Red Bull GRC: 2016 Season Preview

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And so it begins: Red Bull Global Rallycross’ 2016 season is set to kick off this weekend, starting at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside of Phoenix, Ariz. (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Judging by the intense racing and deep competition that took place last year, there’s a lot to look forward to this year.

Here’s some of the elements to look forward to in 2016:

THE SPEED/VW DEFENSE

Last year, Scott Speed needed a miracle second half comeback to dig out of an early season hole and claim the 2015 championship for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross. We’ve written about it a couple times.

Can he get out to a better start this year? Will another past Red Bull GRC champion Tanner Foust, who was the only other driver mathematically eligible to take the title heading into Las Vegas last year, reassert himself as the dominant force within the team?

THE HONDA WILD CARD

Past Red Bull GRC champions Olsbergs MSE are going bold in 2016 with the new Honda Civic Coupes, which were unveiled at the New York Auto Show. The Andreas Eriksson-led team is renowned for its preparation and ability and with the newest cars in the series, should have them pretty well good to go.

The question, as ever, with new cars is reliability. Will the Hondas be fast but fragile? Or will they come out and stomp the field and reassert their domination at the pointy end of the grid?

No one knows for sure and while past series champion Joni Wiman and Sebastian Eriksson both won races in 2015, neither was a full-season title contender. A poor start may not bury them entirely but given the depth of field, they need to not get too far behind early if they want to win a title in the car’s debut year.

FORD’S ODDS

The SH Rallycross, Bryan Herta Rallysport and Chip Ganassi Racing teams all figure to battle among themselves for the top Ford squad.

SH Rallycross adds Jeff Ward to its lineup for the full season, replacing Nelson Piquet Jr. Piquet won once last year in the midst of a dual program between Red Bull GRC and the FIA Formula E Championship – and in the latter series, he won it. But Ward is an ace, he’s good on dirt, and he should be seriously fun to watch this year.

Herta’s Patrik Sandell was frequently fast but unlucky last year. He figures to be a title contender this year.

And in Ganassi’s second year in Red Bull GRC, you’d fully expect the team to secure its first final victory with either – or perhaps both of – Steve Arpin and Brian Deegan. Provided the team fixes its launch issues, look out.

NO BLOCK PARTY

The biggest departure from the Red Bull GRC grid in 2016 is Ken Block, who along with the Hoonigan Racing Division is racing in the FIA World Rallycross Championship this year rather than GRC.

Speed didn’t hold back when noting what Block’s absence might mean for GRC.

“It’ll definitely save everybody crash damage!” he laughed when chatting with NBC Sports.

“But obviously, that’s a huge name that brings a lot to the sport. Whether it’s a good or bad thing, I’m not sure yet.”

THE BIG FRIENDLY GIANT TIRES… OR BFG

A big swap for 2016 is the change from Yokohama to BFGoodrich tires, which should come up to temperature quicker and lock in faster.

It’s an interesting dynamic because teams didn’t get a ton of testing time – or sets – with the new tires. But considering BFG’s near sterling reputation in off-road racing and with Michelin renowned in the sports car world, this will be a good thing to watch.

Additionally, IndyCar veteran Sebastian Saavedra is entered for his series debut in a BFGoodrich-branded Ford Fiesta ST.

We’ll have a separate post on the BFG arrival this weekend on MotorSportsTalk.

SCHEDULE TWEAKS

Out for 2016: Fort Lauderdale, Detroit, Barbados and Las Vegas. In for 2016: Phoenix, Dallas, Atlantic City and Seattle. Los Angeles also moves to the season finale; the X Games, which were a non-points race last year, are gone altogether.

The four doubleheader weekends are at Phoenix (Rounds 1 and 2) Daytona (4 and 5), The Base (6 and 7) and Los Angeles (11 and 12). That means both the first and last weekends of the year are doubleheaders, compared to single rounds (Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas) in 2015.

Which means they’re doubly important because you have two races to start – and finish – either super strong or super weak.

“They are the most important because it’s so easy to start a develop a snowball going in wrong direction,” Speed, the champion, told NBC Sports. “Mistake, failure… I love the fact some are singles and some are doubles. It adds an extra aspect to the season.”

Says Ward, “You can put yourself in trouble by not being aggressive. I’ve been in those positions my whole life. I feel good about starting the season with two.”

Adds Arpin, “I’ll be honest, it’ll be a little bit nerve-wracking with a double header going into the year. A bunch of great big egos. We’re all going out. The first time head-to-head is the first heat race! Single car practice and qualifying. So we start off with all these guys, and their egos are gonna outperform the car next to them.”

Arpin also made a salient point about the overall schedule, in wishing for less turnover as the years progress.

