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Piquet Jr. intrigued by RallyCross, set for Belle Isle

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — From Monaco and Barcelona, to Malaysia and Japan, to Daytona and Talledega, Nelson Piquet Jr. races lots of different cars, and even trucks.

Three division of NASCAR, trucks, Xfinity and Sprint Cup, as well as Formula One, Formula Three, Formula E and the GP2 Series, are all racing series in which Piquet has participated.

“And, in this case over here,” he said, sitting on a sofa under a canopy outside of his SH Racing Rallycross, awaiting practice and qualifying for the Global RallyCross races on Belle Isle. “It’s a bit different.

“I mean, it’s very aggressive,” said the Brazilian, who will turn 30 today, on Belle Isle.

“The races are very short. The starts are very important.

“Some races you have a lot of action and some races you don’t have action, depending on where you are in the field. It really just depends where you are.

“I think in terms of the stress level of the driver, it’s much higher, because it’s so dense, it’s so compact and you’re into one very short period of time and a small area to race. It’s much more stressful for a driver than anything else, because it’s all condensed into much fewer laps and a small track.”

Global RallyCross will compete in a doubleheader of racing this weekend on part of the IndyCar Series track on Belle Isle, which was being fit with a 190-foot ramp containing a jump that can hurl the small rally cars about 70 feet, while big semi-trucks continue to spread dirt on part of the cement and asphalt surface.

It sure is different.

Piquet, who won the inaugural Formula E championship in Europe last year, says his goal is to win the Red Bull GRC championship, which includes the two races on Belle Isle this weekend.

He is currently third in the standings, behind Ken Block of the United States and Sebastian Eriksson.

“I measure it by how fun the racing is,” Piquet said, when asked to compare the attractions of the many different forms of motor sport in which he has driven.

“Obviously, NASCAR is one of the most fun racing types for me. Not the car itself, but just the competition between the drivers. It’s so intense, and the races are pretty long, and you need to think a lot about things and the setup, et cetera.

“But it’s very hard to compare any one of them with this.”

Rallycross also includes a “Lites” series, for cars limited to 300 horsepower, instead of the 600 for the supercars.

Brighton driver in field

An 18-year-old, originally from Brighton, is competing as a rookie, and making his mark.

Alex Keyes won the last GRC Lites race, at a military base, MCAS New River, in North Carolina.

“I started racing at a go-kart track in East Lansing,” Keyes said.

“Three years ago, I moved to California, and I started racing Formula cars, and I’ve done that for the last two years.

“This year, I wanted to do something different, so I got into this rallycross stuff.

“It’s totally different in a couple of ways. The Formula cars have so much downforce. And it’s a lot higher speed stuff on big open tracks.

“This is tighter tracks and we’re on four-wheel-drive cars. That’s the biggest difference.

“We’re also on dirt.

“So, there’s a lot of things thrown at you in this, because they have the dirt, the pavement and the jump, too. And, this weekend, they have a pretty big one, too. So it will be interesting to see how it works out.”

Stronger road cars

The bigger rally cars will draw more of the attention.

The rules require the use of production automobiles, as a base, but outfitted with lots of racing equipment.

“These cars start life as a real road car,” said Chris Yandell, marketing manager at Vermont Sportscar Rallying, which retrofits the cars for Suburu Rally Team USA.

“They’re not two-framed chassis, with a body put on top of it.

“We obviously upgrade and strengthen and everything,” Yandell said. “But it’s starting with a road car body shell. We start with the real thing, and then we take it apart.”

They are all four-wheel-drive cars, with 2-litre, turbo-charged, four-cylinder engines that create about 580 to 600 horsepower, limited by a 45-millimeter turbo restrictor.

Radiators are all in the back, protected from dirt, mud and collision.

The transmission tunnel is bigger to allow access for quick removal and replacement of the gearbox and to run cooling lines from the radiator to the engine. The car is also widened, from the road car, with lots of carbon fiber used on the body to lighten it.

All in all, they are little firecrackers of vehicles, built for enormously quick starts and races, in heats of about 10 laps, including a fuel load that will not take them much farther.

The start is absolutely essential. A good start by a slower car can win the race over faster cars.

And these little cars are built to leap into the competition, as some spins around the track for the media demonstrated.

“The acceleration out of the gate is unbelievable,” said Mike Larson of Autoweek. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and I’ve done a lot of these rides.

“Compared to a NASCAR, it’s a jolt right away, almost like you’re a roller-coaster. It grabs you right by the shoulders and pushes you back into the car.

“Around the corners, it’s nuts. You’re going into corners sideways. You’re drifting around, and turning a bit. So, there’s this feeling, especially when you are riding it, of being completely out of control.

“But then you’re looking over at the driver, and he’s down-shifting and braking. He knows exactly what he is doing.

“So, it is pretty wild.”