" Barry Lee, charismatic king of the UK Rallycross scene of the 1970s, used to own the garage around the corner from where I lived in East London as a kid. There was something so completely of the time about our "
Rallycross: Oli Bennett Interview
Jumps, thumps and gravel-spewing clumps of oversteer: rallycross has it all. Just one Brit – Oli Bennett – competes at the sport’s top level. We sat down with him
W. R. X. If you’re big into racing, those three letters stand for something special. Thrashing and bashing around the globe, the World Rallycross Championship pitches 600bhp hatchbacks against each other in short, sharp, multi-surface bouts. Blink and you’ll miss it. Keep your eyes pinned and you’ll enjoy one of the most intense experiences in modern motorsport.
The sport’s down and dirty appeal has suckered in a smorgasbord of competitors – including two World Rally champions, a Le Mans winner and a DTM champ – but British racers have rarely had a hand in the action. Behind the wheel of his custom-built MINI Cooper S, Oli Bennett hopes to change all that.
Oli has always had a taste for the rough stuff, competing in motocross for a decade before dabbling in rallying in 2016. Armed with an Impreza, he was moving in the right direction… but he wasn’t quite there yet. ‘Racing against the clock didn’t quite have the same appeal as competing against 30 other people in motocross,’ he muses, ‘that’s when I noticed rallycross and thought, “That’s the closest I can get to motocross on four wheels!”’
His next move was to go all-in, buying a turbocharged, all-wheel drive Ford Fiesta supercar and entering the British Rallycross Championship. Success would come quickly, Bennett scoring his first podium at the second event of the season. ‘I think my motocross experience makes it easier to notice things and provides a lot of feel for the car,’ he reflects, ‘the biggest thing was adjusting to speeds I’d never raced at before.’
For the fifth race weekend of his budding rallycross career, Oli upped the stakes: entering the British round of 2017 world championship. ‘We didn’t embarrass ourselves,’ he smiles, ‘we had a good race with the cars around us and it was a great weekend with a lot of exposure for the team. In many ways, it was the catalyst for what we do now.’ For 2018, Bennett made the full-time move to the top table.
‘It was a tough decision whether to keep going with Fiesta or build something new,’ Oli explains, ‘but we’ve got a lot of expertise here in Britain and, between Simpson Motorsport, Liam Doran and my team, we had the opportunity to build a great car.’ The group settled on the F56 Cooper S as the basis for their project, favouring the MINI’s all-British image and wheel-at-each-corner stance. The build began in December 2017 and was finished just days before the first round of the 2018 season.
With so little time in hand, testing was limited to a quick blast en-route to Catalunya. ‘We pulled up at a local track in northern Spain and did about six laps,’ Oli laughs, ‘then we put the car back on the trailer and kept driving!’ Days later, the car finished 15th overall at its first ever event, scoring a pair of championship points.
World championship racing means world class competition, and Oli lined up alongside three-times WRX champion and 2003 World Rally Champion Petter Solberg for the first race of the series’ Norwegian round. ‘One of the quickest things you learn by racing against the top guys is that they’re faster in ways you don’t expect,’ Oli explains. ‘They’re not braking any later and they’re not using any different lines through the corners, they’re just really neat. When you’re following them, you quickly see that it’s all about consistency. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that, unlike the national series, you never come back from making a mistake in a WRX race.’
Fellow racers aren’t Oli’s only challenge; he also has to come to terms with a dozen new circuits. ‘They’ve all been completely new to me this season,’ he explains, ‘and they’re very different to one another. Every time we go to a new circuit, we’re learning the track from my point of view and learning what set up works. That’s the difficult thing for us: even if you’re only a little bit out, it can have a massive impact. In addition, the track develops over the weekend and the car has to develop with it. We have to make a lot decisions very quickly!’
With half a season under his wheels, Oli is beginning to feel confident. ‘We’ve ironed out a lot of our initial difficulties,’ he smiles, ‘and we’re looking to reach semi-finals before the end of the year.’ We’ve got our fingers crossed for him.
Flying the flag and doing things his way, Oli and his madcap MINI are giving British rallycross fans something to shout about.
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