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Zero to Hero: Getting World RX technical with Fabrice Van Ertvelde

May 242018

Flashback to the beginning of 2017. The FIA World Rallycross Championship is celebrating its fourth year on the world stage, and things are really starting to heat up in the paddock. Right from the very start of its maiden world season in 2014, World RX has gradually been garnering the attention of automobile manufacturers. Audi, Ford and Peugeot have all established a presence in the #WorldRX service park.

As the teams begin to assemble under the Spanish sun in early April, at the Circuit de Barcelona, it’s evident that there is a serious new contender in town. Three immaculate white race-support trucks, a pristine white awning, and two imposing looking Polo GTis complete with electric blue flared arches, a matt-black centre and Monster Energy green claw slashes front and back. Volkswagen has landed.

Although technically speaking the sight of a Volkswagen Polo tearing around the circuits in the World Rallycross Championship was not something new - with a handful of privateers having fielded vehicles themselves with limited support - the 2017 emergence of the VW roundel marked something different.

Just several weeks prior to the Barcelona season opener – the covers had been pulled off the new Polo GTi rallycross challenger; which even to the casual motorsport fan bore more than a passing resemblance to the Polo WRC car - retired from the rally stages in November 2016, following the German outfit’s cancellation of their stage rally programme.

When we arrived in the rallycross world last year we felt like aliens in a way,” Volkswagen Motorsport Chief Engineer Fabrice Van Ertvelde tells us, standing in front of Petter Solberg’s current specification Polo R World Rallycross car. “For example running the complete cooling system in the front of the car – everyone was looking and laughing at us; and saying this won’t last long. It was, and still is, a tough job, because rallycross is incredibly demanding, but we have made it work. I think in that respect it’s our determination that sets us apart. The people aren’t laughing now – this is for sure!”

 

Fabrice’s comments aren’t unfounded either. By the end of the 2017 season, Petter Solberg, Johan Kristoffersson and the newly named PSRX Volkswagen Team Sweden had swept to a landmark eight wins from twelve races and cleaned up both the Drivers, and Teams, FIA World Rallycross titles in the process.

 

In any championship arriving as a new team and cleaning up two thirds of the wins in your maiden year would be an incredible achievement. However in World RX, where rivals names read along the lines of nine-time WRC champion Sébastien Loeb, and double-DTM champion Mattias Ekström, the results are truly without comparison.

So how did they do it, and what was the mindset? Fabrice Van Ertvelde sheds some light…

Hi Fabrice, it’s great to meet you. First and foremost; what’s your role in the team?

It’s great to meet you too. My title is chief engineer and technical operations manager at Volkswagen Motorsport, but what that means in real terms is that I’m responsible for the rallycross programme at Volkswagen Motorsport.

What attracted you to rallycross in the first place?

Well, we had been talking to Petter previously, and when we [Volkswagen] pulled out of the WRC programme it left an obvious opening for us. Petter came knocking on the door very quickly once the news broke officially – and asked us about using the ex-rally cars and working together. It was pretty new for all of us at Volkswagen to be honest. Ok, we knew rallycross, but at the same time had a lot to discover. We merged both teams – PSRX and Volkswagen, using the best facilities available at Petter’s workshops in Torsby and ours in Hannover – and the rest is history. So far at least, it’s been a great discovery.

"As a team, and a manufacturer initially, we started out with smaller targets. But as Petter was pushing so much from the very beginning our bar was set higher and higher."

Why did Volkswagen want to be in World RX?

The motivation was to keep racing in all honesty – to keep our cars running in a top championship. We saw the opportunity to run a supported customer programme. In terms of the logistics and equipment - everything left from WRC was more or less in place - the cars, the people; so it was a logical thing for us to work with Petter and continue racing!

How have you taken the Polo and made it so fast on World RX circuits?

It’s a good question haha! Last season we worked on all corners of the car. It was a matter of set up work, and making the best of what we had available, and had learned from rally. Of course there were readjustments to make the car suitable for World RX instead of WRC, but then it was a case of working with Petter and Johan and listening to their experience. Without a doubt, without their feedback we couldn’t have achieved the level we have with the car so rapidly.

What was the design philosophy behind the Polo?

For sure we would have loved to develop a new car from a blank canvas for World Rallycross, but this wasn’t possible unfortunately. We used what we had, which was the existing 2014 season Polo WRC car. It wasn’t the latest specification – but it’s what we had to work with. For this season (2018) the philosophy was the same. We were able to make small adjustments, but we didn’t have the budget and manpower available to do a complete overhaul – which would have been the ideal of course.

What are the main differences then between the 2017 and 2018 cars then?

The main topic was the suspension. We learnt a lot last season and were able to develop and re-design components that work with the existing chassis. Otherwise the transmission and running gear are the same. There are some small aerodynamic upgrades as well which you can see on the rear of the car.

What’s the coolest thing on the car for you?

The whole thing! I can’t really point out one thing on the car, it’s a package that keeps proving its performance at the top level. We are constantly able to refine it to make it ever faster, and for me personally this is the coolest thing!

Describe your feelings about starting out in World RX as self-confessed aliens and ending the year as champions…

As a team, and a manufacturer initially, we started out with smaller targets. But as Petter was pushing so much from the very beginning our bar was set higher and higher. What I mean by that is it took a little bit of time to realize the true pace from the car that we had, but after the first two or three events everything started to explode. Johan’s talent in the cockpit is incredible also. You don’t get seven wins in a season by luck. It was a really nice achievement to be on such a winning streak. To reach the end of the year with both titles at the end was really amazing. I think for Petter this was his dream, and for us it was unexpected. But we are racers; and we are always competing to win, and for sure once you see it is possible to win, then you deliver everything you can to achieve that goal.

Does that mean there is more pressure this season…

It’s a natural pressure I think. When something is new, you could use the excuse that the car is new or whatever. Either way you just don’t want to fail, and you do everything you can to succeed. Now this year the pressure is different again. Once you have been champion you work harder to stay at the top.

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