Fourteen points. That is all that separates leading title protagonists Oliver Eriksson and Jesse Kallio at the top of the table as the RX2 International Series presented by Cooper Tires races into Lohéac this weekend (30 August - 1 September) – with the legendary French circuit likely to play a key role in the destiny of the coveted crown.
Eriksson looked to be unbeatable over the opening four rounds of the 2019 campaign in the official FIA World RX feeder series, but the championship leader was denied a spot in the final last time out in Sweden when his water pump belt came off in the semi-final, allowing Olsbergs MSE team-mate Kallio to significantly narrow the gap at the summit of the standings.
The Finn – who has yet to finish off the podium during the course of a hugely impressive rookie season – sent out a warning shot with victory on his RallyX Nordic debut on home soil at Kouvola last weekend, and he will be eager indeed to similarly break his RX2 duck in France. Eriksson, though, is the defending race-winner at Lohéac after taking the lead on a dramatic last lap in 2018, so this is one battle that looks set to run and run.
Maintaining the momentum
The current form man in RX2, however, is neither Eriksson nor Kallio, but rather JC Raceteknik ace Ben-Philip Gundersen, who profited from his Swedish rival’s misfortune at Höljes to snatch his third triumph from 13 starts in the fiercely-contested single-make series. Following a frustrating opening round in Barcelona, the Norwegian has been fighting back ever since, and is now just one point adrift of Fraser McConnell as he chases a top three spot in the overall classification.
Piloting the third full-time OMSE car, Jamaica’s McConnell has turned heads throughout Europe this year and has been a regular threat for the rostrum – something that has, by contrast, consistently eluded SET Promotion’s Sami-Matti Trogen, who has taken the chequered flag in fourth position four times out of five. The Finnish prodigy – the youngest driver in the field at just 17 still – can at least take heart from his runner-up finish at Lohéac last season, the best result of his RX2 career to-date.
Vasiliy Gryazin is another former podium-finisher in France after placing third in 2017, and the Latvian will be joined in the Sports Racing Technologies camp this weekend by younger brother Nikolay Gryazin, the current pace-setter in the FIA World Rally Championship’s WRC 2 class. While Lohéac will mark the 21-year-old’s rallycross debut, he arrives with a strong reputation.
“My main aim is to have some fun,” he explained, “though obviously when the helmet goes on, you always race to win! I think my biggest challenge will be getting used to having a spotter, because that is something completely new for me, but I hope we will make progress throughout the weekend.
“I know SRT will work really hard to make the transition as simple as possible for me, and hopefully we will have no major issues – aside from the inevitable battle scars! Also, I’ve really missed my brother recently as we’ve both been working a lot, so I’m looking forward to spending more time with him – both on and off the track…”
The lion’s share of fans’ support this weekend is likely to be reserved for Team Färén pairing Damien Meunier and Yann Le Jossec. The former – a finalist on his debut in Barcelona back in April – is returning to RX2 after missing the most recent three rounds, while the latter makes his series bow but notably outpaced Reinis Nitišs, Anton Marklund and Niclas Grönholm in Q1 when he contested France’s World Championship showpiece in the Supercar class in 2016.
“I’m excited to be back in RX2!” enthused 18-year-old Meunier, who grew up just a couple of hours away from Lohéac and will run under the Meunier Compétition banner with support from Team Färén in a joint effort.
“I genuinely feared my season was over after Spa-Francorchamps, but thanks to my amazing sponsors, we have found a way to compete at Lohéac in what is unquestionably one of the biggest motorsport events in the country. I can’t wait to get back in the car, and having another French driver in the team will be a lot of fun.”
William Nilsson – who has gone well at Lohéac in the past – bolsters the Team Färén entry as he joins the Swedish squad for the first time, while countrymen Simon Olofsson and Anders Michalak both arrive boosted by podium finishes for STS RX in RallyX Nordic four days ago. Michalak reached his maiden RX2 final in France in 2017, and is going from strength-to-strength with every outing.
Rising American racer Lane Vacala will similarly run out of the STS awning this weekend as the 22-year-old – a star karter back in his homeland – prepares to compete in Europe for the first time. Another series newcomer will be Petter Nårsa (JC Raceteknik), who won a gold medal in snowmobiling’s snocross discipline in the 2017 X Games in Aspen. The high-calibre field is completed by reigning EuroRX TouringCar champion Steve Volders and record-breaking former Olympic athlete Albert Llovera.
After the popular and traditional village parade, the Lohéac RX2 action will begin with free practice tomorrow (Friday, 30 August), followed by the opening three qualifying races on Saturday (31 August) and the remaining qualifier, two semi-finals and final on Sunday (1 September).
Fans will be able to watch all of the qualifying races live via both the FIA World RX and RX2 SeriesFacebook pages, with the semi-finals and all-important final featuring as part of the live World RX television broadcast.