Kristensen, Ekstrom perfect in Nations' Cup

Kristensen, Ekstrom perfect in Nations' Cup

Tom Kristensen and Mattias Ekstrom took the Nations' Cup for Team Scandinavia with a perfect record of nine victories and no losses, in the opening event of the Race of Champions. Final: winner Tom Kristensen celebrates. Photo by...

Tom Kristensen and Mattias Ekstrom took the Nations' Cup for Team Scandinavia with a perfect record of nine victories and no losses, in the opening event of the Race of Champions.

Final: winner Tom Kristensen celebrates.
Photo by Laurent Biet.
"It feels great to have won," Kristensen said. on French soil earlier in the year when he picked up a record seventh win in the Le Mans 24 Hours. "My most difficult fight was with Jeff Gordon, that was very tight, but it was also a close run thing with Sebastien Bourdais in the final."

Racing in head-to-head action on the parallel-track course at the Stade de France stadium, the Nordic duo took, in sequence, 2-0 victories over Team Benelux, Team Finland, Team USA, and, in the final round, over home favorites, Team Playstation France, with Bourdais and Stephane Peterhansel.

Ekstrom, from Sweden, and Kristensen, a Dane, both drove for Audi in the 2005 DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) championship, finishing second and third, respectively, in the championship. Kristensen additionally took part in the 2005 Le Mans 24 Hours, taking a record seventh victory in an Audi R8.

Quarter final: Tom Kristensen.
Photo by Laurent Biet.
Kristensen started the day with a 1.2-second victory over F1 pilot Christijan Albers in the Renault Megane race, and Ekstrom, an occasional rally pilot, beat Francois Duval by over two seconds, even though the Citroen Xsara WRC used for that race was Duval's usual car in the 2005 WRC season.

In the quarter-finals, the duo met up with the Finnish team, Heikki Kovalainen and Marcus Gronholm, which had received a bye in the first round thanks to the Finns' second-place finish in last year's event. But past performance didn't count for much, as Kovalainen, the 2004 Race of Champions overall winner, spun his Megane twice, and crossed the finish line some 11 seconds adrift of Kristensen, who was able to ease up a bit to ensure the victory.

Gronholm was also no match for Ekstrom: even though the Finn beat Ekstrom's first-heat time, the Swede found another three seconds to take the race with a time of 1:43.7845 to 1:46.3587.

Quarter final: Jeff Gordon.
Photo by Laurent Biet.
Meanwhile, Team USA's Gordon and motocross champion Travis Pastrana had beaten out Felipe Massa and Nelson Piquet Jr. by two races to one, with Gordon taking the two crucial victories against Piquet, first by 0.8 seconds in the Porsche 911 GT3 race, and then by 1.3 seconds in the RoC buggy race.

And Gordon gave Kristensen his toughest challenge yet: the Dane took the victory by less than the length of the Megane, with a time of 1:43.6386 to Gordon's 1:43.7200. With Pastrana stalling his Xsara WRC at the start of the second race, the semi-final result was effectively sealed in the Scandinavians' favor, and and Pastrana's scraping along the outside track wall only rubbed salt in his wounds.

So it was on to the finals, where Team Playstation France had advanced through somewhat tougher victories. A 2-1 score over Team France (Jean Alesi and Sebastien Loeb) was first, with Bourdais taking both victories over Alesi, each by less than a second, nullifying Loeb's win over Peterhansel.

Semi final: S?bastien Bourdais and David Coulthard.
Photo by IMP.
Bourdais had taken another two victories in the semifinals, beating GB Team's David Coulthard by mere seven hundredths of a second, with Coulthard's scraping of the wall probably losing hime the race: Colin McRae beat Peterhansel by some four seconds in the Xsara WRC race, but it was all for nought.

So coming to the final set of races, Ekstrom looked the favorite against Peterhansel in the rally drivers matchup, but would Kristensen be able to beat Bourdais? The two had met at the Le Mans 24H classic, and Kristensen hadclaimed victory, in spite of Bourdais' outright speed. But would that mean anything in a two-minute race on a stadium track?

The first race of the final saw Kristensen take on Bourdais in a pair of 911 GT3s, and in matched cars, the Dane was able to edge out his rival, finishing in 1:43.6516 to his rival's 1:44.1617.

Final: Mattias Ekstr?m and St?phane Peterhansel.
Photo by IMP.
Peterhansel and Ekstrom then took to the track in the Xsara WRCs, and the French rally raid specialist made a mistake early on to hand the race to Ekstrom, scraping the first-turn outside wall. Ekstrom ended up taking the race by a nearly nine-second margin.

In the third race -- the final was a best-of-five event -- Bourdais lost some time off the line, but drove his RoC buggy furiously to take the lead by the skin of his teeth at the halfway point. However, there was to be no beating Kristensen today, and the Dane took the final race to give the Nations' Cup to Scandinavia by a 3-0 margin.

"It's great to win against the home team after being eliminated last year in the first round," said a satisfied Ekstrom. "The racing has been very close but I think we proved tonight that we were the best team and we are very proud of that. Once we had a 2-0 advantage in the final, I knew we would go all the way. My toughest races were against Marcus and Francois but I didn't make any mistakes."

The individual Race of Champions competition will follow tonight, with the rally drivers and race drivers in separate groups, with the groups' winners meeting in the super final.

and after the first lap, Bourdais held a slight edge.

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Series General
Teams Citroën World Rally Team