Early-season championship leader Oliver Eriksson battled back from a difficult opening day in Belgium to seal his second success from as many starts in the 2019 RX2 International Series presented by Cooper Tires – with a hard-fought victory at legendary Formula 1 venue Spa-Francorchamps.
Eriksson sat only sixth in the standings at the end of Saturday’s first two qualifying races, having fallen foul of a malfunctioning windscreen wiper in free practice, made a rare mistake in the joker lap in Q1 and picked up not one but two punctures in Q2.
That handed the initiative firmly to Olsbergs MSE stablemate Jesse Kallio, but Eriksson wasn’t done yet, and with both drivers winning their respective semi-finals, they lined up side-by-side on the front row of the grid for the all-important final.
Boldly keeping his foot planted on the accelerator, Eriksson swept around the outside of Kallio into Turn One and thereafter never looked back. Keeping the pressure on throughout, his team-mate flashed across the finish line less than four-tenths-of-a-second behind, with JC Raceteknik’s Ben-Philip Gundersen belatedly kick-starting his title challenge as he rounded out the rostrum in third.
Having already announced his arrival in RX2 with a podium finish on his debut in last month’s Barcelona curtain-raiser, Kallio confirmed his status as one of the series’ fastest-rising young stars with a commanding performance to top the intermediate rankings.
The Finn set the pace come rain and shine during the qualifying stages in the iconic Ardennes forest, pushed hardest by Eriksson and Gundersen. After losing ground on Saturday, the Swede bounced back by dominating Q3, but he and Gundersen made light contact at the start of Q4, sending the Norwegian wide and dropping him from second to third in the overall classification.
Like in Spain, Fraser McConnell in the third OMSE car impressed with both his speed and consistency, as the Jamaican secured fourth place – and with it a front row semi-final grid slot – ahead of Vasiliy Gryazin (Sports Racing Technologies) and Simon Olofsson, who vaulted up the order courtesy of a rapid run in Q4.
Sami-Matti Trogen (SET Promotion) recovered from a slow start on Saturday to salvage seventh in the table, with fellow teenager William Nilsson eighth for JC Raceteknik, the Swede producing a gutsy performance as he continues to recover from his impact with the Barcelona barriers a fortnight ago. Anders Michalak, Jimmie Walfridson (JC Raceteknik), Damien Meunier (Team Färén) and local hero Steve Volders completed the semi-finalists, with Albert Llovera narrowly missing out.
Kallio converted pole position into the lead when the lights went out in semi-final one, pursued by fellow front row starter Gundersen, and the order would remain that way to the chequered flag, the pair untroubled by the drama unfolding behind.
A three-way tussle for third on the opening lap predictably ended in tears, as a squeeze resulted in Michalak being turned around by Gryazin on the run up Eau Rouge, allowing the opportunistic Meunier to sneak through into third. The Frenchman, however, could not quite withstand the threat of a charging Trogen, who snatched the last final spot.
In the second semi-final, Eriksson led McConnell away from the line in an OMSE one-two, with Nilsson intelligently taking a wide approach into Turn One to get the undercut on countryman Olofsson on the exit for third. The latter tried to regain the position going into the hairpin at the top of Eau Rouge, but rather than paying off, his ambitious overtaking attempt actually ended up delaying the Swede and allowing the top three to break away.
Eriksson’s win was never really in doubt, but McConnell had to keep an eye in his mirrors for Nilsson, who continued to chase hard and crossed the finish line barely a second in his wake. Behind them, Olofsson was on the fightback, muscling his way past Walfridson with a gutsy move for fourth – if not quite into the final.
In a battle of the late-brakers, Eriksson proved to be the braver into Turn One for the first time, sweeping around the outside of his pole-sitting team-mate to grab the lead. Notwithstanding a slight scare when he sideswiped the wall on lap two, the reigning champion was thereafter able to fend Kallio off all the way to the chequered flag.
Gundersen followed the pair home a little way back in third to banish the memories of a difficult season curtain-raiser in Barcelona, while Trogen passed McConnell into the first corner for fourth place and maintained the position throughout – even eyeing an assault on the podium at one point. Although a late puncture put paid to any hopes of that, the Finnish teenager – the youngest driver in the field – defended well to keep McConnell and Nilsson at bay, with both crawling all over the back of the SET Promotion car in the closing stages.
Next up is another famous Formula 1 venue – Silverstone (25/26 May) – where Eriksson will arrive with an extended margin at the top of the title standings, but with a whole host of hungry rivals all eager to unseat him at the celebrated ‘Home of British Motor Sport’.
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