2010 Race of Champions lived up to past events and the stars put on a show in Germany.
The annual Race of Champions (ROC) was held in Dusseldorf, Germany this year following up on last year's ROC in Beijing, China held in the famous 'birds nest' stadium which had been built for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Mattias Ekstrom won the 2009 ROC Drivers' Cup in Beijing, while Team Germany, represented by Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel, won the Nations' Cup. The ROC has become a very popular event over the years, and brings together the best drivers of many disciplines of motorsport, on four, and on two wheels. It is an indoor event and the drivers have to prove themselves in a variety of vehicles. It's a knock-out tournament, one mistake and you are out, and all drivers get the same equipment, ensuring only the best driver will win.
Drivers compete in sportscars like the Audi R8 LMS, Porsche 911 and the VW Scirocco, and buggies as the ROC buggy, the ROC two-seater, the KTM X-Bow, or the RX 150, which is powered by a 954cc 4-stroke 16 valve 150 bhp engine. Drivers were already very competitive during the practice sessions on Friday on the specially constructed parallel indoor track in the Dusseldorf ESPRIT arena.
Seven-time Formula One World Champion Schumacher loves the event, "This is a great opportunity for Sebastian [Vettel] and I to race in front of our home fans. The ROC has been successful in other countries in the past and now, coming to Germany at a special time with Sebastian winning the world championship, it is the perfect way to celebrate the end of the season. It is a perfect set-up here and I think it will be a very special event." Vettel was equally enthusiastic, "This is a different world compared to F1 but it's lots of fun to compete against drivers from different areas of motorsport. We are here to enjoy ourselves but as soon as we put our helmets on we all go back to race mode and try to beat the guy next to us."
Saturday - The Nations' Cup
On Saturday eight teams were ready for the Nations' Cup, Team Great Britain (Andy Priaulx and Jason Plato) and Team France (Alain Prost and Sebastien Loeb) won in Group A and went to the Group A semi-final. Other Group A teams Team Nordic (Heikki Kovalainen and Tom Kristensen) and Team Portugal (Alvaro Parente and Filipe Albuquerque) were knocked out of the semi-final.
Team Nordic driver and Formula One star Kovalainen about his defeat, "That's the way it is sometimes. I managed to do well in my races and win all three but we had tough opponents. It is nothing to be ashamed of; just the way it is and next year we have to come back a bit stronger." Team Portugal driver Parente suffered a puncture which ruined his chances. "I got the puncture during the run so I hit the wall because of that. Already on the straight the car didn't feel quite right so maybe I could have stopped there but I am a racing driver so I tried to push on," said Parente. But he was already looking forward to Sunday, "The puncture cost us the chance to go through but that was just down to bad luck and I'll try to get a better result tomorrow."
In Group B Team Germany (Schumacher and Vettel) and Team Benelux (Bertrand Baguette and Jeroen Bleekemolen) went to the semi-final. The two other teams, Team All Stars (Mick Doohan and Tanner Foust) and Team USA (Travis Pastrana and Carl Edwards) were knocked out of the semi-final in Group B.
Team All Stars Australian Mick Doohan was nevertheless happy, "That was an absolutely fantastic experience, really enjoyable. I was surprised to beat Edwards because he spends all his year driving cars so I enjoyed that. This is a lot of fun for me and I just enjoy driving these cars against these drivers. I have a blast and if I can come close to these guys I am really happy." Carl Edwards (Team USA) commented: "I had fun driving and I am excited for tomorrow when I need to redeem myself. I don't know what went wrong; I was just slower than I was yesterday. I was much faster yesterday, especially in the KTM, but there is no excuse, it was just me. I will run better tomorrow, I'm sure."
In the Group A semi-final, Team France was eliminated by a double win of Team Great Britain, Prost was beaten by Plato in the VW Scirocco, and Loeb was beaten by Priaulx in the Porsche 911 race. The Group B semi-final was between Team Germany and Team Benelux, and Baguette was beaten by Schumacher during the race in a ROC car, while Bleekemolen was beaten by Vettel in a KTM X-Bow. Later that evening during a thrilling final, Team Germany took the Nations' Cup by beating Team Great Britain, cheered on by some 36,000 German spectators who saw Vettel and Schumacher take the cup for the fourth consecutive time.
Team Great Britain driver Priaulx about his race, "To race against Schumacher is always a privilege and we were beaten by two good guys tonight." And added with some pride, "I had some good races today, particularly the one against Vettel. I beat the current Formula One World Champion which is not bad for an old touring car driver! That is three years in a row I have lost out in the final after losing to Germany at Wembley and then Beijing."
Both German drivers were of course happy with their fourth win. Schumacher about the final, "It is special because we had won this three times in a row which was great anyway. So to do it a fourth time here in Germany, considering we were almost knocked out in the group stages, is fantastic -- we are more than happy." He also praised the German spectators, "The crowd were very supportive tonight; they were cheering us all the way and with Vettel having just won the World Championship it was even more emotional and fun out there tonight."
Vettel was also impressed by the crowd, "The moment I went out on to the track everyone stood up and went crazy. It was a really cool night for all the fans, as well as for Schumacher and myself to get so much support." And the current Formula One champion added, "It was extremely close in the first round and we thought we might get knocked out. But I was lucky I had Schumacher on my team. It was a fun experience and to win at home, the first time in many years that the ROC has been held in Germany, is very special."
