Rallycross celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as a global, elite motorsport. It’s come a long way from Saturday afternoon TV fluff as last-minute substitute for a cancelled horserace in the winter of 1966
What happens when you take the fastest rally cars in the world—0-100kmh in less than two seconds—throw in a select group of global superstar drivers, and unleash them on constricted dirt and tarmac tracks complete with 70-foot jumps in short-sharp, violent sprint races in arenas crammed with passionate fans?
Welcome to the fierce world of world rallycross, the MMA of motorsport and the pinnacle of adrenaline-charged, maximum-attack motor racing.
If you know nothing about rallycross, you’re in for an unqualified treat—these are cars that require a healthy disregard for line over purpose, a cut-throat sport where battering your opponent offline is as routine as full-on counter-locking, power-drifting exhilaration.
If you’re a fan, it’s time to celebrate—Project CARS 2 will feature the sport in all its anti-turbo-lag popping, fire-cracking glory with licensed tracks, cars, and drivers, two of whom—Honda Global Rallycross stars Oliver Eriksson and Mitchell deJong—have spent months working as consultants on the physics and feel of this heroic motorsport. Alongside a technical partnership with their employers, iconic rallycross team Olsbergs MSE—19 X Games medals, winners of every rallycross championship title in the US, and official suppliers of the Supercar Lites rallycross cars that will also come with Project CARS 2—the only way you’re getting a more authentic ride in a 600hp rallycross animal is to buy a seat in one.
It’s all come a long way since 1967 when rallycross got its start on a grimy, wet day in the East of England thanks to a few geezers with meaty sideburns and rusted-steel jalopies …
When a cancelled horserace created a motorsport monster
On a cold Saturday in December of 1966, TV presenter Bob Reed was hosting his usual afternoon World of Sport show for ITV when the call came in: the featured horserace, around which the whole show was scheduled, had been cancelled due to inclement weather.
The show was then in its second season, and the producers had long-since worked out what fluff to run in case of an unscheduled horserace cancellation (the punters tuned-in for the horses and horses alone)—Bill Mason’s iconic Shell History of Motor Sport films. Mason (father of the guy from Pink Floyd) worked for Shell producing those iconic motorsport movies from ’43 all the way through to ’56, and had left behind a superlative library from which to choose. On this December day, though, Reed and his producers had arranged for a couple of cameras to film a minor hill-climb event in rural Yorkshire in case the horses couldn’t run.
With the horses cancelled, the World of Sport went live to Yorkshire, to a scene of total chaos and belly-laughing farce.
With the hill-climb road iced up, cars could hardly even make the ascent. But that’s not where the fun was; the fun was watching them come down the hill on the other side. Mud and ice, and cars sliding about trying not to fall off the cliff, made for terrific—not to mention amusing—television.
Reed, who doubled as ITV’s motoring journalist, took note of the slip-sliding fun and, a week later, fielded a call from a man who asked whether the World of Sport would like to cover his club’s next race. “I said no,” Reed would recall for Car Magazine 50 years later, “but I’ve got this idea—come and have a beer. So we went to the pub, and I said, ‘Look, I’ve got this idea—could you mount that instead?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I think I could. We do our club racing at Lydden, and they’re just enlarging the circuit, and there’s a whole area which is unmade road’. I said, ‘That’s ideal’. We had a look, and as we went down the Dover Road, there were trucks dumping chalk—and we thought, if we got a few lorry loads of that, it could look like snow.”
Rallycross, today a multi-million dollar global sport, had just been born.
With help from rally driver and journalist John Sprinzel (who coined the name rallycross), and The Sun’s motoring journalist Barry Gill, Reed sold the idea to the Royal Automobile Club as a kind of ‘Monte Carlo Rally in the space of ten minutes’, and came up with the rules of the sport over a pint—three qualifying races, and one final. The RAC shrugged and said, go on, so Reed went off to Lydden Hill on 4 February 1967 with a few cameras, some local hotshoes in their Sunday Specials, and debuted the race for his TV audience.
It proved better than the horses. The first race was won by ‘Quick’ Vic Elford in a Porsche 911 he’d borrowed from the German motoring company’s PR department. Back on their couches, the viewers at home absolutely loved the format, and ITV commissioned Reed to organize a few more events. Reed recalled for Car Magazine that, “It was the only sporting event that had been especially devised for television. It was ideal because it was all contained, in an afternoon, in a matter of three hours, in one location, and you could see the whole track with four cameras. Once it had been seen, and we were getting good ratings, the word got around very quickly, and then the BBC decided to do it as well …’
And that was that. Rallycross, a combination of rally and track racing, proved enormously popular not only with the TV audience, but also with a live spectators who could watch pretty-much the entire course from one vantage point. In ’69, Holland staged the first rallycross event outside of the UK, and in ’71, the Swedes hosted two events. The sport had found a life of its own, beyond Reed and television fluff.
Then it created a rally legend.
