As 2020 finally comes to a close most series have completed whatever races they could have, crowned a champion and begun hibernation before hitting the track again in Spring next year. However, the 2020 British Rallycross Championship stretches beyond this year. Despite this, an end of year review is needed to properly dissect what has happened both on and off the track
Author’s Note: This article was published days before the final round was cancelled.
The 2020 season started in November 2019. This may sound confusing but it was because of an important announcement. On 14th November it was announced Lydden Hill Race Circuit would take over management of the series. With it the series made whole host of changes. Every event became a 2-day affair with 1 round for Supercars and a mix of single and double header rounds for support categories. The series put forward a return to Scotland, Ireland and continental Europe. The 2020 British Rallycross Championship 5 Nations Trophy was, as the name suggests, going to be racing in 5 different countries for the first time since 2004.
4 qualifying sessions would be run at each weekend with qualifying points the same as World Rallycross. Championship points would be awarded for semi-final and final positions, rather than at the end of the weekend. This all brought the series closer inline with the premier rallycross championship. Entries were flooding in for the first round in April. Then everything was put on hold.
On 16th March the UK went into the first of a series of lockdowns. As with every sport around the world, motorsport and specifically rallycross were put on hold. Within a day, the series’ organisers confirmed the calendar would be delayed. It wasn’t until May a new calendar was announced with 4 rounds in 4 different countries, the European trip being struck down for obvious reason. By the time August rolled around the grid was looking as healthy as ever. This was despite the many previously announced drivers pulling out. Big names like Julian Godfrey, Ollie O’Donovan and Steve Hill confirmed their entries early on and were joined by Oliver Bennett in his World RX Mini. In the end 12 Supercars made it to the opening round at Lydden Hill with over 70 cars amongst all the classes.
On a sunny Sunday morning the cars made their way onto track for the first rallycross race in Britain since March. Bennett set the pace late in practice with rookie, Mark Donnelly the leading Championship runner. 6-time Olympic Cycling Champion Chris Hoy made only his second rallycross start but immediately was let down in practice with a technical issue. Mike Manning suffered the same fate after a rear hub broke leaving him stranded on track.
Qualifying started soon after and in the first race of the year, Mark Flaherty jumped the start. At the restart the English driver’s car saw smoke coming from under the bonnet. Marshals were quickly on the scene to douse the flames. While only a small fire it destroyed the engine manifold and with no replacement to hand, this put Flaherty out of the entire weekend. Bennett used pole position in his race to top Q1. O’Donovan claimed second ahead of Hill and Roger Thomas.
Chris Hoy struggled with his Citroen C4. After missing practice he was required to complete 3 practice laps before Q1. After running those laps he formed up on the grid. However, warm and therefore sticky tyres gave him took much grip and he stalled on the line. This was then compounded when he ran out of fuel with a 2 laps to go and he pulled off before the race’s end. It was a tight schedule and there wasn’t time left in the day to run Q2 which left 3 qualifying sessions and the finals to be run on Monday.
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Bennett managed to win every session on Bank Holiday Monday to secure the top qualifier spot. However, there had been rumours of not using the right fuel from the start of the day. It wasn’t until just minutes before the semi-finals that Bennett was disqualified from qualifying and was therefore unable to start the semi-finals. It gave O’Donovan pole position with Thomas and Godfrey alongside.
O’Donovan had been the top championship runner all weekend and had been making sure Bennett knew he was there at the start of each race. Donnelly recovered from engine misfires in Q3 to slot in 3rd overall and was promoted to pole in Semi-Final 2. Thomas hadn’t put a foot wrong all weekend, barring starting Q1 in neutral, to go 4th with Hill coming back from a puncture in Q2 to go 5th. Godfrey had been having a bad day, with slow launches off the line and a spin in Q4 cementing a poor weekend. Mike Sellar and Mike Manning were locked into a battle for 7th, with Manning showing better pace but suffering from reliability issues.
