In theory rallycross should be able to provide the answer to the age-old question: who’s fastest - race or rally drivers?
Why? Because as the name implies, rallycross is part-rally and part-race, with up to six cars at a time lining up on the part-asphalt, part-dirt track to do battle over a handful of laps. As such, it should be a level playing field for drivers from both sides of the fence. Certainly the World Rallycross event at Lydden Hill proved last weekend that it is a sport that provides plenty of thrills.
But did it answer that age-old question? In the racing corner there were headline acts such as former DTM saloon car champion Matthias Ekström and British Touring Car Championship winner Andrew Jordan. Representing the cream of World Rally Championship talent were former world champion Petter Solberg and Junior World Rally Championship event winner Guy Wilks.
As for the answer, well, Solberg emerged as victor, but by just four-tenths from Ekström. Jordan starred for the second year in succession, despite his outings being one-offs, setting fastest time in the heats and making the semi-finals. And Wilks, after three years out of competition and in a car with a less powerful engine than everyone else’s, rocked the establishment and made the final.
Even then, it gets more complicated: Solberg has more experience of rallycross than any of his rivals, having started his career in the sport and competed at the top level for several seasons. Ekström is no novice, having always shown an appreciation of - and willingness to try - all forms of motorsport, but his experience deficit could easily explain away his four-tenth loss.
Jordan, meanwhile, also started his career in rallycross before switching to the circuits, but his ability to wring the neck of a near 600bhp car with limited testing showed once again what a versatile talent this young Brit is. And Wilks was simply sensational, albeit in an extremely controlled way, extracting more than he had any right to from a Mini that is still in its very early stages of being developed by a new team, JRM Racing.
So what did we learn? That the age-old question of who's better needs to be expanded, because rallycross is its own separate discipline that rewards yet another combination of driving styles, certainly. So no answers there…
But we also learned that professional drivers have an ability that shines through no matter what. It’s no coincidence that Solberg, Ekström and Jordan have all risen to the top of various disciplines and become professionals, nor that Wilks once earned a living from world rallying before falling away as opportunities dried up.
Sure, there were other very talented drivers at Lydden, some who have always been focussed solely on a career in rallycross and who deserve all the success they get. I’ve named only four from a field packed with talent. But, at times, it was also acutely noticeable that the 600bhp four-wheel drive monsters they drive can flatter talent as well as they show it off.
There were drivers in the field who were sideways everywhere, smoking tyres into and out of corners and drifting in even the asphalt sections. Even Solberg was prone to a bit of that at times, albeit near uniquely being able to carry speed while doing so. But overall he, Ekström, Jordan and Wilks stood out for an economy of style and an intelligence with the right foot that gave them the confidence to live with understeer and extract more speed from the machinery at their disposal than others.
If the sport of rallycross takes off as predicted - and, frankly, as it deserves - there will be more opportunities for guys like these as more manufacturers come to play. Then, perhaps, rallycross can stand alongside the disciplines of racing and rallying and we can start to answer a new, just as intriguing, and just as impossible question.