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GRC Season Review: Stephan Verdier, Part 1

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

Stephan Verdier made the jump from competitive privateer to fully-funded professional race driver in this year’s Global Rallycross Championship, signing with Rhys Millen Racing to pilot the No. 12 Disney XD/Motorcity Hyundai Veloster. It was a big step up from last year’s Subaru Impreza, although he had taken three podiums in that car last season and finished fifth in GRC points.

However, Verdier would have to overcome multiple obstacles to produce a competitive performance in 2012. Most significantly, he would not start the season with the new, high-powered engine that Millen had, and would wait to receive it until X Games. The engine would also suffer delays that would prevent him from racing with his original chassis and the new motor until Las Vegas in September.

But without knowing the delays ahead coming into the season, Verdier produced another podium finish in the season opener at Charlotte Motor Speedway and looked to carry on momentum from there. Today, we talk about the first half of his season, including the highs of Charlotte and the lows of X Games:

After years of competing as a privateer in Formula Drift and rallycross, this was your first year with a factory team as you joined Rhys Millen Racing. You came out of it with a podium finish at Charlotte and sixth in the championship. What were your general thoughts on the season?

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

On the sport of rallycross, I think it was great. We had a lot of issues, but I think overall the sport that we showed to the American fans was a good product. I think it was definitely a success. Me and Rhys worked out great, much better than I was expecting—it’s always hard to do business with a friend, but Rhys was fantastic in the way he handled everything. We had some disappointment during the season with the enging on my car not being ready when it was supposed to, but that wasn’t really anybody’s fault. That was the only big part of it.

I think the Hyundais, the way RMR built the car was great. The car was really reliable. We didn’t have any mechanical issues while we were on track, the few we had were caused by a crash or something. Otherwise, we never had to stop because we lost a tranny or an engine, everything was perfect. That was a success.

On my side, finishing sixth was a disappointment. I wanted to win the championship, but it didn’t work out. On the drivers’ side, I think the one big mistake I made was New Hampshire, when I crashed into Liam (Doran). That was the one that cost me a lot. The rest, I think the season was great, even the last one at SEMA—I think (my run) was bad luck, but it wasn’t my fault or anybody else on the team. But overall, I think it was good! I was pretty happy with the season, I would do it again. If I had the money or the sponsor I would re-sign with Rhys tomorrow! (laughs)

Image via BeyondTheRedLine.org

Let’s talk about that podium at Charlotte. How important was it for you and the team to start the season off on the right foot by coming in third in the first race?

Oh, it was huge. It was huge for me personally, because always when you come as a new driver into a team, you always talk the talk, but you have to prove it. It was even better because my car had the small engine. Managing to get third in that race with a little bit of luck was still amazing. It was the first podium for Hyundai and the team in rallycross, so it definitely (said to) the team, “we have the right equipment, we have the right drivers, it’s going to be a good season.” It was definitely a great start—I mean, it could have been better if we had won!. But apart from winning the race, it was great, especially with the two Fords in front of us. We thought “okay, we can hang tough, and we can keep up with the Fords.” That was the big thing.

You seemed to have some struggles in qualifying at Texas. But you made it through the last chance qualifier and eventually salvaged sixth place in the final. You even kept third in points heading into X Games. What did you have to overcome in that race?

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

In Texas there were some issues with the turbo. They were old turbos from last year, and unfortunately, because we were supposed to have the new engines, we were not planning on using those turbos this year. With the engine being delayed every race, we couldn’t use that it equipment, and it would bite us. So we didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t a good weekend on the qualifying, but we got by the LCQ and did pretty good in the finals.

Going into X Games, we were hoping to get the engine for that race, so I was really pumped to go in third place. I thought X Games could be the one where we’d do really good, and secure for us a spot in the top three in the championship. Especially when you have six races, every race is really important. It was definitely an average result, but it translated into a lot of confidence going into X Games.

Of course, you’ve called X Games a disappointment before. It was your worst finish of the season, in 12th place, as you couldn’t quite chase down Liam Doran in the last chance qualifier. What kept you from being competitive there, and why didn’t you push Liam out of the way in the LCQ?

Image via Rhys Millen Racing Flickr

The engine. (laughs) That’s what it was. We were hoping to have the engine for X Games, and we got it about two days too late. It wasn’t enough time to put it in the car and take all the chances, so we had to go to X Games with the small engine. And when you have less horsepower than everybody else, it’s always tough. Being X Games, everybody was pushing 100 percent, pushing the engine to the max.

In the LCQ I was against Liam in the C4, and that car is a monster. I tried everything I could. I was catching up in the corners, I was catching up in the dirt, but as soon as the straight came between the corners he put two lengths between me every time. I was trying really hard to get close and come back to him, on the last lap I was really, really close to being right next to him. There was one turn where he made a mistake. And we both said “how come you didn’t push him?” Well, I tried! (laughs) I was about six inches too far. I tried to touch him or give him a nudge, but it was six inches too far forward.

At that time, that was my biggest disappointment, because I knew then it wasn’t the chassis that held us back. It wasn’t me. It was the engine. We couldn’t compete with the rest of the series because the power wasn’t there. It was really disappointing, but it was one race we wanted to be good at. X Games is the Super Bowl of rallycross for us in the U.S., and that was the first time I didn’t make the final. It was really sad to stay on the sideline and watch these guys driving, but that’s the way it was.

Check back tomorrow as Stephan breaks down the second half of his season and more.

—Chris Leone

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