Can anyone stop Johan Kristoffersson?
The Swede continued his recent dominance of the World Rallycross Championship, taking victory in the rain and snow in Portugal. Report on the second round of the season by Luke Barry.
Amid all the chaos of the second round of the 2018 FIA World Rallycross Championship, there was an air of familiarity as Johan Kristoffersson crossed the line in his PSRX Volkswagen Sweden Polo R. The Swede was on his way to victory number two of the season, his third in succession and seventh from the last nine races.
Montalegre hosted the first ever round of World Rallycross back in 2014, and four years on the spectacle was just as entertaining. The Portuguese round really did have it all; three different teams looked like they might be on top over the course of the weekend, but as the conditions changed from sunshine to rain to snow, it was Kristoffersson who kept his cool when it mattered most.
The Peugeots began the contest looking the strongest. On a dry track, Sebastien Loeb and Timmy Hansen proved their Barcelona pace was no fluke by taking the top two qualifying spots overnight on a track that couldn’t be more different to the Spanish Grand Prix circuit.
However, as the sun rose on Sunday it soon disappeared, with the temperatures cooler and the track that bit damper. With new track conditions, it was the Audis that began to seize the initiative. New recruit Andreas Bakkerud was the one to flex his muscles, grabbing both Q3 and Q4 to rocket to the top of the intermediate standings after qualifying.
The big surprise, however, was the absence of Volkswagen from the top of the timesheets. Both Kristoffersson and Petter Solberg were dealt an unfavourable qualifying draw, but the squad that dominated the 2017 season looked as if they’d lost a bit of an edge in Portugal.
The momentum was with their rivals as the top 12 lined up for the two semi-finals. Bakkerud was hot favourite in the first race, but confusion with the joker strategy saw both him and team-mate Mattias Ekstrom dive for the extended tour on the opening lap, losing both Audi S1 pilots time. Kristoffersson spotted his chance, slipped up the inside, and booked himself a front-row start in the final.
The mix-up down at Audi cost Ekstrom his place in the final too, with the Renault Megane of Guerlain Chicherit making the final in just the second ever event for the Prodrive machine. There would be no surprises on the track – at least in the second race – as despite a stall on the line, Solberg joined Kristoffersson, Hansen, Loeb, Bakkerud and Chicherit in the final. However, the sky was up to mischief, with the clouds turning grey and turning grey rapidly.
Rain began to fall as the cars left the line, with the drop in temperature quickly turning that into snow. The drivers were out there on slick tyres and did well to just make it round.
As the final began, the track was now gently covered in snow, something that has never been seen before in World RX history. It didn’t deter Kristoffersson carving his own slice of history however, as the Swede took his 11th career win to put him on top of the all-time winners list ahead of fellow champions Solberg and Ekstrom who both have 10 apiece.
Kristoffersson never looked to be the fastest driver across the weekend, but he hit the front when it mattered to extend his championship lead to nine points over Norwegian Bakkerud. The Swede is continuing to assert his dominance, but the signs suggest that he shouldn’t end up dominating the series like he did last year.
Firstly, it’s worth remembering Ekstrom won the opening three rounds of the 2017 season before Kristoffersson and VW grabbed the series by the horns. And then there’s the fact that the Polo is no longer night and day ahead of the pack. The Peugeot 208 and Audi S1 proved to be just as quick if not quicker in Portugal.
However, Kritsoffersson is continuing to show his class. His management of the championship could prove impossible to beat, with overtaking moves that were clinical, and a calmness under pressure that is robot-like.
The competition is coming at him from all different angles, but this is Kristoffersson’s time. He’s riding on the crest of a wave that is yet to break.