Round eight of the World Rallycross Championship presented by Monster Energy will take place at Loheac in France this weekend as the FIA's newest world series prepares for the most highly-anticipated event on its twelve-round calendar.
With crowds of more than 70,000 present last year, Loheac RX promises to be no less spectacular with 37 flame-spitting Supercars and star drivers including American Gymkhana star Ken Block.
The original home of rallycross in France, Loheac is located in Brittany in the north-west of the country. At 1088 metres long and made up of 67 per cent gravel, the circuit is perfectly designed with a joker half-way through the lap and an artificial banking to give spectators a fantastic view of the bumper-to-bumper racing. Loheac itself is set 20 miles south-west of the city of Rennes and, despite having a population of just 600 people, has become a mecca for motorsport fans.
A total of 79 cars, including 32 French entries, will compete across the Supercar, TouringCar and Super1600 categories, with current championship leader Petter Solberg - the runner-up in Loheac last year – among the favourites for victory.
“The surface in Loheac isn't like gravel as we know it,” the Citroen DS3 driver revealed, “It's a really hard surface and, if it's hot weather, then the whole surface can feel like asphalt.
“This is a track where you have to drive neat and tidy, but that's tough when the cars are all so close around you. One guy who I'm sure will be close around us is Ken Block. It's great to see Ken back, he's a real character and like me in that he understands that you have to show some emotion in what we are doing.”
Block, who makes his eagerly-awaited World RX return following his podium at Hell RX earlier this year, echoed Solberg's comments.
“I always look forward to competing against Petter,” the American admitted, “These rallycross cars are a lot of fun as a driver since they're putting so much power down through all four wheels, so I'd say I'm looking forward to getting behind the wheel again and racking up some more seat time on a great circuit.”
Second in the driver standings following a consistent points-scoring approach this season is Volkswagen Marklund driver Topi Heikkinen. The 23-year old hasn't been to Loheac, before but the challenge doesn't faze him.
“The car has been getting better and better, and that's going to continue for the rest of the season, so we've got a brilliant chance of fighting for victory in France and eventually taking the title,” the confident Finn responded, “I'm going to grab the opportunity with both hands. It's flat-out from here on.”
One team who is certain to challenge VW Marklund's quest for the teams' championship trophy is that of Ford Olsbergs MSE. Home to superstar drivers Reinis Nitiss and Andreas Bakkerud, who are currently third and fourth in the individual standings, the team has seen both drivers win an event in 2014. Bakkerud also won last year's Loheac RX, beating the likes of nine-time World Rally champion Sebastien Loeb, and will be hungry to take his second victory of the year.
Arguably the most eager of all the World RX teams to take a win in France will be Team Peugeot-Hansen. After two podium finishes on the previous two World RX rounds, the squad who is fronted by Russia's Timur Timerzyanov and Sweden's Timmy Hansen, will be keen to do one better this weekend and finish on the top step of the podium.
“The French round is a great race for all of the drivers, and of course for us as the Peugeot team,” reigning European Rallycross champion Timerzyanov commented, “To race a French car in France is very special. I need to make up for not getting the result I wanted to there last year and we need to work hard to get the set-up right to be like a circuit racing car there. We will be ready to fight for the first position. That's what I want.”
Flying the flag for France in Loheac will be Monster Energy World RX Team's Davy Jeanney who finished third at last year's event and will be eager to help the team secure its first podium result of 2014. Jeanney will be partnered by Henning Solberg in a second Monster backed Citroen DS3 Supercar.
Former F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve is unable to compete at Loheac due to his F1 commentating commitments, but will be replaced in the Albatec Racing team by Britain's David Binks. Team EKS RX returns to World RX for the fourth time this season and will be represented by reigning Junior World Rally champion Pontus Tidemand as well as successful GT racer Edward Sandstrom, who competed at World RX of Belgium back in July.
Tidemand, who recently won the WRC2 category at WRC Rally Deutschland, spoke confidently after a comprehensive test in the Audi S1 Quattro over the summer.
“EKS has been working hard to give me the best conditions possible and we are happy with the testing that we have done,” he reported, “Our development during the season has been very positive and I think we have good chances to succeed this weekend. I was close to finishing on the podium in Belgium and the next step is simply to get a result, which is what I'm aiming for in France."
Other notable entrants include reigning French Rallycross champion Jerome Grosset-Janin, who was haunted by mechanical problems last year but was as fast as the top runners when the car was working properly.
“The Loheac track is similar to Lydden Hill or Hell in that it is perfectly designed for rallycross,” he explained, “The first time I competed there was in 2003 but, if someone told me that, eleven years later, I would be back for the FIA World Rallycross Championship in the Supercar category, I wouldn't have believed them. It is amazing how much the sport has progressed.”
Grosset-Janin will be partnered by fellow countrymen Fabien Pailler and JB Duborg, who are both dominating the national championship.
“Sweden has been our biggest event so far this season but I have a feeling that Loheac will surpass it,” Martin Anayi, managing director for World RX at IMG Motorsport, concluded, “Last year we had 74,000 fans at our French race and the organisers have built a new grandstand in preparation for this year's event.
“With so many French drivers as well as superstar names such as Block competing at Loheac, I'm certain that this year's event will be just as successful. We also have l'Equipe onsite with us over the weekend as they will be broadcasting the event live across French television on Sunday. Both the driver and teams' championship titles remain wide open with VW Marklund and Ford Olsbergs MSE tied at the top of the standings, so it will be interesting to watch which way the standings go after this weekend.”