It’s not often that you can label Johan Kristoffersson the underdog in the World Rallycross Championship, but that’s exactly what he was ahead of last weekend’s two final rounds at the Nürburgring.
But, when you’re a three-time world champion, you will always find a way. Kristoffersson overturned a 17-point deficit to Timmy Hansen to win his fourth World RX title on countback, drawing level with Hansen on 217 points.
It means Kristoffersson has now won 50% of all World RX seasons, but this one was different. Instead of driving a Volkswagen Polo, Kristoffersson was in an Audi S1 from EKS JC. And instead of sealing the championship in domineering fashion ahead of the final contest, Kristoffersson did it the hard way.
“I think this one is a little bit different because it came from more of a fightback, because after France I was more or less thinking that this will be a tricky way to come back,” Kristoffersson tells DirtFish, the morning after winning the 2021 title.
“I think that’s the difference in terms of the feeling, it might take some time before it sinks in and also the other championships I won before the last race. You had more the feeling that it’s coming, this one I was a bit more let’s say surprised.”
It would be wrong to say the rest of us were surprised though, even after a difficult start to the season.
Kristoffersson – who admits he “wasn’t really planning to do the world championship this year” until EKS JC and his sponsor Red Bull “started a discussion before I was even involved” that culminated in a very late deal – only had one podium from the first four events while Hansen had won twice and been second on the other two occasions.
He concedes it “took two or three events before we really got our heads around the car and started to understand and capitalize on the strengths of the car rather than concentrating on the weak points” but there was far more to it than just an adaptation process.
Kristoffersson had topped the first qualifying session of the season in Spain before he was disqualified from Q1 as his FIA data logger wasn’t connected. He recovered to third, but wouldn’t make the final at Höljes or at Lohéac due to a double puncture and a driveshaft problem. And then in the first Riga event, Kristoffersson made the final but contact with Niclas Grönholm at turn one restricted him to fifth.
“It was,” Kristoffersson laughs, “a very, very difficult first four events for us. Especially France as the car was extremely strong there and our package was just suiting [the track] so well, the track was coming to us and everything was just set up for a good weekend and then yeah, we lost out everything on the semifinal.
“So I think that was the lowest point for the team of the whole season. [The] third event in a row with margins on the wrong side but yeah, we picked ourselves up from there.”
Just a day after his latest setback, Kristoffersson was on a mission and finally got his season off the mark with victory on the second event of the Latvian double header.
I’ve been in the same position as Timmy as well, having a decent gap in the championshipJohan Kristoffersson
“I think that was the turning point, the fifth race, when we managed to win, finally,” Kristoffersson says. “We had pace to win events before but we didn’t manage to get it together and then for the whole team I think that was a very important victory.”
Hindsight would increase the impact of the victory too as Kristofferson’s form picked up and Hansen’s began to trail a little bit.
“I’ve been in the same position as Timmy as well, having a decent gap in the championship and you want to race in rallycross but you don’t want to take the biggest risks of getting into trouble, and maybe that will hamper your performance,” Kristoffersson explains.
“I think I was in the position of hunting and that’s something which is also quite nice in one way because in the end you really don’t have anything to lose. I was not there fighting for second, third or fourth position. I was there to fight for the championship.
“I went into the season with the goal of coming to the last round and having a shot of the championship, and we managed that. And then of course being able to then finally clinch the title is the optimum result for us.”
Kristoffersson followed up his maiden Audi success with his second at Spa-Francorchamps – something that came as a bit of a surprise as “we were fearing that that would be a difficult weekend for us [but] it turned out that they changed the track so that really played into our hands.”
But Montalegre dumped Kristoffersson back down to earth as he was only sixth in the final – handed a five-second penalty for striking a track marker and cutting a corner when battling with Kevin Hansen.
“In Montalegre I felt like I have to start catching some points on Timmy now and I can’t let him get more points going into the final [rounds] because then it’s going to be too big of a job to do, so I took for the first time in a couple of years in rallycross, in the world championship, more risks and was going for smaller gaps than I’ve done before,” Kristoffersson remembers.
“I had a tough overtake on Niclas which also gave me a reprimand and then in the final me and Timmy made some contact but I was trying to first of all overtake him and then in the end he drove very defensively, so then the only thing I could do was try to harass Timmy as much as possible because I saw Niclas had been to the joker and I couldn’t let Timmy get the eight points in the final, I rathered he would be P2 or P3 and let the guys in the joker lap catch up.
“So I tried to make him drive as defensively as possible and during that I opened the gap a bit for Kevin and he took that gap, he filled that gap and a little bit more and then I ran out of track and there was no other way of… I ended up on the wrong side of the track and I rejoined and got a penalty for that.
“I mean that and other situations during the season, there’s been a lot of discussions back and forth with penalties and then in the end Timmy got three penalties in the final [weekend]. Normally over a whole season everything evens out, [but] it definitely feels worse if it’s towards the end of the season like we had in Montalegre, that penalty felt worse for us compared to when I got disqualified for a logger that wasn’t connected which was a misunderstanding between the team and the promoter.
“But if you then calculate that it’s going to be down to equal points then you kind of realize how important every single point is in a championship. But of course it’s easier to overcome them and not think about them so much when it’s early season.”
I went into the weekend trying to get absolutely as many points as possible but still trying to be on the right side of penaltiesJohan Kristoffersson
In the end Kristoffersson missed out on his objective of reducing his points deficit as Hansen outscored him with second in Portugal, but the reigning world champion wasn’t going to go down without a fight at the Nürburgring.
