Team Norway’s father and son pairing of Petter and Oliver Solberg took a stunning victory in the ROC Nations Cup on the snow and ice of Sweden’s Pite Havsbad, to retain the title they first won last year.
On a sunny afternoon on the frozen Baltic Sea just 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, legends from the world’s biggest motor sport series – including Formula 1, Formula 2, IndyCar, Le Mans, W Series, World Rally, World Rallycross, Nitro Rallycross and X-Games – teamed up in pairs to battle for national and regional pride.
They raced head-to-head on a parallel track featuring ROC’s iconic crossover bridge in a stunning mix of cars. This year’s range of mighty machinery included the electric Cupra UrbanRebel Concept, Zeroid X1 (RX2e) rallycross car powered by QEV and the FC1-X Nitro Rallycross car. The off-road Polaris RZR PRO XP made a welcome return to ROC as did the SuperCar Lites, now powered by 100% fossil-free biofuel.
And what a festival of icy action it was – as FIA World Rally and World Rallycross Champion Petter Solberg and his rising WRC star son Oliver Solberg prevailed in the final against the might of Team All Stars: winner of 17 WRC rallies Thierry Neuville and reigning FIA F2 Champion Felipe Drugovich.
In the first heat Neuville saw off the challenge of Petter Solberg before both Oliver and Petter beat Felipe Drugovich, who started the week in the thirty degree heat of his home country Brazil. Oliver then defeated Neuville to take the decisive win, which means Team Norway retain the ROC Nations Cup trophy.
“Everyone loves the Race Of Champions but I was nervous today: the conditions change every run so it was easy to make a mistake,” Petter Solberg said afterwards. “You get butterflies in your stomach and you still have to go out and do what you do. Sébastien Loeb didn’t have a fair chance because of his late arrival, but to beat him was quite enjoyable. Then the feeling got better and better.
“As for Oliver, I knew he’s fast but coming up against the Swedish drivers you really need a perfect run. That’s what he did, and the same in the final. Oliver had a fantastic day’s racing: not just for winning but his speed. He saved me today, just as he did last year.”
Oliver Solberg added: “It’s fantastic to win the ROC Nations Cup again, particularly to win the final heat against Thierry Neuville, my WRC team-mate last year. I don’t tend to beat him very much so I’m very happy to beat him now. Congratulations to Team All Stars and Felipe did a fantastic job too. We were together in the car for practice yesterday and we had a lot of fun together with the big jumps. Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought him in the car because he was a bit too fast.
“I didn’t know I was going that quickly today. When you start racing against drivers Loeb, Ekström and Kristoffersson from the beginning you get very nervous. But I had consistent lap times. When that happens, you don’t want to overdo it, you just try and drive as you always do. When it works out it’s a fantastic feeling.”
Beaten finalists Team All Stars also had a fine afternoon’s work, but they narrowly missed out on bringing home the trophy.
“This is a great event. My target was to go as fast as I could in every single heat, adapting as quickly as possible to each car,” said Thierry Neuville. “I was also helping Felipe to get into the mood and understand this type of driving.
“Rally drivers are used to a track that evolves this quickly but it’s tougher on the circuit guys so Felipe really impressed me with his driving and learning throughout the day. Felipe’s improvement made the difference and that’s why we made it all the way to the final.
“I won a lot of races today and beating Sebastian Vettel was obviously something special. Today was close to perfect for me until I messed it up against Oliver right at the end. Obviously I don’t like losing but Oliver was driving very well and he always sends it very hard in such a competition so I knew it would be really tight. In the end he beat me by a big margin so well done to him.”
Drugovich added: “I was not expecting to make it to the final. The learning curve today was even steeper than on the other days of practice. On those days it was about trying out a little bit in one car, then stopping and waiting for a long time. Today was driving all the time which helps a lot. Ice driving is really cool practice for control. Obviously the technique is not close to what we do on the track but it teaches you a lot so I hope to keep learning. I’m feeling better every time I get on the track so hopefully I can keep this learning curve and get closer to the other guys.”
Because the track conditions on snow and ice can change quickly depending on the weather, ROC’s traditional group stage did not take place. Instead this year’s ROC Nations Cup used a straight knockout system. To make it as fair as possible, races were decided over four heats, with each driver racing against both drivers from the other team. For matches tied 2-2, the team with the best total time made it through.
To the dismay of the home fans packing the venue, Team Sweden’s Mattias Ekström and Johan Kristoffersson went out in the semifinals to Team Norway. The two World Rallycross Champions ended up tied 2-2 but they went out on countback of fastest total times. That result came despite one of the tightest finishes in ROC history when Ekström defeated Petter Solberg by a single thousandth of a second.
Team Germany’s four-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel and his fellow F1 racer Mick Schumacher also made it all the way to the semifinals, before they were beaten 3-1 by Team All Stars.
There were some huge stars of global motorsport who went out in the quarter-finals, including Team Nordic’s nine-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner Tom Kristensen and IndyCar race winner Felix Rosenqvist, who were defeated 4-0 by Team Sweden.
Team France’s pair of nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb and 2022 eTouring Car World Cup Champion Adrien Tambay fell to another 4-0 quarter-final defeat by Team Norway. Loeb flew into the venue by helicopter this morning, arriving only an hour before today’s racing began. He will now hope for better luck tomorrow as he defends his crown in the individual Race Of Champions.
Team USA’s action sports legend and Nitro Rallycross Champion Travis Pastrana and fellow rallycross ace Tanner Foust also went out in the quarter-finals, beaten 3-1 by Team All Stars even though Pastrana took a solitary heat win against Drugovich.
Another casualty at this stage was Team eROC’s F1 Esports Pro Series Champions Lucas Blakeley and Jarno Opmeer, who were defeated 3-0 by Team Germany. But the simracers can sleep well tonight after they pulled off a stunning early shock.
The afternoon’s action began with a huge surprise in the two Round 1 play-offs as Team Finland’s pair of F1 greats Mika Hakkinen and Valtteri Bottas went out to Team eROC. Blakeley repeated his heroics from last year – when he defeated Vettel in his first ever race in a real car – and this time he added both Finns to his growing list of victims. Bottas and Hakkinen both beat Opmeer for an overall 2-2 scoreline, but they went out on a countback of total lap times.
Team GB’s 13-time Formula 1 grand prix winner David Coulthard and triple W Series Champion Jamie Chadwick were the other pairing to bid an early farewell. They fell to a 3-1 defeat by Team Germany, even though Chadwick salvaged some national pride by winning her heat against Vettel.
Ahead of today’s on-track activities, the drivers unfurled a banner in conjunction with the institute for advanced research into brain and spinal cord injuries ICM in honour of ROC’s absent friend (and six-time ROC Nations Cup winner) Michael Schumacher as he continues his recovery.
The racing action continues with tomorrow’s individual Race Of Champions (Sunday January 29, 12:00-15:00 CET) when all teamwork goes out of the window and it’s a straight battle to come away with the coveted title of ROC Champion of Champions.