The RS in Ford
The Ford Rallye Sport (RS) badge of extreme performance started life at a rallycross event at Croft, on February 3rd, 1968, when Roger Clark, Barry Lee, and Tony Chappell thrashed the Minis that were then the cars to beat with their new Twin-Cam Ford Escorts. The date is important because this was the first time an Escort was used at a motorsport event. They would go on to rallying immortality. The Escort’s global success not only created Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Operations plant, but made the RS logo an emblem for off-road capability. The RS logo remains, to this day, a sign of intent for any Ford with racing pedigree—including the rallycross Focus RS RX which will come with Project CARS 2.
The Twin-Cam Escort won the rally manufacturer’s trophy in its first season on the back of its agility and chuckability, and then made it two in a row in ’69. In Project CARS 2, you’ll be able to race the 1972 Escort Mk1 Rallycross, along with the Escort Mk1 RS1600. The difference? In the Mk1 Rallycross, you’ll find a rally engine that was sold as a performance kit back in the early ’70s. Named the Cosworth BDB, it’s capable of 200hp, and is a guarantee of happy-slappy tail-wagging fun at anything over 4,000Rrpm.
The Mk1 became a staple of the rallycross scene in the early years as the sport continued to build momentum.
The killer B years
With rallycross holding sold-out events throughout Europe and the UK (Jenson Button’s dad was one of the early stars in the UK), the Embassy/ERA European Rallycross Championship was founded in ’73; by ’76, with future rally world champion Stig Blomqvist fighting Franz Wurz (F1 and WSC-driver Alexander’s dad), and the sport enjoying ever-increasing popularity, the FIA gave rallycross its official stamp of approval under Group 5 regulations.
And then came the Killer Bs.
World rally never got better than the Group B years that began in ’82. The rulebook was simple, and led to the most extraordinary rally cars in history, with performance figures that make today’s rally cars seem pedestrian by comparison. The dominant Lancias and Audis were weighing in at less than 900kgs by ’86, with superchargers and turbochargers pushing out over 500hp. With supercar-like levels of weight-to-power ratios, hardly any restrictions on aero’ based around all sorts of high-tech materials, and with budgets that were matching and exceeding sportscars and Formula One, the Group B years were an unmatchable era of off-road racing. Rallying was at the absolute crest of its popularity with manufacturers pumping untold millions into producing these hyper-quick racing monsters, competing as much for glory on the track as for guaranteed column inches in the world’s press when, in ’86, the FIA pulled the plug overnight.
The year 1986 proved pivotal. Tragedy at the Portuguese Rally in the spring, followed by the death of rallying superstar Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto in Corsica, forced the FIA’s hand. Those tragedies, alongside shenanigans involving skirts and other semi-banned technologies, meant the FIA had no option but to can Group B outright. That left manufacturers with unbelievably quick cars, enormous budgets, rally-stars on big salaries … and nowhere to race.
That’s when all eyes turned to the European Rallycross Championship.
After a bit of wrangling, Division 1 was retained for rear-wheel drive cars, while Division 2 was opened-up to the Group B killer-cars, and for the next six years, the epic Lancia Deltas and Audi Sport Quattros and MG Metro R4Rs and Ford RA200s renewed their rivalries, and with them came legions of fans marveling at the fastest tin-tops in the world doing battle in small, arena-style venues, with the best drivers in the world bumping and grinding and throwing the killer Bs about as if there was no tomorrow.
Rallycross had not so much come of age as become a legendary motorsport overnight.
These beasts ran until 1993 when the rules were altered to allow prototypes to enter the series; the new cars had to adhere to Group A rules in terms of similarities to mass-produced cars, but the spec’ was basically ‘updated Group B’—big horsepower, high-boost turbos with AWD and all-manner of high-tech’ trickery. It’s the formula that continues to this day.
In 2003 the current regulations came into force. In 2011 rallycross came to the US and attracted superstar drivers such as Ken Block and Scott Speed. In 2013, the development series, GRC Lites—which come fully-licensed in Project CARS 2—debuted, and has gone on to great fan acclaim. In 2014, rallycross became a fully sanctioned World Championship staging a dozen sold-out events world-wide.
And now, in its 50th year, rallycross is coming to Project CARS 2, and you’re about to get a chance to find out what all the noise is about. For that, there’s probably a few things you need to know. Top of the list? In rallycross, everything is about racing; the qualifying events are just shorter versions of the main race. Your opponents also won’t be playing by the Queensberry Rules. Contact is encouraged (within reason), and your chosen line through the turns won’t be about maximum speed as much as maximum attack. The racing is fierce; it’s all about close-quarters don’t-give-an-inch action, and you won’t have a lot of time to plan your strategy. Instinct, talent, aggression, and a burning desire to win is as essential as driving talent. In rallycross, there’s nowhere to hide—you’re either fighting for position, or getting shifted out of the way.
Rallyrcross, including eight licensed cars and scanned real-world tracks including Lydden Hill, Daytona Rallycross circuit, Dirtfish, Hockenheim Rallycross circuit, Knockhill, Lankebanen, and Loheac-Bretagne Rallycross, will come with Project CARS 2, released in late 2017 for the PlayStation®4 system, Xbox One, and PC.