“Overall I think they’re doing the right thing with the schedule and prime markets. The one thing I’d like to see is repeatability. Let’s make it a home, build a presence, and really start to make an identity.

“From a sales standpoint we need some repeatability.”

THOUGHTS ON THE COMPETITION

Here’s a number of drivers’ thoughts to NBC Sports on the competition ahead in 2016:

Speed: “No question both the teams and drivers will be stronger. It’s the natural evolution of rallycross. But you’ll have to see who’s done best homework in offseason. And who’s the car to beat. Not even in practice, but you’ll know in qualifying.”

Ward: “The series is really coming together. It’s bringing the names in of different drivers from different disciplines and it really fits this type of thing. It’s short, quick, with lots of excitement and action happening all the time. You get to see a lot of races and action… like Supercross in a way. It’s not one long drawn out race. There’s many winners during the day. It’s real intriguing to me. One of the best forms to me.”

Arpin: “I think it’s huge. Obviously at this level, you look at Scott Speed and Tanner Foust, Saavedra will be in it too, Jeff Ward will be fast. It’s gonna be hard to win races. I’d throw myself and Deegan in the mix too. You have to make it through the first corner strong, then set sail from there.”

GRC LITES

The GRC Lites division has a good mix of rookies and veterans in the field this year.

Defending series champion Oliver Eriksson leads the list of those making a comeback in 2016; others include Conner Martell, Alex Keyes, Tanner Whitten, Collete Davis and Harry Cheung.

As ever, the GRC Lites division provides a great launching point for young drivers in their first year in rally. Most of the field runs from the mid-teens to early 20s in age, with a handful of exceptions. Cabot Bigham (DRR), Parker Chase and the OMSE X Forces pair of Miki Weckstrom and Cole Keatts could be ones to watch in their first seasons.

SCHEDULE

2016 Red Bull Global Rallycross Schedule (TV times in parentheses)

Round Date Location  
1 May 21 Phoenix, AZ (I)
2 May 22 Phoenix, AZ (II) (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN – both)
3 June 4 Dallas, TX (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
4 June 18 Daytona Beach, FL (I)
5 June 19 Daytona Beach, FL (II) (3 p.m. ET, NBC – both)
6 July 2 The Base (I) (5 p.m. ET, NBC)
7 July 3 The Base (II) (5 p.m. ET, NBC)
8 July 30 Washington, DC (2 p.m. ET, NBC)
9 August 28 Atlantic City, NJ (3 p.m. ET, NBC)
10 September 17 Seattle, WA (1:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
11 October 8 Los Angeles, CA (I)
12 October 9 Los Angeles, CA (II) (3 p.m. ET, NBC – both)

Red Bull Global Rallycross Entry Lists

Supercars

00 Steve Arpin/Fort Frances, Ontario/Loenbro Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Fiesta ST
07 Jeff Ward/Glasgow, Scotland/SH Rallycross Ford Fiesta ST
11 Sverre Isachsen/Hokksund, Norway/Subaru Rally Team USA WRX STI
14 Austin Dyne/Los Angeles/AD Racing Ford Fiesta ST
18 Patrik Sandell/Ostersund, Sweden/Bryan Herta Rallysport Ford Fiesta ST
31 Joni Wiman/Pohja, Sweden/Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Civic
34 Tanner Foust/Denver/Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle
38 Brian Deegan/Omaha, NE/NOS Chip Ganassi Racing Ford Fiesta ST
41 Scott Speed/Mt. Holly, NC/Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross Beetle
77 Sebastian Saavedra/Bogota, Colombia/BFGoodrich Ford Fiesta ST
81 Bucky Lasek/Dundalk, MD/Subaru Rally Team USA WRX STI
93 Sebastian Eriksson/Hagfors, Sweden/Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE Civic

GRC Lites

07 Collete Davis/ San Francisco, CA/Rhys Millen Racing
2 Cabot Bigham/Mill Valley, CA/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
3 Travis Pecoy/Yorba Linda, CA/AF Racing
16 Oliver Eriksson/Osmo, Sweden/Olsbergs MSE X Forces
19 Parker Chase/New Braunfels, TX/Chase Rallysport/PMG
21 Conner Martell/Colchester, VT/DirtFish Motorsports
24 Alex Keyes/Folsom, CA/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
24 Tanner Whitten/Rochester, IL/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
44 Christian Brooks/Santa Clarita, CA/AF Racing
45 Miki Weckstrom/Espoo, Finland/Olsbergs MSE X Forces
53 Cole Keatts/Lewiston, ID/Olsbergs MSE X Forces
69 Harry Gottsacker/New Braunfels, TX/Performance Motorsports Group
88 Harry Cheung/San Francisco, CA/Rhys Millen Racing
126 Alejandro Fernandez/Bogota, Colombia/AF Racing

Entry lists are subject to change.