The last 3 in qualifying all missed a session, effectively putting them to the bottom of the standings no matter what. The leading driver of these was Tristan Ovenden. In a newly acquired Citroen DS3 the owner-racer showed good pace which ended with 4th in Q4. Hoy also missed a session trying to solve issues with his Citroen. Dom Flitney missed Q1 after needing to refit his transponder and then ran near the back during the other sessions with his recently upgraded Subaru Impreza.
For the first time all weekend, O’Donovan made a poor start. It gave an open door to Thomas to take the lead with Godfrey diving to the joker lap. Suffering with a technical issue slowing him down, O’Donovan couldn’t mount a challenge to the leader and dropped behind the reigning champion when he took his alternate route. Thomas was also unable to keep Godfrey behind when he jokered and let the GB1 car take the first championship points of the season. Manning was set to take the last transfer spot but a broken front right slowed him and Hoy managed to snag 4th place on the final lap.
The other semi-final started in a ball of smoke as Flitney’s car let out a plume. A misplaced oil pipe into the turbo to blame for the smokescreen and the Subaru driver pulled off immediately. For the first time all weekend Donnelly had clear air and used this to his full advantage. He set a blistering time and beat Hill by 5 seconds. Ovenden came home 3rd ahead of an improving Sellar with Flitney the only retirement.
Image Credit: Overtake Motorsport
In the last race of the weekend Donnelly held off Godfrey at the start. The pair were nose to tail the entire race and both jokered on the penultimate lap. Donnelly then stretched his advantage to claim his maiden rallycross victory in only his second Supercar race. Behind, a mistake slowed Godfrey and put him within striking distance of O’Donovan. The London-based Irish driver was recovering from 5th on the grid. He tried to pass but wasn’t able to and finished less than half a second behind. Hill was third out of turn one but had jumped the start and needed to complete 2 joker laps. This dropped him behind both Ovenden and Hoy come the end of the race.
Sellar was the last driver running with Thomas the only retirement. He had jokered straight away and was set to challenge for a podium but on lap 2 he suffered an engine issue and pulled off the track. All of this left Donnelly on the maximum of 14 points with Godfrey right behind on 13 and O’Donovan on 10.
The next round in Knockhill was scheduled for late September. However, a week before the event it was called off. An imminent announcement by the Scottish government looked set the cancel the event so the organisers pre-emptively made the decision giving competitors advanced notice. In Wales it looked like any motorsport would be unable to take place with strict rules on all sports in place. Just 30 people were able to be at any sporting event, no matter the type of sport or size of the venue. This killed off any chance of racing in Wales throughout the year. Finally the Irish round was put on hold. With only 3 Irish based competitors able to make it to round 1 it looked like the British contingent would struggle just as much to go across the Irish Sea.
A new calendar was announced with 3 more rounds across 2 weekends, both at Lydden Hill. A double header in Kent in November and a near Christmas finale on December 19th. Both events were set to be run under floodlights due to the time of year. This would be for the first time since 2011 that the British Rallycross Championship would run at night
As we drew closer to November it looked less and less likely the event would take place. Then just 5 days before racing was set to take place another lockdown was introduced. This meant only Elite sports were able to hold events. The championship organisers managed to get elite status for the series just days later but the November meeting had already been postponed. Instead an early December, and very cold, meeting would take place. The finale was pushed back to January and expanded to 2 days running.
For the first time since 2010, 14 cars were set to race in the Supercar category. This included entries from World Rallycross Teams Champions, Team JC. Enzo Ide would pilot 1 car alongside Liam Doran on Saturday and Andreas Bakkerud on Sunday. Oliver Bennett returned in his BMW Mini, though this time running with the correct fuel. However, one day before the event a returning Jack Thorne and Mark Flaherty both pulled out. Flaherty’s flight had been cancelled and another wouldn’t be able to bring him back to the UK until Monday. Thorne’s Ford Fiesta suffered a clutch failure as he was loading the car onto his trailer. Bakkerud was also unable to make it to the UK leaving Doran with driving duties on both days.
As expected the 3 World Rallycross drivers were the quickest amongst the pack. Only a gearbox issue slowed Bennett which dropped him to 4th in the standings behind Godfrey. Doran and Ide shared the qualifying wins with the British Bomb winning 2 out of 3 to top qualifying. Ide and Doran made slight contact in Q1 with Doran taking advantage while Ide forgot to joker and suffered a penalty that dropped him back. O’Donovan was in 5th after slowing in Q3 with a broken right front wheel.
