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Last weekend saw the teams head to Latvia for round 9 of theWorld RX championship. This is an event which saw mixed emotions for the team last year. There was the high note of Johan securing his first World RX Championship title after winning the event, but that was overshadowed by the fact that Petter was involved in an accident which put him in hospital with a broken collarbone, and broken ribs. In true Solberg style, he was never going to let that stop him, despite the severity of his injuries, he was back racing two weeks later.
With so many teams doing testing on their cars and setups at this track earlier in the season, it was going to come down to the finest of margins, and any advantage they were able to gain over their competitors was going to be crucial. Johan chose to fire his first shot during the Friday press conference. Although it was done in a jovial manner, it was definitely a statement of intent and a chance to tell the other drivers that nobody had been able to get close. For anyone who never saw it, he was asked to sum up his season so far in only 3 words. The 3 words he chose?? “28 points average” Which sums up his season perfectly.
Like so many other tracks, the start is pivotal to how the race will pan out. Where this track is slightly different is that being the first driver to hit the apex at turn 1 isn’t always the key. The drag race to turn 1 is a short race, but the track tightens so dramatically, that there is no way 5 cars are going to get through, so it is a case of treading the line between being brave and defending your position, or giving the pack a little room to get the better line into turn 2.
In Q1 Petter was drawn in a heat which lined up almost like it could be a final, With Mattias Ekstrom and Andreas Bakkerud both lining up on the start line alongside him. As the lights went green Ekstrom got a brilliant launch, and made it into turn 1 ahead of Solberg in P2. Petter decided to take the joker lap on lap 2, which then left the two Audis out in front, but they couldn’t hold on to the top spots, and Petter was close enough to Bakkerud to take 2nd position when Andreas went to the joker lap. Johan lined up against Kevin Hansen, and the British Bomb Liam Doran who marked his return to WRX in france by going toe to toe with the champ, this was looking like it could be eventful. It did not disappoint. Contact at turn 1 saw Hansen almost in the barriers, Doran massively off line, and Johan managed to hold on to get the lead. Gronholm took 2nd, but ran wide and hit Doran hard when he rejoined the track. If the excitement in this first round of heats was anything to go by, this was going to a brilliant event from a spectator’s point of view. This couldn’t have gone better for Johan. Hansen went into the barrier, Liam looked like he had picked up damage from the impact with Gronholm, Gronholm was held up behind Liam, and Eriksson had a spin at turn 9. This meant Johan just had to focus on his own drive, and he did just that. He crossed the line 6 seconds ahead of Gronholm, and took P1 overall by just 0.009 seconds.
Q2 saw both of the team PSRX drivers face off alongside the Peugeots of Timmy Hansen and Sebastien Loeb as well as the Audi of Mattias Ekstrom. Five drivers at the top of the standings after heat 1, and all of them in the top 6 in the championship. Johan got a solid launch, and managed to avoid the battle behind him wh ich saw Loeb catch the tyre wall and suffer damage which would see him haemorrhage time, and slip way down the running order for Sunday’s sessions. Johan looked as composed as ever, and with clear track in front of him he had nothing to do but race the clock. Ekstrom took second, and Solberg took 3rd, which was also how the top spots looked at the end of Saturday.
Sunday Morning saw an early start for the drivers with a packed day of racing ahead of them. It was a Scandinavian battle in heat 4 of the 3rd session with 2 Swedish drivers, 2 Norwegians and 1 Finnish representative. As exciting as it is when Both PSRX drivers are in the same heat, it always makes me a bit nervous after the collision between them at Silverstone earlier in the year. Not that either driver was to b;lema, it is racing, and these things happen, but it’s still a nervous time. A very even start across the grid meant it was a pure drag to the first corner. Johan got the holeshot, and never looked like letting Ekstrom get the better of him. Bakkerud and Solberg had a great battle from a fan’s perspective, with the pair of them trading paint and pushing each other from the start line to the chequered flag, but it cost them time and saw them slip down the results table.
