Topi Heikkinen plots a new course
When the new Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship season begins in Barbados this weekend, the other drivers won't have Toomas "Topi" Heikkinen to kick them around anymore.
The 2013 GRC champion, who had the most dominating season in the circuit's brief history, has jumped to Marklund Motorsports to race a Volkswagen Polo in the FIA World Rallycross Championship, a bigger and more global racing circuit than its North American counterpart, GRC. He'll make one trip to the U.S., to compete in RallyCross at X Games Austin next month.
"I think everybody at Volkswagen [wanted] me to be a part of this team because they want to win the races. That's why I have a lot of pressure on my shoulders right now," Heikkinen said last month at the World RX media day at the Franciacorta International Circuit in Italy. "But every season is new, and I just plan to do my best and just try to be focused on everything I'm doing. I think we have a great team. Marklund Motorsports have done great [in a short time]. They are one of the biggest teams right now in this sport, that's the reason why I chose them, and they really want to win."
In Heikkinen, Marklund found a driver with the same focus. Although he's facing tougher competition in a different format on a bigger stage, Heikkinen's goal is another title.
"It's stupid if I say I want to be in fifth place. They just want to win, and I really want to as well," he said.
Before last season, Heikkinen was known mainly for a scary and spectacular crash into the face of a landing ramp at X Games Los Angeles 2012. He recovered to win five out of nine GRC rounds and reach the podium in all but one race.
Now, he's returning full time to Europe in IMG Motorsport's newly rebranded World RX, formerly known as the European Rallycross Championship. Heikkinen competed in European RX in 2010 and 2011, so this won't be completely new to the 23-year-old Finnish driver.
"The tracks are a little bit different than in the U.S., and I'm really pumped about this season. I think there will be some great races," Heikkinen said.
Maturity and the shift to World RX appear to have altered Heikkinen's driving strategy, so far at least. Heikkinen, who was accused of and sometimes penalized for driving too aggressively in GRC, ran a clean race and finished fourth in the season-opening stop earlier this month in Portugal. He currently ranks third in the drivers' standings because of additional points earned before the final in Portugal.
Timur Timerzyanov, who has won the past two European Rallycross Championships and raced in GRC and X Games, said the World RX drivers race competitively but cleanly and aren't as reckless as GRC drivers.
"We are now living here like a big family, and we respect each other," Timerzyanov said in Franciacorta. "America? No respect. It's all the stars, the big stars there, and for them it doesn't matter what the rules say for you."
Timerzyanov said World RX drivers race with the fear of regulations and tough penalties if they do something wrong. In GRC, the penalties are too light, he said, so that leads to the first-corner carnage that knocked out many drivers at nearly every GRC and X Games stop last year.
We are now living here like a big family and we respect each other. America? No respect. It's all the stars, the big stars there and for them it doesn't matter what the rules say for you.Timur Timerzyanov
"In America, you can do everything, you have the penalty and then you have to pay the money for the penalty," Timerzyanov said. "It's nothing for the drivers -- like, they have millions and then it's like, 'A penalty for $10,000. What is this one? I crash and win the race, I have more money from that.' I drove five races in America and never, never did the drivers respect each other."
Timerzyanov and other drivers who have raced in both rallycross circuits agree that the competition and racing is more challenging in World RX than in GRC. Liam Doran, who infamously slapped Heikkinen in the helmet in anger because of the Finn's driving after the second RallyCross final at X Games Munich last year, said the different styles of tracks and the two-day format of World RX's multiple heats before the semifinals and the final stresses consistency over the win-at-all-cost races in GRC.
"I've won events in GRC last year, the [Munich] X Games, we got a silver on one day and a gold the other day, and pfffft -- it was a lot tougher to win events in the European championships last year, which is now the World Championships," Doran said. "So, yeah, [Heikkinen] may do well, but it's going to be a lot harder for him."
VW and Marklund Motorsports, run by Anton Marklund's father, Jan, are trying to build a rallycross powerhouse. Anton Marklund said it was easy to convince Heikkinen to join once he could see what the team was doing in its workshop in Sweden. Volkswagen had mixed results in 2013, its first year in the European Rallycross Championship, but that was just setting a foundation for this year with all-new Polos.
"I think that's also why he chose Volkswagen, because the steps we have we taken the last year, last winter, developing this Volkswagen Polo is just amazing," said Anton Marklund, who finished seventh in the European RX overall standings in 2013. "It's more or less nothing that's the same as last year, and I think he realized that quite soon and he was having the feeling that this is a winning team."
Giving one of the fastest drivers around the fastest possible car should create a great combination. Anton Marklund, 21, has raced a number of times against Heikkinen and watched him before that when the Swede was driving Touring Cars and Topi was in Supercars in Europe.
"I saw already then that he was a sick, fast bastard," Marklund said with a laugh. "But I had seen his Per Eklund [Motorsport] Saab going around the track so many times, but never so fast as with Topi. He was using the car to its maximum.
"And, yeah, I was watching and learning from him. Then when I was racing against him in X Games, I could just see that he has developed as a driver, even if he was really, really good when he was in the European Championship. So I know what I have to deal with this year to beat him it will be really tricky."
Although Heikkinen is focusing on World RX, which has rounds outside of Western Europe in Turkey, Canada and Argentina, he is making time for one North American race. He plans to be at X Games Austin in June to defend his X Games L.A. RallyCross gold medal.
"We have to do it because it's great races, and it's fun to be over there," Heikkinen said.
Whether it's the old or new Topi, it probably won't be as much fun for his rival drivers.