Championship leader Donnelly missed Q2 to fix a power steering failure and was down in 10th overall just ahead of John McGuiness. The 23-time Isle of Man TT winner suffered a roll at the start of Q1. A broken driveshaft sent the bike racer towards the infield where he hit an apex barrier. This launched him into the air where he pirouetted before coming back down to earth. It left him out of Q2 but the team fixed the car before Q3. Hill was also out of position in qualifying in 8th after a series of throttle sensor issues.
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Doran held onto his advantage throughout the race. Behind him Godfrey made a good start but was forced to take a second joker lap for jumping the start. O’Donovan had jokered straight away and was forced to overtake teammate McGuinness and Pat Doran. This meant when Godfrey emerged from his second joker he was right behind the 2007 champion. On the final lap the pair went side by side out of Chessons. They made contact with Godfrey forced towards the grass though he managed to brake enough to avoid going off the tarmac.
Hill was the only driver absent from the second semi-final with Ide battling Bennett for victory. The positions stayed the same as they had after qualifying with the Belgian racer winning. Donnelly was next behind giving him crucial championship points.
Bennett made an amazing start to lead from third on the grid. Doran led his teammate Ide throughout the first lap. However, at the start of lap 2, Bennett suffered a gear failure which spun him onto the infield. Doran held on to win the final with Ide making it an Audi 1-2. Bennett managed to get back up to 3rd at the finish but hadn’t jokered which dropped him to 7th. Donnelly inherited 1st place in the British Championship ahead of O’Donovan to extend his championship lead. Godfrey was the only retirement as the cam sensor came loose, causing the ECU to lose its timing. Smoke came out from the car but this was only a shrink wrap around the rear lights catching fire and caused no damage.
Doran continued to dominate during round 3. The British Bomb won every session with Bennett and Ide sharing second and third places each session. The Audi driver managed to just beat out Bennett to secure pole for semi-final 2. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing as Ide made contact with Hill during Q1 while trying to pass. While on the inside of Hill the Belgian racer ran wide and spun Hill onto the infield which launched the Mitsubishi briefly skyward. Hill missed Q2 but was back out for Q3 though he finished qualifying last.
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Godfrey had a poor qualifying after retiring in Q1. He first spun in avoidance of Ovenden and caused a red flag. At the restart he was close to Bennett before the front drive shaft broke causing another pirouette. Not wanting to be lapped and classed as a DNF the GB1 driver pushed but spun again and retired.
It meant he was starting near the back of Q2 when the biggest accident of the weekend occured. With the best start he looked to dive up the inside of poleman O’Donovan. However the 2 came together into turn 1 as Godfrey tried to back out of the move. The contact forced O’Donovan into the apex barrier while Godfrey fired to the outside of the circuit hitting Supercar debutant and journalist Hal Ridge. Both collected the barriers with Ridge able to continue. On the exit of the corner O’Donovan turned away from the corner and made contact with Godfrey which spun him onto the infield. Both were already crawling back to the pits and into retirement before the second contact.
O’Donovan declared he was out of the weekend from the damage but after a huge amount of work, his Fiesta was fixed for the Semi-Finals. This was also in part due to the Supercars races being pushed back later in the schedule. Godfrey set the 4th fastest time in Q3 but was down in 8th while Donnelly qualified 4th.
Doran and Bennett battled throughout their semi-final. Doran held the initial advantage before running wide at turn 1. Bennett slipped by but a lap later with some slight contact, Doran was able to work his way back through. From their they stayed line astern to go through to the final. Behind, Ovenden had jokered off the start. O’Donovan had made a lightening start to be 3rd by turn 1 but when he jokered came out right behind Ovenden. He backed out of a move and came home 4th to secure a spot in the final. Flitney returned to the grid after skipping round 2 to test the car in the Retro class. Despite not being up at the front, he put on a spectacular performance as his brakes faded and he resorted to using the handbrake.