Because of their battle in Q3, Solberg and Bakkerud lined up against each other in heat 2. This is a battle that we have seen so many times this year, and that is not a bad thing because after all, competitive racing is what everyone wants to see. After the first couple of corners everyone settled into position with Bakerud in the lead, and Solberg in 2nd. Petter’s VW Polo R looked to be quicker than the Audi, and he was tight on the rear bumper of Andreas through the first two laps. Andreas made a small error on lap 3, where he missed the apex on turn 3, but Petter’s experience and patience paid off, and he spotted the gap, made the dive, and took the lead. After last year’s misfortune, would this herald a change of luck in Latvia for Petter? Johan got a great launch, although the same couldn’t be said for Ekstrom who seemed to get caught out by how quickly the lights went green, and he was left on the start line. The Polo seems to be that much quicker than the rest of the grid and means that If Johan gets to the front of the pack he just starts to pull a gap from everyone else.
I feel like I have been doing Johan an injustice over the course of my reviews, as I don’t seem to give such detailed reports of his performances. The reason for this is that Johan is such an exceptionally skilled driver, that he seems to get himself to the front of the pack, and from there he is so calm and composed that he carries on to the chequered flag. He doesn’t get caught up in battles very often, but when he does, he is perfectly confident, and is willing to trade paint with anyone.
With both of the PSRX cars in the semi final, things were looking good for them to pick up a healthy points haul for the team championships, and extend their lead at the top of the table. With Johan sitting as Top Qualifier, and Petter in P5, they would both be lining up in the same semi final. With the staggered grid positions rather than the level start of the heats, this would be a new challenge, a new game plan perhaps for many of the teams. How would everyone approach it? As the lights go green and they head towards turn 1, everything looks good for PSRX. Johan gets a nose in front as he has done in most of his races, steers clear of the carnage which has ensued behind him and goes about his business, setting the fastest lap of the day in the process. I’m sure his spotter, who is also his father, would have been on the radio to let him know of the incident which had unfolded. On the approach to turn 1, Guerlain Chicherit makes contact with the rear of Petter’s car, sending him into the tyre wall, luckily it was not so serious as the incident here last year, but the time he lost was too much of a deficit to make up, and his weekend was over. All of PSRX’s hopes now rested on the shoulders of One driver. One magnificent driver none the less, but he wasn’t at all phased by it. Johan started in P1 for the final, and as they headed down to turn 1, Johan stays brave, brakes late, and gets through turn 1 in first place. This has been a common sight this weekend, Kristoffersson is out in front of the pack, the only difference is the names behind him. Johan carries on unaffected by the fact that he is on the cusp of making history, but that seems to be a regular occurrence for him nowadays. He holds on to take the chequered flag, Extending his lead at the top of the driver’s championship, and helping team PSRX move further ahead in the Team championship
2 Ekström 181pts
3 Bakkerud 179pts
4 Loeb 176pts
6 T Hansen 163pts
2 EKS Audi Sport 360pts
3 Team Peugeot Total 354pts
Johan had set another record this weekend, just as he seems to do at every race weekend. He has now won 8 out of the 9 events this year, and although it is still mathematically possible for him to be caught, it looks highly unlikely that it will happen. Especially with the results going the way they did. He also set a new record by being top qualifier (TQ) for the 6th consecutive event. This sees him equal the record for TQ positions in a season, but no one had previously done 6 consecutively. And by taking the top spot on the podium, he claimed his 17th career victory, and, you guessed it, that’s another record against his name.
Looking back at the weekend, Petter still manages to see the positives. “I don’t believe in bad luck but that’s three times in a row now in Latvia... I feel like I had good pace all weekend but just never had the chance to show it. I was stuck in traffic a lot this morning, some really tough battles but it meant I lost so much time and couldn’t get the results I needed to get a front-row spot for the semi-finals. That obviously proved to be vital, as in turn one in the semi I felt a hard hit from behind and was pushed into the wall. At that point getting into the final was basically impossible, but our speed in those last five laps was really good and showed what could have been. As for Johan, incredible again. I feel so lucky to have him in my team, both as a driver and a person. These results he’s getting are hard to believe, but he just keeps going, very proud to have him with us at PSRX."
It is much easier for Johan to have a positive outlook after claiming top spot on the podium again. “I had some great memories of winning my first world championship here last year and it was nice to be back again. We did our testing here in the middle of the year, but to see the grandstands full again was really bringing back the memories of last year – it made me want another world championship! But what a fantastic weekend again! I've got to say Q1 was crucial here – it was so tight, but beating Loeb by nine-thousandths of a second was vital to get pole for Q2. That helped shape the whole weekend. Turn one here is so important, we saw a lot of chaos here and I tried my best to keep out of it and succeeded thankfully. From pole it is, of course, much easier to brake late and keep position."