F1-style standing starts, 550-bhp 4WD cars that rocket from 0 to 100 kph in less than 2.5 seconds. More bumping and rubbing than in a NASCAR race. World Rally Championship levels of car control around an easily viewed, compact course that switches from tarmac to gravel and back again half a dozen times a lap. The technology active differentials, 275-hp/liter engines is second to none, but it's displayed in a Sunday night dirt-track format. Welcome to the European Rallycross Championship. Nothing in my 25 years of standing trackside not waiting outside Turn One at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix, not watching a Group B Audi Sport Quattro apex inches from my toes deep in the Pennsylvania woods had prepared me for the "sturm und drang" of the last Division One final of the 2002 ERC championship. Watching the six cars fight for the same bit of real estate as the braked on gravel from 150 kph for Estring Buxtehude's first turn, I heard Per Eklund's voice retelling the story of once being bumped here and ending up on the patio of the VIP tent just a few meters away. Close enough to be sprayed by gravel, the crowd just behind me roared its approval as the cars slid and jostled their way around the tarmac hairpin.
Rallycross traces its beginning to the 1967 RAC rally. An outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease caused a last-minute cancellation of the event, but, boys being boys, it was decided to contest a single gravel stage anyway, and a week later a race was run on Lydden Hill, staged by the Thames Estuary Automobile Club and reserved for club drivers. Four cars started each heat, and during all the fighting for both finishing position and overall time, organizers realized they'd found a new motorsport recipe. ("Rallycross Yearbook '82," Eddi Laumanns cited by Frank van Rooy).
National championships soon sprang up in England and Holland, and Sweden followed in 1971. By 1973, a formal international championship, the Embassy-European Rallycross Championship, was organized. Brit John Taylor won the first title with Austrian Franz Wurz winning in 1974. In 1975 Dutchman Cees Teurlings won the ERA-European Rallycross Championship. The FIA took over sanctioning duties in 1976 and has organized the championship ever since. The ERC now makes stops in Portugal, France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Poland and Germany. Strong national championships continue to run across Europe, including series in France, England, Belgium, Holland and Sweden.
Like a Saturday night at your favorite half-mile bullring, an ERC weekend is full of short, furious qualifying rounds and races. No quarter is asked, none given, and rare is the quarter-panel untouched over a weekend. A timed practice sets the field for the three qualifying races. A points system based on results from those races sets the field for the C, B and A finals. The winner of the C final advances to the B final, with that winner advancing to the A final. Cars start five abreast for the qualifying rounds and in the three staggered rows of two for the final.
When Group B supercars were banned from the WRC, rallycross was a natural home, and the racing was spectacular. Eventually, though, the FIA decided to design a coherent set of rules for the Division 1 cars based on current WRC cars, and the Group B cars were excluded. Several of the 750-bhp beasts still run in the English championship, but reluctance to accept the rules changes has effectively kept that island nation from the ERC.
Today's Division 1 cars are sparkling examples of technology and one-off thinking. "You cannot take a WRC car, it's not good enough," said Per Eklund. "The basis is good, but you need much more power." A 45mm restrictor, stock block requirement and a displacement/weight ratio have most teams settling on 2-liter turbocharged motors. Hansen's factory-backed Citroen Xsara displaces 2.056 liters, right on the maximum limit, and pumps out 515 bhp and 553 lb-ft of torque. Eklund's Trollspeed-built Saab four pumps out nearly 600 bhp!
"The transmission of the WRC car cannot take this 500 to 600 horsepower; a bunch of people have tried. You must have your own idea a little bit," said Eklund. The Hyundai effort, another Trollspeed-engined car, uses the Hyundai block with a Volvo head.
Wider carbon-fiber fenders are allowed, but the driver's door and the roof panel must be stock steel pieces. Other body parts may be reproduced in carbon fiber or plastic but must be the stock shape, and stock bumper covers must be used. Radiators are moved to the rear of the car to protect them from flying mud and to make room for the huge intercoolers the giant turbos demand.
The real innovations concern the transmission and engine packaging. Unlike the WRC, the engine can be moved from its original location, even rotated. All the Division 1 cars have longitudinally aligned engines, and there are three main transmission styles. Eklund's Saab uses a tried-and-true Prodrive H-pattern gearbox. However, the front differential limits how far back and down the engine may be moved. Several teams, including the Audi and most of the Foci, use an X-trac sequential transmission with the front differential alongside the engine. This allows the engine to be moved further back but at the cost of moving it higher to clear the half-shafts. The Citroen uses a similar Sadev six-speed sequential setup. The most intriguing transmission is a unit built by Martin Schanche. Expensive and new, the sequential six-speed is currently used in only a few cars, including Jos Kuypers' Focus. Transmission tunnels in Division 1 cars are allowed to be made much larger to accommodate the four-wheel-drive systems, but the Schanche system looks tiny in comparison to the Prodrive unit. A much smaller than normal flywheel is used to provide clearance, and two driveshafts run up each side of the engine. A small angled gear drive is mounted on each side of the engine block. This allows the engine to be moved as far back as allowed and to drop 6 to 7 cm. These guys will fight for any advantage. Teams must come up with their own programming for the engine management and active center differentials.
Of course, there are several other divisions in the ERC and various national series. The ERC's Division 2 class is made up of 2WD, 2-liter Group N spec cars (with free electronics, cams and suspensions). Division 2A cars saw their last race here at the final round of the 2002 Championship. The small 2WD, 1400cc cars will be replaced next year by Division 1A cars based on the WRC's 2WD Super 1600 Class. The eight-car Division 2 finals are incredibly entertaining and extremely competitive. The visiting Supernational (Sweden and Norway) support race featured 2.8-liter. Three hundred fifty-bhp engines in RWD Volvo S40 and 240 sedans, with a couple of M3s and an RX-7 thrown in for good measure. Some of these entertaining drift machines carry as much as 70 percent of the weight on the rear wheels.
But nowhere is the competition fiercer than in a Division 1 final. With the very short races (here at Estring, four-lap qualifiers and six-lap finals) getting to the first corner ahead of everyone else is important. "If you're not on the inside, you're fucked," said Eklund. "You need to be in the front row, this is the number one key. If you change gears, you lose the start, so I use the longest first gear possible, and you must defend the line at all times. If I give you just one meter, he's there!" Eklund's best-case start scenario is to be 20 meters ahead at the first corner in order to run a proper and much quicker racing line.
Getting through the first corner is as important as getting there first, and if Eklund is leading, "The plan is to brake 20 meters early. I know I will be pushed, I put the clutch in, hold 9000 revs, and after the bumping is over and I have the car in the correct line, I release the clutch and pfffft! Away you go!"
Going into the last two rounds of the championship, Eklund needed two wins to claim his second ERC title. "I made a good start [from the outside pole] and thought I was clear at the first turn. When I turned in, the Citroen bumped me and everybody passed me. I finished fifth and Hansen took the title," said Eklund. It certainly didn't sound very sporting, until the Swede slyly added, "Of course, he was up on two wheels when he hit me!"
"Rallycross is spectacular, intense and lovely to watch," said 2002 ERC champion Kenneth Hansen, and no one at the Estring would argue. With most, if not all, of the action visible from the spectating areas, rallycross might have a future here in the stadium-sports-oriented U.S. If the rumors of a planned rallycross track here are true, the Europeans are certainly willing and eager to bring their show across the pond. Keep your fingers crossed.