How hard is it for ambitious drivers to get on the rallycross career ladder? Not very, provided they have the necessary money to complement the talent required to bag a Super1600 drive. Or better still, an RX2 season.
For many coming through the national ranks, this option is simply not feasible.
But in 2016 it became more achievable with the creation of RX Academy, an entry-level training series for aspiring rallycross drivers. As World Rallycross commentator Andrew Coley puts it: “it’s the first rung on the RX career ladder, which was missing for a long time.”
RX Academy is a one-make development program set up by former racer and current Set Promotion team owner Jussi Pinomäki. Its focus is on teaching aspiring rallycross drivers the basics of car control, racecraft, data analysis and media training.
The program equips drivers (who can be as young as 14) with identical factory-built six-speed sequential Renault RS RX cars, which generate around 220hp, for six rounds alongside the RallyX Nordic campaign. The champion can receive a fully-funded season of European Super1600 or five rounds of the former RX2 International Series.
For RX Academy leader Pinomäki, creating a program which offered drivers a cost-effective, entry-level apprenticeship in the face of increased professionalism in rallycross was essential.
“When I finished my driving career and ran the Super1600 team, I continued working with [young drivers], the first I think was [Timur] Timerzyanov who came to us in 2009, and since then Andreas Bakkerud, Reinis Nitišs, Jānis Baumanis and Toomas Heikkinen as well have driven for us,” Pinomäki tells DirtFish.
“I always enjoyed working with them, coaching and helping them in their career and get them started.
“And then, the sport got more professional, in quite a short time actually between 2013 and 2016 when a lot of things happened: compare the driver profile between 2010 and 2016, the drivers became half the age, half the weight and the requirements to be a professional rallycross driver changed a lot.
“So, then, I felt that this was something that was missing [from the junior ranks], so we set up RX Academy so that, for a reasonable cost [recent season budgets have been €43,000], you would be able to get a pretty wide understanding of what it takes to become a professional rallycross driver.”
Part of what makes RX Academy what it is today lies in its set-up. Creating a level playing field in every aspect is crucial. From identical cars to a common set-up throughout the season, drivers also benefit from a rotation of spotters and driver coaches.
This, according to Pinomäki, is a crucial element of the program: 100% equality so that the best racer comes out on top at season’s end.
“It’s important that everything is equal, that all the drivers get the same chances,” Pinomäki explains.
“The idea of RX Academy is really to make the next step on the ladder easier, not just from a driving perspective but also from a physical one. OK, they don’t need to be marathon runners, but they need to be in good enough shape so that they can focus the whole weekend.
“At 15, 16 years old, you don’t know about those things yet, but you will need to understand the small details which in the end makes a difference once you reach World RX level.”
Accessibility seems to be the key word in motorsport circles when it comes to boosting grassroots participation, and rallycross has perhaps been a bit slow to the party.
While rallying has had a long-established entry-level to world championship path, through the various national championships and subsequently via the former R2, R3 and R5 structure, rallycross has had the proverbial “first rung missing”.
Now, with RX Academy – which elected to take a sabbatical in 2020 even before the COVID-19 outbreak – rallycross is beginning to take the ladder seriously, which is a relief to Coley.
“Back when I was competing, we had things like the 206 Cup which was mega and it really helped you get an understanding of how to drive,” Coley tells DirtFish.
“RX Academy is absolutely brilliant because it gives drivers really good value for money. Historically in rallycross most people are running their own car and it gets very expensive very quickly.
“So, it’s just perfect for drivers getting into rallycross, to learn the trade with all of the cost elements effectively taken out of it.
“The only problem is that I think there should be more of it, at a European championship level, but it does what it’s supposed to do and it’s great.”
RX Academy has crowned three champions so far, all of who have made it to the next level and beyond.
Jesse Kallio won the title in 2017 and went on to secure the European Super1600 championship the following year. The Finn then finished third in the RX2 International Series in 2019.
“Before RX Academy, there was nowhere else you could drive a similar car and have a big prize like they did, so it was a great experience for me,” Kallio tells DirtFish.
“Without this sort of program, it’s hard to jump to something like RX2 or Super1600 from the national series from Finland, so you have to have some step in between.
“The Academy for me, that was the step. The gap in car performance, competition, is so big between national and RX2 that you cannot really do it without [the Academy].”
National level rallycross is still very much an amateur thing, from the money side but also the preparation of cars despite that level being very high.
For Kallio, what he learned in RX Academy went far beyond simply getting the chance to race at a higher level than national; indeed, every aspect of what makes a modern-day rallycross driver is taught, down to the finest details.
