The field is stacked in Munich for the third and fourth international X Games RallyCross events, with a couple of new drivers in the 17-car field who could challenge for gold in what is the first X Games RallyCross doubleheader, with medal races set for Saturday and Sunday.
"There are a lot of good drivers here," said Patrik Sandell, who earned bronze, his first RallyCross medal, at the season opener in Foz do Iguaçu in April. "A lot."
The diversity in the RallyCross field is notable, with racers whose backgrounds span the range of motorsports from Formula One to off-road truck racing and motocross.
One of the rallycross specialists to watch in Munich is Russian Timur Timerzyanov, who is sitting in behind the wheel of the 199 Dodge Dart for Travis Pastrana, who is sitting this round out because of a conflict with his NASCAR Nationwide Series duties.
The European Rallycross Championship regular is leading the 2013 standings in that series, where he races in a Citroen DS3, with a record of one win and three second-place finishes in five starts. The last time Timerzyanov competed in the Global Rallycross Championship was in Las Vegas late last season when he sat in for injured Marcus Grönholm in a Ford Fiesta.
This track, with its grippy straightaways, should be good for the Russian driver and his teammate, Bryce Menzies. The Dodge Dart has plenty of straight-line power and a slightly longer wheelbase, which means the two Dodge drivers should be able to get on the power a little earlier than their rivals coming out of the turns.
"The Dodges will be faster here than they were in Barcelona," says Anton Marklund, who returns to X Games in Munich behind the wheel of one of two Volkswagen Polos. "We'll see who the track fits. It could be good for Mattias [Ekström] and the tarmac racing guys."
Swedish driver Ekström should be a real threat in the No. 29 Volkswagen and, like Marklund, many in the field say they have their eye on the newcomer.
"Mattias is the favorite in my book," says X Games Foz gold winner Scott Speed, a former Formula One driver who now competes in NASCAR and rallycross. "He is one of the best saloon car drivers in the world."
Munich will be Ekström's first rallycross competition, but his varied experience should serve him well here. With four wins on the Race of Champions, an event that sees interdisciplinary competitors pilot a range of different machines to get to the top, he has proved himself against the best drivers in the world. He is a two-time DTM (German Touring Car Championship) champion (2004 and 2007) and has competed on the world stage for Audi since 1999, when he claimed the Swedish Touring Car Championship title. He boasts some top-notch rally experience, too, placing 10th in the 2005 Swedish rally with Skoda. He will race alongside Marklund in a Volkswagen Polo, and the duo recently spent two days testing at the German rallycross track in Buxtehude. The rallycross rookie said it gave him a great opportunity to get a feel for the car.
"It will be interesting to see what Ekström can do," Sandell said. "He's a super-fast driver, and, when he's done similar things in the past, like on the Race of Champions, he's been really fast."
Ekström might be new to the field, but he's no stranger to the drivers. He has met X Games drivers in competition before, driving alongside Speed for a couple of races with Red Bull on the NASCAR Sprint Cup series in 2010, and against Tanner Foust and Brian Deegan at the Race of Champions.
Despite bad luck that knocked him out of contention on the first corner of the first X Games RallyCross this year, Foust has been showing top speed this year on the European Rallycross circuit. He has won both of the races he has contested there, in the United Kingdom and Finland. U.S. teammate Deegan joined him in Finland, although he had a run of bad luck and a flat tire that cost him a top result.
American open-wheel pro Townsend Bell has been spending time in the paddock with Speed this week. The two are in evenly matched Ford Fiesta rallycross cars, prepared by Olsbergs MSE, and Bell's background in IndyCar and sports car racing should mean he brings a similar tidy style to the competition as his rival. Friday's jump practice session, which ran on a partial track configuration, was his first shot behind the wheel of the top-spec Ford Fiesta he is racing in both competitions this weekend. He recently spent a day with the Olsbergs MSE team in the United States testing out that team's spec Rallycross Lites racer. Although that car, with its 310 horsepower, is a toned-down version of the 600-horsepower machines competing here, he says the all-wheel drive experience on a mixed-surface track gave him confidence coming into his first rallycross.
"It was really helpful. I got a chance to get some running time in and get comfortable with the dynamics of this type of car," Bell says. "It's a fantastic platform for learning the sport."
This race also brings a delayed debut for Mini in the series. Liam Doran, the British rallycross driver known previously to X Games and European Rallycross Championship fans as the pilot of a powerful Citroen, will debut his Prodrive Mini this weekend. The car is being developed for rallycross and is expected to undergo an evolution throughout the season. Doran is a European Rallycross Championship regular who is sitting in fourth in the standings after a recent win earlier this month in Norway.
Brazilian Guiga Spinelli also will debut this weekend at X Games. He was ready to race in Barcelona but never got his shot at gold when the contest was rained out. He is a rally raid veteran who first competed in the famed Dakar contest in 2009 and regularly competes for Mitsubishi.
Munich marks the first competition appearance this season for the drivers of the Subaru Puma Rallycross Team, who sat out the first international X Games contest of the year and didn't get a chance to compete when Barcelona got rained out. Action sports legends Dave Mirra (BMX) and Bucky Lasek (skate) are returning to the team for 2013, along with three-time European Rallycross champion Sverre Isachsen, who first competed in X Games for Subaru in 2010. Lasek has just scored his third straight X Games Vert gold of the year.
Back in the mix for Ford are regular medal favorites Ken Block, Foust and Deegan. They are again joined by Toomas Heikkinen, who scored the silver medal in Foz do Iguaçu, and Sandell, who is looking to improve on the bronze he earned there. Racing alongside Speed and Bell in a 2012 spec Ford Fiesta is Steve Arpin, who was fourth in Brazil.
The course in Munich has more grippy tarmac than we'd seen this year, with a ratio of about 40 percent tarmac to 60 percent gravel. There's a new type of dirt here, too, that should allow the rallycross cars to run rain or shine -- which is a good thing because the forecast for the first of the two races is calling for a downpour. Rather than the mucky clay from Barcelona, the course here uses a road base -- small gravel familiar to anyone who has ever driven a back road. Organizers are hoping it will drain better than clay, making for better grip and faster racing even in the rain. It should be an improvement, but every type of course material brings its own set of complications: Rocky rooster tails are hard on windshields for cars following in a pack, and the surface can develop ruts, which affect the racing line and make for challenging handling. As is always the case in rallycross, the course will change with every lap.