“The feeling… you are so close, one second away from the gold.
“I don’t think it’s been like this in any motorsport class before. The first one over the finish line takes the gold. I have been so close once before; this is the second time I’ve lost it on the last race of the season.
This is Jimmie Österberg. He’s one of a trio of drivers involved in something straight out of a Hollywood script: a winner-takes-all final race of the season, decided by 0.042 seconds. With an overtake at the last corner of the last lap no less.
Blink and you’d have missed it. Literally.
It doesn’t sound real. It probably shouldn’t be. In a world where budgets, political chicanery and even flat-out cheating can define the outcome of a championship season, this isn’t supposed to happen.
How on earth did it?
Österberg and his title rivals Isak Reiersen – part of Team EKS JC’s junior squad – and Patrik Hallberg rolled up to Arvika last month tied on points in the RallyX Nordic CrossCar series.
There had been drama already. Reiersen was disqualified from one of the rounds at the previous meeting in Finland, Hallberg had been racking up wins while Österberg was playing the long game, ensuring he made it through to the final of every meeting.
They knew it would be close. But not this close. And after Qualifying 3, it looked like the battle might be over before it started. Trouble was brewing for Reiersen.
I made the biggest mistake of my whole career. If I hadn't done that, I would have won that qualifierJimmie Österberg
“I had some great speed but the clutch didn’t work after the first lap [of Qualifying 2], so I lost a lot of time. Of course, that’s not the best time to get problems like that!” Reiersen explains.
“It’s likely that when my clutch had failed, I pulled the gears anyway really hard, so it destroyed the seals in the gearbox of the engine. We changed a little bit and thought we’d found what was broken. But in Q3 I had problems again.”
He’d limped it home and banked more points. The same couldn’t be said for Hallberg – his Edge CrossKart ground to a halt cresting the hill at the back of the circuit. Yellow flags fluttered from the marshals’ posts.
Österberg arrived on the scene. He’d been chasing Hallberg down in his Q3 heat, hoping to pull off the undercut joker strategy. He saw the yellows first, then Hallberg. Then came a moment that haunts Österberg more than losing the final.
“I made the biggest mistake of my whole career in Q3,” he says with a serious pang of regret.
“I had been second in the qualifying before but Patrik’s car broke after the jump up the hill and they waved the yellow flag, and he was still running, so I thought he’d braked for the yellow flag.
“If you pass on a yellow flag you will be disqualified. I thought it was another car the yellow flag was for but it was for Patrik, so I was on full brake on the straight and I realized that it was him they waved it for, so I lost three seconds there. If I hadn’t done that, I would have won that qualifier and probably ended up first in qualifying [overall].”
Österberg still put solid points on the board and Hallberg’s problem was a quick fix. They were both still in the fight. But it would be advantage Reiersen at this point, surely?
Not in the slightest.
His dodgy clutch was a minor ailment compared to what was on the horizon. If his EKS JC team were expecting a pleasant night’s sleep, they were in for a rude awakening.
“With the mechanics being so determined to find a solution, together with Joel [Christofferson, EKS JC team principal] and the team, we said that we had to strip the whole engine to be really sure,” Reiersen recalls.
“At that stage, it was no good solution to simply hope we’d found what was wrong. We took the decision to take the engine out.
“To get into the gearbox you have to take the whole engine out, so it was a hell of a job for the mechanics. They worked until 4am on Sunday to get everything in order. Luckily, it wasn’t that early on Sunday that the racing started – Q4 was around 11am. So that was actually very fortunate, that it wasn’t earlier, so they could get some sleep!
“We came out in Q4, praying to God that everything worked because we had no warm-up [session] or anything, so it was straight into Q4.”
Hallberg had been on fire in the first two qualifiers and despite his Q3 breakdown, bagged maximum points from qualifying.
Take a guess at who was right behind. Yep, Reiersen and Österberg.
