The approach used was simple, yet revolutionary. On tarmac-gravel tracks, about a kilometer in length, six drivers would compete with each other in four qualifying rounds, two semi-finals and a final. Wheel-to-wheel duels from circuit racing would be paired with spectacular drifts from rally racing. Daredevil maneuvers and car contact are not uncommon in these tightly scheduled races, each lasting about three minutes. Plus, the series features brute cars with up to 600 HP and acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h in 2.5 seconds – faster than the race cars in Formula 1.
February 4, 1967 is deemed to have marked the birth of rallycross. The first official competition was held at the Lydden Hill Race Circuit in Kent. The winner of this acclaimed premiere was future Formula 1 driver and Rally Monte Carlo winner Vic Elford who had borrowed a bright red Porsche 911 from the British importer AFN. In spite, or rather because, of the numerous collisions in the races and nearly all cars having only scap value in the end, the crowd and the TV audiences were thrilled. But that was just the beginning, as by the end of the 1960s, up to ten million Britons would follow the races on television.
So it was only a matter of time for rallycross to successfully spread to the continent. The motorsport-mad Dutch were the first to pick up on it. At the same time, the sport saw rapid growth in interest particularly in Scandinavia. Even today, Sweden, Norway and Finland continue to be absolute rallycross hot spots. “Rallycross is an orgy,” wrote the Austrian Herbert Völker in “Autorevue” as far back as in 1971. The first Europe-wide series was launched in 1973 in the form of the European Rallycross Championship. The grid would at times feature outlandish cars such as souped-up VW Beetles with 300-HP Porsche Carrera engines or Ford Escorts powered by BMW units from Formula 2. The cars in today’s World Rallycross Championship have about twice as much horsepower. “The cars are overpowered,” admits Ekström who has about 560 horsepower under the hood of his Audi S1 EKS RX quattro.
As interest kept growing, the FIA appeared on the scene in 1976, inviting entries by rallycross drivers for the FIA European Cup and tightening the regulations. This did not put a damper on enthusiasm for the series, though. Quite the opposite was true. The late 1980s and early 1990s are still regarded as the heyday of rallycross. Division 1 featuring two-wheel drive Group A cars was dominated by 14-time European champion Kenneth Hansen who, in his Ford Sierra RS 500 Cosworth, would occasionally be fighting a gripping duel with Mattias Ekström’s father, Bengt.
The actual “top tier,” though, was an even greater crowd-puller. Competing in Division 2 were extremely modified four-wheel drive race cars originally homologated for Groups A or B and powered by engines delivering up to 750 HP. One of the dominant competitors was “Mr. Rallycross,” Martin Schanche. The six-time European champion is regarded as Norway’s Michael Schumacher and for years was one of the celebrated superstars in rallycross. In 1987, the Group B monsters banned from the World Rally Championship began to experience their renaissance in Division 2. Behemoths such as the Peugeot 205 T16 E2, the Ford RS200 E2 or the Audi Sport quattro S1 found a new home in the European Rallycross Championship and went on to define its image in the subsequent years.
Following the turbo race cars’ swan song and a few modifications of the regulations in the mid-1990s, rallycross racing became a clearly less prominent topic in the media.Cost savings and a lack of professionalism in marketing caused the series to fall into a deep slumber. Only as a result of IMG, the world’s largest sports marketing agency with more than a billion U.S. dollars in sales, coming in to promote the series, plus its upgrading from a European to a World Championship in 2014, has rallycross been experiencing its second spring.