Motorsport is entertaining but fundamentally it’s also a sport, so it needs to be fair and well-managed. That’s a key element to Nitro Rallycross. Yes, it’s a serious, legitimate sporting competition, but its foundations are in entertainment.
That’s led to one or two questions being asked about on-track incidents this season. Of course, despite what social media or Clarkson-era Top Gear might tell you, rallycross isn’t a contact sport. Contact happens, but that’s a consequence of its nature; not a deliberate ingredient to the product, nor something explicitly mandated in the rulebook.
So it’s only right that certain heavy-handed moves should be met with infractions, but at the same time, a fanbase of a series blessed with the ‘Nitro’ brand expects to be entertained.
And that’s where things get difficult – where do you draw the line?
We’ve highlighted five incidents of varying levels of severity from the 2021 Nitro Rallycross season – both in cause and effect – and looked at whether the correct stewarding decision was made.
All but one of them was met with the same infraction, a five-second penalty. The one that wasn’t? Potentially the most contentious, as it happened at the first corner of the final race in the whole championship.
Travis Pastrana vs Kevin Hansen vs Scott Speed
Where: The FIRM
Never has somebody looked so disappointed to win a championship. Travis Pastrana felt that he should’ve had a penalty for his lap one contact in the round five final, but does he have a point?
It’s a tough one because yes, at face value Pastrana does come in too hot and clout the side of his team-mate Scott Speed, forcing him wide.
It’s not a world away from the move that Timmy Hansen was penalized for a day earlier, the only difference being that with Pastrana able to pitch his car sideways before impact, it ended up being door-on-door contact rather than nose on door. But that sort of thing in itself has gone punished before too, as we’ll get onto later.
But then you look at the external factors. Was Pastrana forced into the shunt by Kevin Hansen? The Peugeot driver started alongside Pastrana on the second row of the grid and forced Pastrana out at the start of the race as he looked to help his brother secure the race and championship win. While he didn’t push Pastrana into Speed, you have to wonder if their own door-to-door contact moments earlier was fair or indeed necessary.
Ultimately, no penalties were handed out to either Pastrana or Kevin Hansen, and Speed – the only real victim in the incident – was able to recover to a podium result, albeit one that wasn’t enough to secure him the championship.
Whatever your belief on the penalty call in this instance, it is at least a relief that the championship ended up being decided on track and not in the stewards room. That in itself would’ve been a real travesty.
Timmy Hansen vs Scott Speed
Where: The FIRM
Verdict: Right call
This incident, at least in my eyes, was a lot more clear-cut than the others – although Timmy Hansen may well disagree as his words on the broadcast post-penalty suggest.
Approaching the end of the battle bracket final, Hansen came in hot on leader Scott Speed, hitting the passenger side door of the Subaru with the nose of his Peugeot – ripping the bumper off in the process. Unlike the other Subaru vs Hansen incident mentioned above, this wasn’t a door-to-door rub but a harder nose-to-side contact as the result of one driver entering a corner too quickly.
There was no loss of control, and while I’m not for a second suggesting it was a deliberate foul, unlike other instances of 50:50 contact, Hansen had the time and space to brake for that corner, and make the move successfully at another point.
The fact that Hansen sustained significant (albeit cosmetic) damage in the incident goes to show that he was perhaps carrying too much speed before the contact as well.
Liam Doran vs Kevin Hansen
Where: Glen Helen Raceway
Verdict: Wrong call
The second last chance qualifier at Glen Helen Raceway featured one of the dices of the season between Liam Doran and Kevin Hansen. Both battled side-by-side for over a lap as they fought for a crucial win as it came with a spot into the final.
But as both entered the sweeping left-hand hairpin on the recently watered track, they scrambled for grip and slid up the banked course. Both made contact with each other; Hansen continuing up the track and going into the wall. Doran was penalized for the incident, bringing a disappointing end to an otherwise fantastic race.
Doran’s penalty was questionable at best, with both drivers sliding up the track and suffering (one more than the other, admittedly), and had Hansen not been there, Doran would’ve likely still hit the wall. The slippy surface made navigating that turn tough. Plus, the contact was far from deliberate, and it wasn’t the first touch between the pair either.
As the old adage goes 'rubbin’ is racin' – but is it really?
But the most unusual element of the whole episode was that with Hansen dropping way back after the bump, Doran’s penalty only benefitted Ronalds Baldiņš, a driver nowhere near being involved in the incident.
A great fight with a messy end resulted in a punishment that benefitted neither of those that could be deemed to have been wronged.
Fraser McConnell vs Kevin Hansen
Where: ERX Motor Park
Verdict: Wrong call
This incident arguably changed the whole complexion of the second event of the season.
Fraser McConnell defeated Kevin Hasen in the second round of the battle bracket, forcefully getting by Hansen on the track’s first hairpin. The move resulted in contact, but door-to-door contact, the kind that has gone unpunished both before and since.
Afterwards, the stewards deemed the move to be too aggressive and handed McConnell a five-second penalty that effectively reversed the result. Hansen would go on to win the whole bracket, while McConnell’s punishment was met with a wall of complaints from fans, including a certain Ken Block who argued that McConnell was ‘robbed’.
It was hard racing, but in my opinion it was fair racing.
Fraser McConnell vs Oliver Bennett
Where: The FIRM
Verdict: Right call, but should it be?
McConnell got another harsh penalty in the final round of the season after making contact with Oliver Bennett on the joker merge and subsequently running off course in the second semifinal.
By the letter of the law, McConnell’s punishment was 100% correct: drivers merging back onto the main track should give way to those on the standard lap, and cutting the course is indeed a big no-no.
But should these rules of engagement be rethought? Or, should track design be reconsidered to prevent such high-speed smashes from being possible on merges in the first place?
Bennett, the driver hit by McConnell who subsequently retired as a result of damage sustained in the collision, said that he deemed it to be a racing incident himself, while any such ‘advantage’ gained by McConnell cutting the course looked to be marginal at best – if anything, a high-speed collision was more of a hindrance than a help.
McConnell was able to regroup from the scare and finish second, which gave him a spot in the final, but he was subsequently demoted out of the transfer spots.
Nitro Rallycross by its very nature is entertaining, it’s been designed that way to begin with, but it risks becoming too sterile if it a) punishes incidents that perhaps don’t warrant it and b) applies those punishments inconsistently.
Fans have been vocal on social media about some of this season’s questionable stewarding calls, and one hopes that going into season two those running the show can loosen the shackles a little bit to help deliver a thrilling yet still fair product.
Nobody wants a deliberate push-to-pass, and nobody wants dirty driving either. As the old adage goes ‘rubbin’ is racin’ – but is it really?