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X Games Checkpoint: Stephan Verdier

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

Through the first two races of this year’s Global Rallycross Championship, Stephan Verdier has established himself as one of the series’ most consistent drivers. Scoring a third place finish at Charlotte and a sixth place run at Texas, he currently ranks third in points going into X Games, the series’ most prestigious event.

The fact that Verdier even made it to the Texas final, however, was a minor miracle, given his struggles throughout the weekend.

For the qualifying, we had issues with turbo,” Verdier admits. “The practice was pretty much scrapped because the jump wasn’t working, so we had zero practice going straight into qualifying. And you have two sessions of four laps to do your qualifying. On my first session, I went out and my intercooler hose blew on the first lap. It got worse and worse, and by the third lap it was over. We fixed the hose, I went back out. and straight at the start, I started going up the gears, and then the turbo broke on me, so I couldn’t do a lap either and went back in. Even with only one lap of my second session, the GRC said no, you can’t go back out, so I was out of sessions whether or not I’d put a good time on. So that was the big problem which put me last for all the heats, which was a big disadvantage.

“In the first heat, went out, was pretty good, but on the jump, coming off the first hairpin right, my left rear tire blew up, so not even a lap into the race I had a flat rear. I did two more laps with a flat rear, and it was getting too dangerous, it wouldn’t jump – one of the jumps the car went really sideways over the jump so I had to pull (it) in. So that led me straight to the LCQ, the last race, but luckily, during the LCQ, everybody pulled out! (laughs) We were the last man standing, which was good.

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

“Then during the main, first and second start it was good, but on the third start my turbo blew up again. And so I lost the turbo for the third start of the main and was pretty much down on power all the way through. And we ended up in sixth place, which wasn’t great, but considering how the weekend started, was pretty good.

Charlotte, on the other hand, presented a much less convoluted version of the same strategy. “Charlotte and Texas were pretty much the same strategy, because I’m a little bit down on power compared to the other cars,” Verdier said. “My strategy was to try to stay out of trouble, especially in the final. (At Charlotte) everybody went for the shortcut on the first lap, the top guys, and I decided not to take it right away and just let them fight each other, and just be by myself at the end at the back doing clean laps, fast laps. And it paid off, because I was able to come back on the leaders.

“So when I did the shortcut I was right next to everybody else, and I was able to pass two cars and go onto the podium. So my main strategy was to stay out of trouble! I knew we didn’t really have the speed to catch them, so I let them stay by each other and take each other out, and then I would be, with luck, in the right place. And it worked! (laughs)”

Verdier loves his Rhys Millen Racing-prepared Hyundai Veloster, but his engine isn’t quite as strong as teammate Millen’s. “The car is fantastic, it has great handling. (But) unfortunately because of some delay in England, I don’t think I will have the engine for X Games. We’re still really working hard to put it in. But by New Hampshire it should definitely be in the car.

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

“(Rhys) loves it. The engine is fantastic. Like I said, it’s 300 more horsepower, I think it has 260 ft/lb of torque more than what I have. So it’s a proper rallycross engine, when the one in my car that I have is a WRC engine, which is not made to be pushed as hard as the rallycross. The (new) engine is reliable, so we’re really happy with it, it’s just unfortunate that on a couple parts we’re behind on mine.

“For X Games, obviously I’d love to have a little bit more horsepower, but it’s one track where I could get away with it because it’s a much shorter track than we’ve been on at Charlotte and Texas, and because of the dirt, a lot of power isn’t always a good thing, because you can’t put the power down. So I would be handicapped for X Games, but I don’t think it would be as bad as it was in Texas or Charlotte.”

Representatives of Verdier’s sponsors, Motorcity and Disney XD, will be present at X Games – “Motorcity’s got a big activation at X Games, like they did last year, and  it’s the hometown for Disney, so there are obviously going to be a lot of people there for them” – and he thinks he can put together a strong performance to make it worth their while, while still keeping the bigger picture of the GRC standings in mind.

“(X Games is) our Super Bowl. But also I have to think about the championship, so it’s a double edged sword. On one hand you have X Games, and your Super Bowl in the middle of the season, it kind of messes everything up! So obviously I’d love to do a podium, and I’m going to try everything I can to, but I’m not going to take a crazy risk and destroy my car to advance one spot on the podium when the next race, New Hampshire, is only two weeks after X Games. It’s unfortunate the way the schedule is, and we have to be conservative with the cars, because we don’t have the resources to rebuild one in two weeks. But also, you’ve got to look at it as X Games. So we can’t fall back too much, we’ve got to go for it!

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

“I’m going to be definitely more aggressive than I was during the other races, but I’ve got to be smart about it too. Maybe instead of waiting in the back, I’ll be fighting with the guys up front from the start and try to see what I can do. But we’ll see after qualifying my times compared to the other guys. If I’m really close to them, there’s definitely a chance of me fighting with them. If I’m really far behind, then I’ll take the way back approach and just do my own thing and let the other guys fight each other and see what’s left over.

“I really believe that we can do really good at X Games, even with the timing. I think we have a really good chance to (take) a podium.”

– Chris Leone

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