a repeat of last year, and the choice of vehicle--a Peugeot 206 WRC--seemed to favor the Finn, but it was Loeb who secured the title. "Let's just hope I can match this performance in the WRC next year," he said at the finish. "It was not a good drive," admitted Gronholm, "but Sebastien did well and I'm not going to cry over it."
Gronholm's attitude epitomized the spirit of an event that's part motor race, part jamboree. The Lycra-clad dancing girls, demob-happy drivers and engaging action were a throwback to the old days. If only all motorsport could be this much fun.