Düsseldorf's Esprit Arena hosted this year's Race of Champions, making it the first time the event has been held in Germany and the first time it's been held indoors. The 1.2 kilometer track, consisting of an outside and an inside loop, would play host to one of the finest collections of motorsport champions ever assembled: Formula One World Champions Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel, World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb, 500cc motorcycle World Champion Mick Doohan, Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, World Touring Car champion Andy Priaulx and British Touring Car champ Jason Plato. However, it was a rookie from a country not known for its motorsports that took the fight to all of them and walked away with the belt. Make the jump for our detailed recap.
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The day before the Champion of Champions was decided, Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel took the ROC Nations Cup event for Germany. It was the fourth time in a row they've walked it, and it was largely due to Schumacher having found his sang-froid when he most needed it. The Germans duplicated last year's final, beating Britain's Jason Plato and Andy Priaulx, when Schumacher bested Priaulx, the Brit having earlier bested Vettel.
The Americans didn't do so bad that day, with Team America's Travis Pastrana and All-Star Tanner Foust – paired with Mick Doohan – both beating Vettel. But Carl Edwards failed to win a single race, which cut Pastrana out as well, and Foust and Doohan were also shown the door relatively quickly.
On Sunday, though, everyone was equal again and all had a chance to take home the real prize. There were sixteen drivers in four groups: Sebastien Loeb, Heikki Kovalainen, FIA GT and A1 GP driver Jeroen Bleekemolen and IndyCar driver Bertrand Baguette who were both write-in entries from Benelux, Tom Kristensen, Andy Priaulx, Mick Doohan, Travis Pastrana, Sebastian Vettel, Carl Edwards, Portuguese GP2 and GT racer Filipe Albuquerque, Tanner Foust, Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Jason Plato, and Portuguese GP2 pilot Alvaro Parente.
They'd be driving seven cars in the chase for victory: a KTM X-Bow, a CNG-powered Volkswagen Scirocco, a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup, an Audi R8 LMS, an RX150 rallycross buggy and a slightly larger ROC Buggy, and a pre-'Car of Tomorrow' NASCAR Chevrolet racer. For that last car it was convenient that the Düsseldorf course had the widest track of any RoC ever, although it also had the shortest straights. All drivers would have human ballast in the passenger seat of any two-seater, with each co-pilot matched for size by officials. Regardless, the 1.2-kilometer lap consisting of an outer and inner loop was so short and the drivers all so good that the key was not to make any mistakes rather than blaze the guns for victory – as one of the announcers said, it's really about "a failure to lose."
In the very first race, Heikki Kovalainen – with his girlfriend as his ride-along – was the first to demonstrate that truism when he went up against Sebastien Loeb in the R8 LMS. Having kissed the wall twice on the last lap on the outside track, his Audi's rear tire and suspension were done for, so when he gunned it for the finish, first he plowed on through the line, then through the inside track barriers, only to rear-end it into the concrete barriers on the perimeter. He later spoke of problems with the throttle, but his day was done – he retired from the event before his next race.
In the first round-robin qualifiers, Travis Pastrana wasn't having any better luck than he did the day before, stalling his RoC buggy at the starting line in his race with Mick Doohan. Pastrana wouldn't win a race all day, but he would have two of the best quotes. Explaining a close loss in later race against Kristensen in the NASCAR Chevy, he said, "I just choked," and later, while in the underground changing area and telling Sebastien Vettel what happened to his day, said "I ran out of talent somewhere between here and the race track."
Doohan wouldn't do much better, spinning the Scirocco in a race with Kristensen and exiting the group along with Pastrana. The 225-horsepower CNG Sciroccos were fitted with an overboost button that provided an extra 50 horsepower for four seconds, a function that could be called upon four times during the race. Doohan's spin came when he hit the boost during his trip over the bridge – the car got loose coming down the other side and veered into the barriers and pirouetted. Pastrana would later do the same thing in the same place in a race with Priaulx.
Loeb, on the other hand, brought all of his killer instincts to the track. The seven-time WRC champ has been the RoC winner or finalist every time he's taken part, and he's won three of those outings. He won every race in he was in but for one. Although he beat Andy Priaulx in the GT3 Cup, Priaulx was also dispatching his other competitors and moved through.
Edwards, however, appeared to have left his mojo on the plane he took to Düsseldorf. After the NASCAR star failed to win a single race on Saturday, he decided to keep it consistent and didn't win a race on Sunday, either, losing to Vettel in an X-Bow, Albuquerque in an RoC Buggy, and Foust in an R8 LMS.
Schumacher, for all of his troubles in his professional sport, F1, didn't have much trouble beating his competition throughout the day, and the German crowd was overjoyed to see Vettel – in a different group so they wouldn't knock each other out – also raising the F1 flag high. Vettel would do burnouts after each victory, which had caused a bit of controversy the day before when Parente blamed bald tires on an X-Bow for sending him into the wall and costing him a race for Team Portugal.
Alain Prost was a rookie at this year's event, and while he took a race against Jason Plato in the RX150 rallycross buggy, he didn't win enough to advance. Nor did rookie Tanner Foust, who beat Edwards but lost his other races, one to Albuquerque in an X-Bow when he spun on the front straight coming out of the final turn. That race was gifted to Albuquerque, also a rookie in the event, but when the Portuguese racer beat Vettel in the R8s, the surprise was evident.
The quarterfinals were Loeb, Schumacher and Parente, none of whom had dropped a race all day, Vettel, Kristensen, Priaulx, Baguette and Parente. In this round, the losers would go home.
There was no slipshod driving in this round, with pretty clean runs and small gaps characterizing most heats. Loeb dispatched Kristensen in the RoC buggies, Priaulx ended Baguette's run in a GT3 Cup, Albuquerque eliminated his countryman Parente in RoC buggies, and Vettel shattered Schumacher's dreams with a KTM X-Bow.
In the semis, Loeb sent Priaulx home with one of the few truly phenomenal races of the day in an R8 LMS. Then in a rematch of Albuquerque vs Vettel albeit this time in X-Bows, the announcers expected Vettel to take it but Albuquerque showed him the door.
The final race of the day to determine the champion would be Loeb and Albuquerque in a best-of-three match-up, driving an RoC buggy, then an X-Bow, then back to an RoC buggy. Loeb has been here something like six times before and has won half of them. Albuquerque's never even been in the Race of Champions.
Having the outside track on the last lap became something of a boon for those who could handle it, because you could get on the gas sooner and play full-throttle catch-up to the line. It didn't work for Kovalainen in that first race, but there were a number of come-from-behind races during the event after that. In the first heat, Albuquerque had the outside track and did it again, coming from behind on the last corner of the last lap to take it.
Then in the second heat, Loeb did that very same thing, scooting ahead by .02 seconds with some last-gasp thrust. But Albuquerque had his method down: the third heat was another come-from-behind, with the Portuguese driver catching up and nosing by a grille ahead of Loeb to take it.
Albuquerque said he didn't expect his win to change his career. It is notable, however, that in the list of RoC Champions there is one name tucked among Ekstrom and Loeb and Gronholm, that of another rookie who was rather unknown and hadn't won a major championship before being invited to the race, and who beat Loeb in 2004: Heikki Kovalainen.
All we're saying is that anything's possible. That, and congratulations to Filipe Albuquerque.