All the sweat and tears of the EKS JC mechanics had paid off – Reiersen bagged second in Q4 to end right behind Hallberg. And Österberg was right to be mad at himself; those three seconds lost in Q3 meant he qualified third instead of first.
So advantage Hallberg, right?
Nope. Wrong again.
Topping qualifying had bagged him an extra point, but that point came at a cost. Reiersen had pole for his semifinal and no title rivals to contend with. A cool lights-to-flag win followed.
Hallberg meanwhile had a thorn in his side: Österberg. Here was a chance for Mr Consistent to channel the frustration of his Q3 mistake and make amends. He took it with both hands.
After a long hold on the grid that felt like an eternity, the pair launched off the line. It was Österberg who got to turn one first. Hallberg peeled off early in the race for his joker, while Österberg left it for the last corner of the last lap.
With a place on the front row in the final at stake, this was no time to play it safe. As Österberg’s black Power RX machine zipped out of the joker exit, Hallberg went full send on the inside. He buried the throttle, praying his CrossKart would find some traction to compete with Österberg’s momentum out of the wider line.
And then it happened. Bang. After months of clean racing, the title contenders collided. Hallberg had put it all on the line, clattered into Österberg, and spun himself out.
Österberg had got the job done. He was into the final alongside Reiersen on row one. For Hallberg, there was a new target – get across the line in the top three to at least get a pass into the final. If he didn’t make it, his title hopes would be over there and then.
Amazingly, Hallberg pulled it off, crossing the line backwards with the momentum from his prang with Österberg. His saving grace? He’d clinched third by less than a second from Per Goodison, who’d made two trips through the joker lap.
Clearly, it was meant to be – all three title contenders lining up for a winner-takes-all showdown. Hollywood was going to get its script.
My spotter is really calm – he'll never say 'push' on the radio because I drive always flat out. But on the last lap, I heard him. He screamed 'PUSH!'Isak Reiersen
In theory there was no hope for Hallberg starting down in sixth. But we’re talking about a Hollywood tale for the ages here. Of course he had hope.
“You can never count Hallberg out, even though he started far back in the grid,” says Reiersen.
He wasn’t wrong. A sublime start mixed with smart placement got him straight up to third at the first corner, with Reiersen and Österberg right in his sights. The game was on.
Hallberg blinked first, going for the joker to get some clean air and pump in some quick times. More than just clever strategy, it was a necessity – Österberg was struggling. He’d failed to make a move on Reiersen up front and his odds of winning were getting longer as every corner passed.
“I had the outside and I tried to do a cutback to the inside at the end of the first corner [on Reiersen],” explains Österberg.
“And then I even tried to pass him over the first jump and then over the other jump up the hill. And then I tried a late braking at the last corner on the first lap to pass him on the inside. But I did the braking too hard, so I locked the front wheels and then I lost maybe half a second on him.
“I knew the only chance for me to take the title was to pass him on the first lap because if you have the lead in Arvika, you have a much better outcome with the jokers and everything.”
Reiersen was now up front, not alone per-se but, in CrossCar terms, his lead was quite substantial. And he didn’t seem fazed by it.
“Ever since 2011 I’ve been in this scenario maybe four of five times before; the last final or the last heat decides the championship,” says Reiersen. “So it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, now I’m leading, and it will be so great to win’ and these thoughts you get. But actually, I got my head together and really had the focus.”
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That focus was laser-like, but it wasn’t enough. Hallberg’s insane pace was back in spades. In free air, he was flying. He’d already smashed the joker delta time to Österberg, and he was coming for Reiersen. The gap was down to 2.3s and the race leader still had to take his turn on the joker lap.
“My spotter is really calm – he’ll never say ‘push’ on the radio because I drive always flat out. I’m in a race, you don’t need to say push! We’ve always said that,” Reiersen says.
“But now, [on] the last lap, I heard him. He screamed ‘PUSH!’. So then I knew – oh, s***, now I really have to drive fast.
