Petter Solberg showed breathtaking speed at the second round of the FIA European Rallycross Championship at Montalegre in Portugal this weekend, smashing the lap record during the semi-finals and dominating all the sessions in the run-up to the final by almost unprecedented margins.
Unfortunately, a jump-start in the final ultimately meant that 'Hollywood' wasn't able to convert his leading pace into a win - but he still came away from the Portuguese round with an extremely well-deserved podium and the answer to several questions about the pace of his all-new Citroen DS3 Supercar.
The 2003 World Rally Champion won both of his qualifying heats on Saturday and also dominated his semi-finals on Sunday, finishing eight seconds ahead of his nearest rival - a massive distance in rallycross. It was then that he also broke the Montalegre lap record, writing his name indelibly into the rallycross history books on only his second attempt at the sport since 1996.
But triumph nearly turned to disaster after a fuel pump feed problem threatened to end his weekend in the cruellest of ways after the semi-finals. The team, however, worked frantically to diagnose and fix the problem, sending the Norwegian out with just minutes to spare before the start of the final.
'Hollywood' jumped the start at the first attempt, and this meant that he had to complete an extra 'joker' lap, which effectively added around four seconds to his cumulative race time. Undaunted, Solberg took the lead with a brilliant move on reigning champion Timur Timerzyanov and incredibly held onto his impressive advantage even after completing his first joker lap on lap five. He then took his second joker lap on the final lap, emerging in third place – which is where he would eventually end the final.
“We came so close to doing it: the main problem was that I was behind Timur for a little too long at the start of the final,” he explained. “If we had been able to get past him just a little sooner, then I think that we could have pulled out enough of a lead to be able to win even with the two joker laps. But the jump-start was completely my fault and it was a pity: I just couldn't quite feel where the clutch was biting accurately enough and then the car started moving before I realised, which was what cost us the chance of winning.
“In the end though, I was just so relieved to be in the final at all: after we had the problem with the fuel pump feed, I really thought that we were going to have to stop, so it was incredible work from our team to put us back into contention and I am really grateful to everyone. We achieved our objective to make our car faster and more reliable, with a finish on the podium, and I think what we have seen this weekend can make us feel very positive about the future. Taking the lap record here is just a bonus, so I'm very happy.”
After a string of mechanical problems at the first round of the season in England, Solberg's team has spent the last three weeks trying to improve the car in every area. Now it seems that all the hard work and sleepless nights are finally beginning to pay off.
Solberg will now continue his campaign in the FIA European Rallycross Championship at the end of next month when he heads to Nyirad, Hungary, from 25-26 May.