“It was a lot of learning and everyone was in the same situation, so it’s all about the driver,” Kallio adds.
“Of course, we all had a lot of driving training, both mental and physical so it was a bit of everything. I learned a lot there and it was a really important step for me to find a place like this for my career.
“The driver coaches were probably the best part of the program because we each got a different one every round, so guys like [World RX and GRC event winner] Toppi Heikkinen, Reinis Nitišs, Joni Wiman, it was a big thing for us to have drivers like them to learn from and to understand how to make the best choices in the car.”
For driver coach Heikkinen – who also doubled up as a spotter for the RX Academy drivers – being part of a development program like the Academy was a no-brainer, having been closely linked to Pinomäki and Set Promotion during his career.
“I wish I had benefited from something like this when I started in rallycross,” Heikkinen explains to DirtFish.
“I have been involved in this business since 2010 and I have seen that there hasn’t been any road to the top. And when I started, I started immediately with supercars and that was for sure, too much at that age.
“We have a lot of drivers from go-karts or other racing who want to get into rallycross and go to the top in supercars, and we were just missing this road to the top.
“I like to work with the young drivers because it is quite easy to see who has the chance to be in the supercars in the future, the talent is already there in the Academy and it’s fun to see the drivers with this talent early.”
Heikkinen certainly knows talent when he sees it, having been a frontrunner in the World Rallycross Championship between 2014 and 2017, scoring two wins and a further six podiums. He also romped to the Global Rallycross title in 2013, with five wins out of nine events.
But what happens on day one of RX Academy from a driver coach perspective? Heikkinen says it’s a ‘hand-holding’ exercise, due to varying degrees of experience.
“I ask them what they have done before in racing, that’s always interesting. Some come from go-karts, some from rallying and others from folkrace. Asking that first, you can start to understand where they might need support.
“With rallycross, there is a lot of sliding, so some of the go-kart drivers don’t slide enough and the rally drivers maybe slide too much. At the start, we just show them the car, how many gears does it have and then we watch them driving.”
Another aspect of the Academy which aims to prepare its competitors for the real world as much as possible is the media and PR training which, despite the low average age of the competitors, is a crucial element of working up the ladder.
“Finnish people maybe don’t speak so much,” Kallio jokes.
“But I did learn a lot about the media. I already had quite good English before, but it was good to become more comfortable in front of the media.
“It’s a different feeling being in front of the camera, with big crowds and everything, so it made a lot more confident with everything.”
It’s a trait that Coley, in his own media role, has seen develop over the course of Academy members’ careers.
“Just being a fast driver is not enough today, you have to be a fast driver and have the backing,” says Coley.
“Kimi Räikkönen can get away with it because he’s made it, once you get to Kimi’s level when you tell someone nothing, it’s great.
“But when you’re a kid and you need 50 grand for the Academy and then two or three times that for Super1600 or RX2, and then 20 times that for World RX, you’ve got to be able to carry yourself in a way that investors are going to pick you up.
“The media training the Academy drivers get is great and [journalist] Hal [Ridge] is great with them and he gets them out of their shell.”
For a grassroots, entry-level rallycross program, which is still relatively new, the impact it has had and continues to have is impressive, to say the least.
Kallio’s successor Sami-Matti Trogen stands on the verge of a motorsport career away from the loose after recently signing a two-year deal with Walkenhorst Motorsport to race in the Nürburgring-Nordschleife based NLS series while also extending his esports contract with Williams
Last year’s champion Rasmus Tuominen also impressed with a podium on his European Super1600 debut at Barcelona, despite finishing the weekend on his roof.
But what of the future? With the impending switch to electric rallycross – with World RX set to implement it in 2022 and RX2 having already made the move – Pinomäki is eager that RX Academy remains fit for purpose when that jump does eventually happen.
And what’s more, he’s keen to ensure RX Academy remains a permanent fixture on the rallycross career ladder when the top tier finally makes its move to electric cars.
“Of course, we want RX Academy to continue into the future as well and there is no reason it won’t,” Pinomäki says.
“I think rallycross will get bigger in the future, and the bigger it gets, the more important a program like RX Academy will become. If we start teaching the kids at a young age and they go on further, they already have the basics, so everybody wins.
“As for electric, we need to react to that at some point but at the moment it’s a bit too early. We need to see World RX going electric first and then after we need to go.
“We made quite a huge investment in our current cars and they are still in great shape, so I would say at least two more years [of the Clio RS RX] and we’ll see. The future of rallycross is electric and that’s something we need to look at carefully as well.”
Rallycross can often be described as a school of hard knocks, but perhaps the biggest learning curve budding drivers can benefit from starts right at the grassroots level.