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GRC Roundtable: Meeting (And Defeating) The Competition

When X Games first added Rally Car Racing in 2006, the majority of strong competitors came from other action sports; that year, longtime Moto X star Travis Pastrana took the inaugural gold medal in his first year racing on four wheels. But the allure of the event attracted major stars from the first running; the late Colin McRae took home the silver medal that year after rolling his car with only two corners to go. In 2009, IndyCar champion Kenny Brack took a surprise victory by defeating Pastrana in the gold medal round.

Ever since then, more and more athletes – both professional racing stars and transitioning action sports legends – have gravitated towards Rally X, leading Andy Scott to aptly bless the event with the name “the Olympics of Motorsport.” This year, two-time World Rally champion Marcus Gronholm and three-time Rally X gold medalist Tanner Foust have been 1-2 from day one of the Global Rallycross Championship, making them favorites to win, but another driver has added his name to that mix: eight-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb, who will drive a specially-prepared Citroen in the event.

Our own panel of Scott, Samuel Hubinette, Stephan Verdier, and Per Eklund represent some of the most talented and skilled members of the GRC. In today’s third and final installment of the GRC Roundtable, we discuss with them what to look out for from the favorites, and how they plan on beating the best.

Most of the field is comprised of GRC regulars, but the X factor (per se) of this year’s field is Sebastien Loeb, the eight-time World Rally champion. What do you expect out of him?

Photo credit: Flavien Duhamel, Red Bull Content Pool

ANDY SCOTT, Driver, #26 Scott Trawlers Saab 9-3: For sure, (Loeb) is going to be a tough guy to beat. I mean you don’t get all those world titles without being a very special driver. He’s ultra competitive, he has all those titles. I think that you can’t write off any fellow competitor, but he’s certainly the big challenge, if you like.

PER EKLUND, Technical Director, Scott-Eklund Racing: He’s been the best rally driver in the world for years. He’s such a good driver. But it is different. I mean, he’s a world champion rally driver. But he’s going to have a (different) car for this. The jumping, in rally, you don’t have this steel grate, so this can be a little different to see. We have the two first races, so we have a lot of notes on how to set up the car.

SAMUEL HUBINETTE, Driver, #77 ENEOS Saab 9-3: With his experience with a lot of driving, I think he’s going to adapt really quick. Looking at myself, I didn’t drive the Scott-Eklund Saab before the first event I did and Texas. I rolled in with no seat time at all and managed to qualify eighth out of 17 cars and then I was actually running in third place in the final.

STEPHAN VERDIER, Driver, #12 Motorcity Hyundai Veloster: Anything he touches, he’s super good at it. Whether it’s a road course car, a rally car, I’m sure if you put him on a motorcycle he’d be fast on it too. The guy’s an awesome driver. Personally I love the idea of having him. I think it’s fantastic. He’s gonna be great for us because I’m sure I’m gonna be able to learn a lot of stuff watching him driving, and the thing is, the pressure is on him. If we lose against him, well, it’s Sebastien Loeb, we’re supposed to lose against him. But if we win, we’re gods! (laughs)

HUBINETTE: He can adapt pretty quick, but I don’t know how much car to car experience he has. That’s the thing. We anticipate to take a line with three or four cars surrounding you, but the woods are his own with his co-driver. So that might be the challenge for him, battling it out with a lot of cars surrounding him.

Photo credit: Flavien Duhamel, Red Bull Content Pool

VERDIER: I don’t know how he’s going to react when people are bouncing off his doors or pushing him and stuff like that. He’s going to be in that situation, and the only advantage we have is we know what it is to bounce off other cars. He doesn’t. But I don’t think it’ll take him long to learn how to do it and how to be comfortable with it either.

SCOTT: I think that he’s bringing a lot to X Games because of the massive following he has around the world (as a) WRC champion. For me, it just adds even more to the event, and I’m really happy the guy’s coming along.

