There’s nothing new in winning 11 rallies in a season. Sébastien Loeb did it in 2008. And the novelty’s all gone when it comes to winning 11 races. Lewis Hamilton’s done that for the last two years.
Rightly, both were considered the dominant force in that season.
But actually, neither Loeb or Hamilton could hold a candle to genuine motorsport domination. For the complete command of an FIA world championship campaign, one remains the absolute benchmark.
Step forward Johan Kristoffersson.
Why the need for him to step forward?
Because, for some utterly unknown reason, the fastest Swede with a roof over his head has fallen from grace while at the very height of his power.
Fall from grace is maybe a bit harsh. He didn’t fall. He was pushed. When Volkswagen Motorsport pulled the plug on its World RX effort at the end of 2018, Kristoffersson’s stellar season counted for nothing.
He’d won 11 races. From 12 starts. Loeb won 11 from 15, while Hamilton managed 11 from 19.
I agree. It’s complicated and possibly even pointless to compare the demands of Formula 1, WRX and the World Rally Championship. But anybody who watched a WRX round through Kristoffersson’s title-winning years in 2017 and ’18 knows what an achievement it was to win regularly – let alone all the time.
Naturally, the pace in all three disciplines is flat out, but the WRC offers three days to craft a plan to win. An F1 race can offer a two-hour window of opportunity. The culmination of WRX competition? A four-minute final. A fluffed launch, missed apex or wide slide and you’re finished. The pressure in the semi-finals was huge. In the finals, it was off the charts. But time after time after time, 18 times, in fact, out of the last 21 finals he started, he won.
In doing that, Kristoffersson confirmed himself as a king of mixed conditions and the ice-cool master of high-pressure situations. On top of the world at the end of 2018, Kristoffersson fell victim to the implosion of a series which had stood momentarily on the brink of genuine, ground-breaking greatness.
Where did he end up in 2019? The World Touring Car Cup.
Now, I don’t profess to know much about circuit racing, but talking to colleagues who know lots, WTCR isn’t exactly the cutting edge of global racing. Kristoffersson won three race and finished fifth in the points in his Loeb-run Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR.
Like I said, I don’t know much about racing, but the one thing I do know is that wet weather offers a genuine opportunity for natural talent to shine. And if there’s ever going to be a touring car equivalent of Ayrton Senna at Donington Park’s 1993 European Grand Prix, it would be Kristoffersson at Sepang in the last race of the season.
He started a wet night race 22nd on the grid, found grip where others feared to tread, passed six cars on the outside of the first right-hander and did the rest of the field in the next few minutes.
Twelve months earlier, Kristoffersson’s spellbinding victory drive in Cape Town turned out to be a fitting – if untimely – farewell. It was the same story in Malaysia as he, once again, unwittingly bowed out at the very top of his game.
For the second year in succession, a decision from Wolfsburg cast a shadow over Kristoffersson’s winter.
“I was actually testing the new [Volkswagen Golf TCR] car when I found out at the end of last year,” he says. “It was pretty tough. We’d made some progress with the car and things were looking good for the new year.”
Kristoffersson pauses, looks to his feet, but finds no answer there.
“I would like to do some more rallying this year,” he says. “We have really good partners with Volkswagen Sweden and our other sponsors. I want to carry on to work with them, they have been really loyal and we stay close now. It’s important to be driving again this year, we have to be ready for the next thing.”
Kristoffersson’s loyalty to Volkswagen is impressive. And he refuses to accept he might have made the wrong call when other manufacturers came knocking at his door.
“Loyalty,” he says quietly, “is important.”
He’s talking to DirtFish on the eve of last month’s Rally Sweden – an event that delivered his third successive World Rally Championship class podium, following a similar result in Torsby last season and an impressive third in WRC 2 on his Rally Finland debut.
The above only adds to the proposition that Kristoffersson is motorsport’s most complete driver. And a man more than deserving of a full-time seat in a full-time programme. Beyond all his natural talent and innate ability behind the wheel, Johan’s just about one of the most decent and down-to-earth drivers I’ve met. He talks openly about his admiration and appreciation of the Solberg family and the way they ran the PSRX Volkswagen Sweden team. More specifically, he credits his speed of development as a driver to his time with Petter.
When I interviewed him at the start of the 2019 season, he talked intently about how the 2003 World Rally champion had introduced him to life and a lap on the handbrake. Rotating the car became second nature to Kristoffersson, as did his ability to read the grip level and adapt his approach. To hear any professional – let alone a two-time world champion – talk of being indebted to a team-mate and rival in the way he did about Petter says as much about his desire to learn as it did about Solberg’s desire to see his friend succeed.
Kristoffersson’s approach to education and his thirst for knowledge would regularly have him skipping meals for more time with the engineers for an extra hour or two of data analysis. Nobody knows that better than Volkswagen Motorsport’s Richard Browne, the man who engineered his Polo R Supercar for two years.
Browne’s worked among the absolute best in the business for a few years now, but his point of reference for dedication and unrelenting application remains the 31-year-old Swede. Whenever I see Browne these days, within minutes, we’re pondering one of the great mysteries of our combined world.
“What has he got to do?”