Everybody loves a comeback kid. Strange that the hero in question is a three time FIA World Champion, but Petter Solberg achieved something genuinely astonishing on the penultimate round of the FIA World Rallycross Championship around Estering in Buxtehude, Germany last weekend, writes Luke Barry.
Two weeks earlier, the Norwegian’s PSRX Volkswagen team mate Johan Kristoffersson claimed his maiden World Rallycross title by stretching his win tally to six for the season and extending his winning streak to five. The Swede was in top form as ever, but it was widely unexpected that he would secure the championship in Latvia.
It became possible as Solberg never made it to the final. Heavy contact with the barrier in the semi-final race meant that his Polo GTI was damaged but more crucially, the 2014 and 15 World Rallycross Champion couldn’t extract himself from his car.
From a hospital bed Solberg learned the news that his team mate had not only taken the drivers crown from Audi’s Mattias Ekstrom but Volkswagen Motorsport and Solberg’s own rallycross operation that had teamed up ahead of the 2017 season had won the teams championship.
Petter had fractured his ribs and broken his collarbone, but it wasn’t the physical pain that was causing him grief. Emotionally, it was one of the toughest moments of a career that began in rallying last century. He had missed out on celebrations he would have loved to be a part of and thought his season was over.
He was wrong.
Fast forward the clock a fortnight and there he was, lining up on the grid for practice at the wheel of his 600bhp race car. He had to have some of his mandatory safety equipment adapted, and had ignored the doctors who had told him not to compete, but he made it.
The first qualifying heat came next and there was a sense of fear for the Norwegian as he took the start. Rallycross is notorious for lots of close racing with abrasive surface changes from gravel to tarmac across the lap. Drivers can face a physical battle too with difficult forces from the cars which can accelerate to 60mph from a standstill in under two seconds.
However, we needn’t have worried. Solberg completed Q1 and Q2 to lie within the top three overnight, and the best was still to come. In considerable pain, the 2003 World Rally Champion lit up the timing sheets winning both Q3, Q4 and his semi-final to grab pole position for the all important final. This was the first time he had edged his team mate Kristoffersson since the British round of the championship at Lydden Hill in May, and he was injured.
Lining up alongside outgoing champion Ekstrom, the start was even between the VW Polo and the Audi S1, with the pair tussling as they headed into the tight hairpin bend that kicks off the lap.
Ekstrom forced Solberg out wide to take the lead and began to scamper away. Same corner, second lap, and Petter would lose more positions after out-braking himself and running wide, allowing brothers Timmy and Kevin Hansen to slip through.
The suspension then broke on Kevin Hansen’s Peugeot 208, with his valiant defensive driving held up Solberg and Niclas Gronholm, the son of Solberg’s rallying foe Marcus. On the penultimate tour, Hansen’s car finally gave up allowing Solberg and Gronholm through but it was too late for them to catch up with Ekstrom, Timmy Hansen or Topi Heikkinen who completed the podium.
Unfortunately, Solberg’s fairy-tale victory or podium wasn’t to be, but to take fourth place when suffering with broken bones is a truly remarkable achievement. His fighting spirit was absolutely incredible, and his fans love him all the more for it.
The final round of the FIA World Rallycross Championship is a new race for the series, with the battle heading to Cape Town, South Africa in early November.
Although both titles have been sewn up by Johan Kristoffersson and Volkswagen, the battle to finish as ‘best of the rest’ is incredibly tight, with Solberg currently holding that position by a single point from Ekstrom.
Let the battle commence.