Sunday - The Drivers' Cup
On Sunday the big question was of course: who will become this year's champion of the champions? With one World Rally Champion and three Formula One World Champions in the arena spectators in Dusseldorf witnessed an epic battle, which was ultimately won by a ROC rookie. During a thrilling race Portuguese driver Albuquerque snatched the title from Loeb in the best-of-three Grand Final, after he had beaten Vettel in the semi-final. Albuquerque had earlier in the quarter-final beaten his compatriot Parente, and was of course extremely happy and proud of his victory. "Today was my day. Everything went so well and I made no mistakes. Since the beginning I was up against such good drivers -- I had to beat Vettel twice and in the final, wow, Sebastien [Loeb] was really on it. I just drove my race and when I won the first one I was really happy," the 25-year old driver said.
Both drivers had each won one race before the battle was decided in the third race. Albuquerque, "In the second race I made a small mistake and straightaway he [Loeb] was there and won -- a little mistake can cause you to lose everything in this competition. But in the deciding race I was nice and smooth with no mistakes." And added, "I can't believe it -- it's the first time I am here and I have won -- I could not ask for more. To win against great names, including Vettel in Germany when he has just won the world championship, is just fantastic."
Loeb, who won seven World Rally Championship titles and won the ROC three times, won the quarter-final from eight-time Le Mans winner Kristensen, and went on to win his semi-final from Priaulx. Loeb about his final race, "It was a really good fight but Filipe [Albuquerque] was very strong. I drove some good races and got to the final after some interesting fights; I gave everything. I won all my races except for the one that mattered most, the final. But I am sure Filipe will be back again next year to defend his title and I'd like to be back so I hope we can fight again!"
Schumacher and freshly-crowned Formula One Champion Vettel, were the favorites, but Loeb and Albuquerque were simply too fast for them. Vettel didn't make it to the final after he was beaten by Albuquerque. "It would have been interesting to have the current Formula One and World Rally champions together in the final but it wasn't meant to be," said Vettel, "That's how it goes, Albuquerque drove a good race. With races coming so fast and just one race for the quarter and semi-finals, sometimes it works for you and sometimes it doesn't."
Most of the German 35,000 spectators on Sunday came to see their two favorites and they did get what they had come for, a battle between Vettel and Schumacher during one of the quarter-finals. Vettel about his race with Schumacher, "The race against Michael was fun and it was very tight after one lap. What happened last year in the semi-final went through my head and I was thinking 'not again'. That time I shunted the car but this year I managed to get it to the line first so it was nice to pay him back."
With hindsight, Schumacher thought he had been too cautious, "The problem against Vettel was that after the first lap I was ahead and I was probably too cautious. I was too careful and he got to the line first. But it's been really nice to be here with all these talented guys." He also was very relaxed and enjoyed this year's ROC, "On the one hand it is a competitive event but also it is a bit more relaxed and we have the chance to catch up with people we otherwise don't get to see, so I have enjoyed the weekend."
But Schumacher had a good reason to be cautious, as his Formula One colleague Lotus driver Kovalainen had crashed during the first race of the day. The Finn hit the barrier at the final corner, the suspension of his Audi R8 LMS broke and after he had passed the finish line, he lost control and hit the outside concrete barrier very hard. Both he and his passenger, his girlfriend, were uninjured, but they had to visit the local hospital for check-ups, and could not take further part in the rest of the races.
Kovalainen about his dramatic exit, "I am fine luckily, no injuries, and also my girlfriend who was my passenger is fine. It was a major shunt and it started from the touch of the wall just before the finish line. I tried to use every inch of the circuit and I just kissed the wall. Then I was a passenger as I hit the wall at the first corner. It was a decent shunt."
Prost and Schumacher fought a close battle, but the German beat Prost by just over one second. Prost about his race, "It was a slippery track surface on my second race after some fluid was dropped on the track and that made a big difference, particularly on the last corner and infield. But it was okay, just less grip, no big problem." The four-time World Champion also enjoyed his weekend in Dusseldorf, "I have enjoyed the ROC more and more over the weekend and it's a shame I didn't go further -- I would like to have another go!"
American NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Carl Edwards, who was eliminated before the quarter-finals, was also enthusiastic about the event, "Thanks to all the fans for coming out here; it has been a fun event and I have enjoyed it. I just needed to win something! This event is a challenge because these drivers are very good and everyone is a champion. They are very competitive - everyone is smiling but they are still very competitive."
Again this year's edition of the ROC was a great success, with 16 of the world's best drivers participating in the Nations' and Drivers' Cup. Those 16 drivers earned their place in the Grand Final last weekend after they had won the pre-rounds of the ROC organized all over the world earlier this year. A total of 12 Formula One championships (Schumacher, Prost and Vettel), 7 World Rally Championships (Loeb), 8 Le Mans victories (Kristensen) and 3 World Touring Car Championship titles and one European Touring Car Championship title (Priaulx) were not enough to stop the multi- talented Albuquerque, he won the highly valued ROC crown and is now the Champion of Champions, at least until next year's edition of the Race Of Champions.