“I went into the weekend trying to get absolutely as many points as possible but still trying to be on the right side of penalties because I was sure it’s going to be a rough weekend, because in the finals it always used to be that and I felt straightaway that the track would suit us good,” he says.
“I think that was the ultimate challenge for the drivers to go out in the morning with snow on track, and then of course being close to two seconds faster than anyone, that was a good start to the weekend.”
That practice speed translated into a victory that reduced the championship gap to nine points, but Kristoffersson’s deficit was soon down to four after Hansen was disqualified from third place due to contact in the first corner of the final.
“Definitely it felt a lot more within reach when it’s four instead of nine points,” Kristoffersson admits. “I think that gave a lot of energy to the whole team, the feeling that we had one finger on the championship trophy here now.
“It didn’t really change anything in terms of what we could do, we still tried to do our best and do exactly the same thing but definitely it felt good for us.”
Sunday went equally well. While Hansen ran into more bother with the stewards and started the final from the back row despite winning his semifinal, Kristoffersson just did his job.
Even when Timmy’s brother Kevin beat Kristoffersson off the line – potentially opening up the door for Team Hansen to try and hold Kristoffersson up to benefit Timmy – the EKS JC driver was undeterred.
He reveals a unique insight into his precise, calculated mind with his approach to Sunday’s final.
“Starting from first position, I already had in my mind that it would be very difficult to take the start because it turned out that during the weekend that slot one was the worst one to launch from.
“So I was already pretty sure that Kevin will get me from the launch if nothing really happens, but I also knew that I only had to be ahead of Timmy. It was the first one to the finish that won, so I was already having in my mind that if Kevin gets the launch I will make sure not to stay behind him and not let them have the possibility of playing any tactics with Kevin.
“That’s why I took the joker lap already on lap one from position two, not letting Timmy behind take me the joker lap. And then, I don’t know why, but he followed me going into the joker lap and when I heard on the radio and saw in the mirror that Timmy was behind me I knew that OK, this is going to be a race to the finish.
“Kevin was ahead of me, but I felt extremely strong on pace and I knew it’s going to be difficult to overtake and I saw that Timmy really didn’t have the pace in the final either.”
Third place, with Hansen fourth, was enough for Kristoffersson to grab the championship – an achievement he immediately said hadn’t sunk in. He reiterated that point to DirtFish on Monday, but did reveal he was blown away to have joined such an elusive club.
“I got a congratulations message that wrote the names of some of the others that have four world championship titles, like [Sebastian] Vettel, [Juha] Kankkunen, [Alain] Prost and that’s quite crazy when you read it!
“It’s a bunch of names that you admire and it’s a bunch of names that are just incredible drivers and then of course equalling them on amount of championships is just something, like I said, that will take a long time to understand but in one way I’m super proud but at the same time when you go back home my girlfriend and my two kids are still smiling even if I wouldn’t have finished first.
“So in one way life goes on and in the other way you feel very proud and honored to be able to be in the position to fight for those championships. It’s a very diverse feeling, but of course when you put so much effort into something like I do with this, and not only me but my family as well and we sacrifice a lot of things and we really put our hearts into this, and then when you do that, when you decide to do that, of course it’s very nice with success as well.
“We had a lot of obstacles to overcome to be able to fight for this championship this year and like I said in the beginning of the year I think we chased our tails a little bit, trying to improve the weakness of the car instead of then we realize we have to work on the strengths,” Kristoffersson adds.
“That took some time and being able to have that journey in your backpack going into the next season, it’s also feeling like a strength.
“That instant happiness of winning the first one will always be the strongest but from there on, all of the different championships have their beautiful side of winning. Being able to do that with a new team, new mechanics, with a new car and with a team that’s been my competitors for so many years and then coming together with them, sharing all the secrets we had from before and trying to really put all the cards on the table and really squeeze out everything to be able to fight against a team like Team Hansen that has, I don’t know how many world championships they have now together, and then being able to fight against them and Grönholm’s team as well, the competition has been very, very high on the top level as well.
I also put a lot of energy into Enzo to make him perform better and make him feel comfortable in the car the way he wants to drive the carJohan Kristoffersson
“We really had to extract everything from ourselves to be able to win and I think the last weekend really showed the strength of being two strong team-mates as well. Enzo [Ide] did a very, very good job the last two races in Nürburgring – he was winning one of the qualifying heats and he was on the front row for the semifinal together with me on the last day, he really also performed at the best when the pressure was the highest.
“I think that’s a strength not only from him but from the team to be able to push us in the right direction of improving and I’m so happy for him as well as together with the engineers, I also put a lot of energy into Enzo to make him perform better and make him feel comfortable in the car the way he wants to drive the car.
“From the first test me and Enzo drove together, the progression he had to be on the front row of the semifinal and then win one qualifying heat in the world championship is pretty extreme. I have a lot to thank Enzo for this championship as well.”
Kristoffersson has continued to defy expectation with another World RX title, proving this season – if it even needed to be proved – that he can win when his back is against the wall, and not just when he’s streaking clear out front.
But he has the opportunity to make more history by becoming the first ever Extreme E champion in a matter of weeks. He and Molly Taylor appear to be favorites as they lead the championship heading into the finale with Rosberg X Racing.
“Well I think after what we saw this weekend, going into the last round as the championship leader you shouldn’t feel confident at all!” Kristoffersson laughs.
“We will see, we really have to go there and do our absolute maximum. It’s only nine points and we really have to make it to the final to be able to fight for that championship, and we’ve seen that it’s not so easy.
“I will try and keep our momentum from this weekend into the last weekend [of Extreme E] and try to do our best together with Molly. We have a few ideas that we will try to implement for that last race as well which should increase our performance a little bit more, so we’ll try our best.”