“That last lap was one of the best laps I’ve ever done. Really maximum attack.”
Last corner, last lap. Reiersen heads into the joker. He snatches at the brake. The apex is missed. Hallberg turns into the last corner. It’s not looking good for the race leader.
It was not like 'ooof' in the moment. But then seeing it back on the live television after, ooof, it was so close!Isak Reiersen
“I felt that I’d braked a little too late and locked up the front wheels and missed the entry apex,” Reiersen recalls.
“But then I actually got a really good rotation on the car and got such good speed out of the corner – so the exit speed was really high because I braked late and got a really good push out.”
Hallberg had negotiated the last corner successfully and parked his CrossKart on the inside line. Reiersen was going to have to go the long way to make any move stick.
To Hallberg’s right were two things: an Armco barrier, and a gap barely the width of a Speedcar Xtrem. So Reiersen gave it the beans, squeezed alongside and hoped for the best. Hallberg’s previous race to the line had ended in a spin – was this going to end in utter acrimony?
Somehow, Reiersen had threaded the needle. As the chequered flag waved, they crossed the line side by side. It was a valiant last-gasp effort to clinch the title from behind, after losing the lead at the last corner.
"An absolute BANGER of a final!"
Everyone got their breath back after Arvika? Good, time to watch this CrossCar/Crosskart madness again then! 🤯
Isak Reiersen, Patrik Hallberg and Jimmie Österberg sure did put on a show at the season finale 🔥#RallyX | #RallyXNordic pic.twitter.com/GJQ6nMILob
— RallyX Nordic / RallyX on Ice (@rallyxnordic) August 17, 2021
“Hallberg’s going to take it nice and smooth on the inside. Reiersen’s trying to outgun him to the line! Hallberg’s going to get it…” came the call from RallyX Nordic commentator Andrew Coley.
Reiersen had given it his all but Hallberg was on the verge of pulling off the Hollywood miracle storyline – last to first for the title in a photo finish.
But there was one last plot twist.
“REIERSEN! He gets it by the tiniest of margins! It’s Reiersen!”
Reiersen had done it. He was champion. By 0.042s.
Hallberg had an opportunity to squeeze Reiersen into the barrier and potentially bag the title for himself. But he’d played it fair. He wasn’t the protagonist of this tale – but he was one of the heroes of it regardless. Instead of playing dirty and taking inspiration from Michael Schumacher at Jerez in 1997, he’d raced honorably.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about that,” Reiersen admits. “There are many possible reasons why he did it. As I’ve always said, Jimmie and Patrik are such good drivers.
“Everything they have done has been clean, fair racing all season and I know that Patrik wouldn’t do that, as we would both end up in the barriers and maybe even Jimmie would win. I’ve been wondering if maybe he wasn’t even expecting me to have such good speed. I don’t know.”
When Reiersen said he had been calm and focused, he wasn’t kidding. He had no idea it had been so close until seeing the replays on TV.
“I felt that I was in front. It felt good, not like ‘ooof’ in the moment. But then seeing it back on the live television after, ooof, it was so close!”
Österberg was largely absent from the thrilling denouement. He could only watch from behind as the incredible photo finish played out in front of his eyes. For now, he remains the nearly man.
“In 2019 I was leading the championship by three points before the final race and I had an engine failure in Q1,” recounts Österberg. “I got a spare engine from another guy in the paddock and when we put it in our kart, it didn’t work.
“If you look back to the other season [in 2020], it would have been enough to reach the finals in every round. But this season is not like any other season, with three drivers on the same pace across the year. If I had done this last year, reaching all finals, it would have been possible. But not this year.
“I knew when we started in Denmark that the two biggest opponents would be Isak and Patrik and that it would be hard. But not this hard.
“I liked the racing but not the result.”
The first of those sentiments we can all agree with. Now, when’s the sequel coming out? We need to stock up on popcorn.