Ide failed to utilise pole and Donnelly took the lead through turn 1. He put up a hard defence but left a gap at the hairpin which Ide used to dive up the inside and retake first. Ide then stretched his lead and took pole position in the final. Donnelly scored more crucial championship points as Godfrey recovered to 3rd place ahead of Ridge.
The last rallycross race of the weekend and in Europe for 2020 took place just before sunset. With the light fading the 8 car grid sprung into action. Ide made the best start with Doran holding onto second place. Bennett dived to the joker lap with Ridge just behind. Donnelly was ahead of O’Donovan on the standard lap while Godfrey and Ovenden were left at the line. Godfrey suffered a clutch failure but was able to restart the car and re-joined in 7th. Ovenden also restarted but crawled around 30 seconds off the pace. O’Donovan immediately dived up the inside of Donnelly into the devil’s elbow to take 3rd. On the next lap by Donnelly tried to retake the position as O’Donovan ran wide out of turn 1. However, the pair made contact and broke Donnelly front left wheel. This forced him off the road and into retirement.
Out front Doran had passed Ide for the lead on the exit of turn 1. After the British Bomb reclaimed first he was able to maintain his position and won by less than a second over Ide. Bennett scored his first rallycross podium in his BMW Mini. O’Donovan was in 4th place while teammate Ridge was able to hold off a charging Godfrey at the end. Despite ending 2 laps down Ovenden was classified 7th ahead of Donnelly.
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It was only after racing had finished on Sunday that the points table was cleared up. Throughout the weekend it was expected that Liam Doran, Enzo Ide and Oliver Bennett were non-championship entries. However, on Sunday night it was made clear that this wasn’t actually the case. The Team JC Audis were still both not racing for points. The same could not be said for Bennett who was in fact registered to race in the series and thus score points. Remarkably across each of the semi-finals and finals where points are given out he had managed to beat each of the top 4 in the championship exactly twice each. This meant he cost Donnelly, O’Donovan, Godfrey and Ovenden 2 points as opposed to if he had been a non-championship runner.
After taking this into account it gave Donnelly 36 points out of 42. O’Donovan had closed to within 2 points with Godfrey another 3 back. Ovenden was the last driver with a somewhat realistic chance at the title on 28 points. Remarkably Bennett still had a shot at the title being 12 points back, though it would require failures to start from the top 3 in the championship which is more than unlikely. By the end of December the season finale had been cancelled sealing the title for Donnelly.
The 2020 British Rallycross Championship was set to end in 2021, such has been the strangeness of the past 12 months. However, the event was cancelled just before the new year. Racing was expected to take place on January 23rd/24th at Lydden Hill. Kent has recently been upgraded to Tier 4 restrictions which still allow elite sport events to take place. Only in Tier 2 or below can spectators attend these events. The Supercar category was going to run 1 round at the finale with a double header event for the supporting categories.
The 2021 calendar is due to be announced soon. 6 events are set to take place, likely all in the UK and Ireland. An additional round only for support categories is also expected. Knockhill has released its provisional date of late September, the same date as was expected for this year’s event. The season opener in 2020 was set to take place at Lydden Hill on the Easter weekend and is a likely candidate for next year’s first round. Croft is not expected to return leaving Lydden Hill, Pembrey, Knockhill and Mondello Park as the only circuits if Europe is not visitied.
O’Donovan has also announced he will bring a brand new car racing next season. He will replace his current Ford’s with a Proton Iriz developed in partnership between Tony Bardy Motorsport and Mellors Elliot Motorsport. He will race in the British Rallycross Championship as well as select rounds of the European and World Rallycross championships.
No matter what happens next season, it is certain that the 2020 season will remain unique. Never before has a season started or finished so late in the year. It will also be the first time only 1 circuit has hosted every round and that the joker lap will be used at every round. Donnelly’s win of the championship was surely deserved as each round has thrown up completely different challenges. The only condition the drivers haven’t battled in is snow though we’ll have to see what 2021 brings us.
EDIT: On December 29th the season finale was cancelled. Some revisions have been made to the article since then.
Feature Image Credit: Overtake Motorsport