Emil Axelsson and Edward Sandström are spotters in the team of EKS Audi Sport. From a tower, they watch their two drivers on track during the FIA World Rallycross Championship (World RX) rounds. In this way, the overall view that these two have provides Mattias Ekström and Andreas Bakkerud with a clearer picture at the wheel.
The two with
an overall view
Division of labour
on the tower
Emil Axelsson and Edward Sandström share a central observation post with the spotters of all other FIA World RX teams at each venue: the spotters’ tower with a far view of the circuits, which are partly made up of asphalt and partly of gravel.
The spotters’ tower consists of an FIA tractor-trailer. The spotters’ excellent vantage point and workplace is on the roof of the trailer at a height of about four metres underneath a tent. Only they and team officials are admitted there.
The EKS spotters share their tasks: Axelsson keeps his eyes glued to the track and talks to the driver on the radio, keeping him up to speed about the way the race is going. He gets this information from his own view of the circuit and from Sandström who monitors the screens with live footage from the corners and current lap times, while constantly watching how the gaps between the EKS drivers and their rivals change.
If Mattias Ekström and Andreas Bakkerud compete in the same qualifying heat or are together in the semi-finals or final, their spotter crew reorganises: Sandström will then maintain radio contact with Ekström and Axelsson with Bakkerud. In this case, two other EKS Audi Sport team members will each monitor the screens for one of the drivers.
“The spotters in rallycross are the driver’s eyes on the tower: they always have to provide their drivers with clear and precise information about what’s happening on track and keep cool in spite of the tight schedule and extremely short races,” says Emil Axelsson.
This is how EKS team owner and driver Mattias Ekström views the spotter’s job: “Actually, he’s a poor soul. If the information he gives is good and the driver wins as a result, only the driver will get the champagne. If he makes mistakes and his driver doesn’t win, then it’s all the spotter’s fault.”
Five drivers, four laps, three minutes of driving time per heat: this format applies to all four qualifying heats that each FIA World Rallycross Championship round begins with. A draw determines who will be pitted against each other in the (maximum of five) groups of five drivers in the first heat.
“The result of the first heat is particularly important for every driver, because it has a major effect on how he’ll continue to race afterwards,” says EKS spotter Emil Axelsson. The reason is that the better a driver is placed the later he’ll be able to start in the next heat. This is usually an advantage, because after each heat the track becomes cleaner on the asphalt sections, which makes it possible to achieve faster lap times.
Before any race, the spotter duo from EKS Audi Sport goes through a number of possible scenarios that might emerge for Mattias Ekström and Andreas Bakkerud. The current position, current opponents, the current track conditions and the current weather forecast are all key individual factors in these scenarios.
“Right before the start it’s particularly important for us to boost the self-confidence of our two drivers as best we can,” explains Emil Axelsson. From the spotters’ tower, he and his colleague Edward Sandström will radio the latest news about the track to Mattias Ekström and Andreas Bakkerud on the grid: where has the track become wet or still is? Where has the gravel become looser? What lap times were achieved in the previous race? What strength can be expected of what competitors? “We always want Mattias and Andreas to know as precisely as possible what’s in store for them after the start,” Axelsson emphasises, “because we want them to feel comfortable and confident.”
As in the semi-finals, six drivers are on the grid of the final in an FIA World Rallycross Championship round. They have to complete six laps. One of them – as in the qualifying heats and in the semi-finals – is a so-called Joker Lap. This means that every driver has to follow an alternative extra section of the track once per race. Such a Joker Lap takes about two more seconds to complete than a normal lap.
“Especially in the final, precise timing of the Joker Lap is crucial,” says Emil Axelsson. Without spotters, the drivers would be lost in the commotion that’s typical of rallycross racing. “From the place behind the wheel, during a short sprint in a close pack, you can’t tell when the right time has come for the Joker Lap,” says Axelsson, who goes on to explain: “Based on the current lap times and current positions, we as spotters have to predict when our drivers would lose the least amount of time and ground during a Joker Lap and who their immediate rivals will be afterwards. And, above all, warn them if the situation gets tricky for them in merging with the field after the Joker Lap.
Other key spotter information during a rallycross race: where are hazards emerging? Where will this result in yellow flags, in other words no overtaking being allowed? And when does normal racing resume? How are the gaps to the cars in front and behind developing? In what track sectors does the spotter’s driver particularly gain or lose ground? How does the previously contrived strategy have to be adjusted? All these messages are radioed to the cockpit in short, plain words. The favourite ones the spotters utter and the drivers hear are ‘first place’ or ‘winner’.