VERDIER: It’s great for us drivers, because we can compare. If you want to be the best in the world, you have to beat the best in the world, and he is the best in the world. So for the drivers, I think it’s awesome. For the series, I think it’s great, you have a big name coming into the series. And for the fans, I know the US fans don’t really know who he is, but the rest of the world knows who he is. So there’s going to be be huge exposure from the rest of the world on X Games and it’s going to be fantastic for the sport, for the rest of the season and for next year. I think there couldn’t be a better move when they asked us if we were okay with Loeb coming over. We all said “yes, bring him on.” We want to see what that guy has and how fast he is.

We’ve all noticed that the Fords, especially those of Marcus Gronholm and Tanner Foust, have seemed to have a stranglehold on the top steps of the podium this season. What’s it going to take to beat them?

EKLUND: To beat the best, you need to do everything correct. I mean, Marcus jumping in the last race, he was really smooth, he knows exactly what the car can take. And Tanner Foust, he drives this car so much, he drives it every week. He does the whole European championship. He’s racing this weekend, and then he’s coming straight to X Games. He has the speed in his body, he’s a very good driver.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

SCOTT: We just need to get better. (laughs) I think certainly (with) our own team. It’s pretty much Marcus has qualified or been number one from seeding, and Tanner has always been right up there from seeding. I think that, not through lack of our effort, where we’ve not really been as sharp or as quick as we could’ve been is the qualifying, and I think that it’s so important (that) you get into the top four in qualifying, so you start off on pole in one of your heats, and then you carry that momentum through to the main and you get a front row grid spot in the main. That’s been my weakness. So the area that we’re really focused on is our qualifying pace.

VERDIER: The good thing is, the track we were on before was a horsepower track, and those cars are fast. And these guys (Olsbergs) have 15 years of experience with these cars, so they definitely have a big advantage. They have the horsepower, but the big advantage of the Ford team is, because of Tanner racing in Europe too, everything they learn in Europe they can apply here. So they basically have a test session every other week, racing that car somewhere. So having Gronholm on the team too, setup wise, they can get set up pretty quickly. That’s the thing – the more cars you have on one team, the easier it is to get the perfect setup, because any of the five cars can come up with something different and in the end they can come with the best result.

HUBINETTE: The Ford Fiestas are small, faster vehicles. That’s really good on the Global Rallycross Championship tracks because they’re very small and (have) a lot of sharp, hairpin corners, and you’re just traveling 30, 40 miles per hour. That’s the tough thing – you can break the physical wall. Less mass, a smaller wheelbase, are gonna help you go through those corners quicker. So for me, it’s gonna be staying away from trouble and trying to find where I can have some type of advantage.

VERDIER: If you look at the times from last year that’s what happened, they were killing everybody on the track, but when we came to X Games, all the times got much closer. So I expect them to be the fastest, or really fast here, but instead of being two seconds behind a lap like I was at Charlotte or Texas, I’m expecting to be maybe half a second to 8/10 of a second slower than them, because of the track being shorter, more technical, and because of the gravel on it. If we’re able to be less than a second slower than them a lap, then when it comes to racing, that means we’re right on their bumper. So that means they have the pressure they didn’t have at Charlotte and Texas when we were two seconds slower than them.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

HUBINETTE: In the past, it’s been that I’ve been able to brake a little later, because the car is very stable, and also planning to take the joker lap at the right time to try and avoid getting into traffic. So that’s my strategy – to stay away from trouble and make a smart choice about the joker lap.

EKLUND: Liam Doran was the winner last year (in Super Rally), and he was really disastrous on the last race, he blew everything on the car up. It’s going to be a tough race, the final.

SCOTT: And again, we’re fighting against a factory backed team, and I think that we’re making a good account of ourselves with the results and the team setup that we have. But of course it would be fantastic to pull off a win over all the factory teams.

VERDIER: In the mains we did in the first two races, we were a second a lap slower than them on the qualifying. When it comes down to racing, you’re going to be really close to them because you can put the pressure on the perfect line that they’re using and everything. So I think it’s going to be much closer, much more entertaining for everybody, and hopefully we can take them there, because it’s time for them to stop winning. (laughs)

– Chris Leone

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