Topi grows up but doesn't slow down
It could be the best odds he's faced in his motorsport career. All Toomas "Topi" Heikkinen has to do in order to secure the Global Rallycross Championship this weekend is cross the start line at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But, knowing Heikkinen, who has evolved in one short season from the series' reckless bad boy into one of the most consistent top performers in the sport of rallycross, he's got loftier goals than to start and park on Sunday. The young driver is hoping to add a sixth consecutive victory to his record -- and he isn't looking to make friends by taking it easy on everybody else.
"I don't have any friends in the paddock right now," Heikkinen says. "It doesn't matter. I'm here for racing."
Heikkinen has had a dominant year. He's been on the podium for all seven rounds to date. With five wins in a row (so far), he's the only driver to repeat X Games RallyCross gold -- he won in Munich and Los Angeles this year. Add it all up and nobody else can take the championship as long as he scores just one more point on Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET on ABC).
"No one is unbeatable," says Andreas Eriksson, owner of the Olsbergs MSE squad that runs Heikkinen's Bluebeam Ford Fiesta. "He doesn't have the routine and the self-discipline yet, but he has the pace."
That might be true on the racetrack, but in the 2013 Global Rallycross Championship, the title is his. It's called a "mathematical championship win," because even though two of the season's nine rounds remain, there aren't enough points up for grabs to move the next-ranked driver into first place. (If you like math, the scenario is spelled out at the end.)
But the road to victory has not been easy for Heikkinen. His short career is as remarkable for his certain talent as it is for the penalties he's taken for overly aggressive moves on the track -- and a massive X Games crash in 2012. Now 22, Heikkinen began his motorsport career in go-karts at age 6. He started on a path more typical of a beginning road racer or Formula One hopeful than many Scandinavian racers who developed their skills in grassroots rallycross and rally competitions. By 2008, he had graduated from karts to Formula cars and he earned a third-place result in the Finnish Formula Renault championship.
Then he discovered the rough-and-tumble sport of rallycross and opted for select campaigns in Finland and on the European Rallycross Championship circuit. It was there that he caught the eye of Olsbergs MSE team owner Eriksson, who also runs factory-backed Fords for drivers Tanner Foust and Brian Deegan.
"I raced against him when I was driving in Europe," Eriksson says. "He had a lot of skills to be just 18 years old."
The driver made his first U.S. appearance in 2010, at age 19, when he traveled from his native Joensuu, Finland, to New Jersey to pilot a Saab in one of the first European-style rallycross events ever held in North America. He won.
Last year, he made a full-season commitment to the Global Rallycross Championship in the United States, where he rapidly developed a reputation for being fast, but bordering on reckless, in one of Eriksson's top-spec Ford Fiestas.
"Like most young drivers he's a video game-style of driver -- really aggressive with speed and good lines," says Eriksson.
His first full American season opened with controversy. He earned black flags for what some of his rivals called blatant takeouts, notably stirring up trouble with series favorites Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra. In the 2012 Charlotte season opener, after Mirra had accidentally taken the Joker lap twice and was driving near the front of the pack, Heikkinen plowed his Ford Fiesta into the side of the rival Subaru, spinning Mirra off the track. The move earned Heikkinen a black flag and a disqualification. At the time, Mirra was steamed -- although his take on the incident has mellowed over the past year.
"It doesn't look like great racing when somebody comes in too fast and knocks you out of the way and keeps going," recalls Mirra, who describes it now as "water under the bridge."
I think he’s done a nice job of keeping his nose clean this season...he deserves the success he’s getting.Tanner Foust, two-time GRC series champion
Eriksson, for his part, says he thinks Heikkinen's reputation for recklessness is ill-deserved. He even takes the blame for the Mirra incident, saying all Heikkinen did was follow his instructions over the spotter's radio.
"Mirra took the Joker lap twice and he was in fourth and in the way," reasons Eriksson. "If people cheat like that, I push them off and I told him to put that Subaru off."
But there were other clashes as well, and it's fair to say that Heikkinen demonstrated some questionable judgment on the track. He was young, hotheaded and didn't yet have the maturity that makes a champion. Until the accident, that is, when everything changed.
At X Games Los Angeles 2012, Heikkinen had the biggest crash of his career. Although he was going too slowly on the approach to an unforgiving gap jump that is no longer featured in the series, he made the split-second decision to go for it anyway. His Ford Fiesta came up short, squarely struck the face of the landing ramp, dropped into the gap, rolled over and caught fire. He was able to crawl from the wreck, but not without suffering serious injuries. His left ankle, shattered from the impact, will never be the same again. Neither will his attitude toward racing.
"He almost killed himself because of his bad judgment. There were a lot of factors and the whole situation was wrong, but the professionalism wasn't there as a driver," says Eriksson. "If you look at him after that, he hasn't done anything bad."
Almost. Although he has certainly shown a new maturity as a competitor since he limped back into rallycross at the end of last season, he wound up on the wrong side of Liam Doran in Munich this year. While Heikkinen was celebrating his first X Games gold medal after winning the race, Doran angrily cuffed him across the back of the helmet. Although the Brit said afterward it was because Heikkinen showed him disrespect by refusing to shake his hand, there's little doubt the on-track hits that preceded the incident were the real cause. Race officials called the bumping fair play, but Heikkinen's repeated involvement in questionable car-to-car contact this season led to an official notice of probation from race officials for overly aggressive driving before this year's X Games Los Angeles.
Even so, Heikkinen's talent is without question. He is fast off the start and has a sixth sense for navigating through traffic, able to somehow skate through multicar pileups without a scratch. And for such a young driver, his consistent pace is remarkable. While some drivers are fast on the first lap, but slow on the next, Heikkinen is able to put together fast lap after fast lap. And that just wears his rivals down. Other drivers -- even the ones who may not appreciate some of his bolder moves -- admit he's got the skills.
"Topi's a great driver and nobody's been able to catch him," says Dodge Dart driver Pastrana, who has noted in the past that Heikkinen's aggression puts him on the wrong side of the karma equation. "He's on fire. It doesn't matter what kind of karma you have in that case."
Two-time GRC season champion Tanner Foust agrees, saying that, if anything, Topi has toned it down this year in comparison to his first few seasons. He sees a subtlety in Topi's aggressive style that wasn't there before and the results speak for themselves.
"I've raced against Topi for four years now and he can be very aggressive," says Foust, who finished second behind Heikkinen in the past two GRC stops at X Games Los Angeles and Atlanta. "I think he's done a nice job of keeping his nose clean this season even if it hasn't been completely clean and he deserves the success he's getting."
(I promised you math, so here goes: Forty-four points are on the table because GRC races offer 20 points for an event win, plus another one point for each heat win. Points are allocated on a descending scale for finishes all the way down to 16th. Two events are left with drivers racing in two heat races per event [Charlotte: 20+2 and Las Vegas: 20+2 = 44]. Foust is second in the series standings and is trailing by 43 points. So, even if Foust wins everything between now and the end of the season, all Heikkinen has to do is score one more point and he's still got the championship).
Whew. Math sucks. Unless you're Heikkinen, of course, and then that particular equation looks pretty good.