Kobe Pauwels was one of the undisputed revelations of the 2021 FIA World Rallycross Championship curtain-raiser in Barcelona last weekend (23-24 July), as the Euro RX3 rookie belied his lack of experience to confidently take the fight to the series’ front-runners.
Pauwels joined the fray in Euro RX3 off the back of a successful formative career in karting and CrossCar competition, and buoyed by a standout performance on his car racing debut with Volland Racing in the 2020 British Rallycross Championship finale at Lydden Hill, where he pipped team-mate Yury Belevskiy – who had won the European Championship just a handful of weeks earlier – to victory on the opening day.
With a promising pre-season testing programme under his belt, the Belgian teenager – the son of former World Championship Supercar driver Koen Pauwels and grandson of national competitor Benny Pauwels – headed to World RX of Catalunya in optimistic mood, but ultimately unsure about his prospects. No fear – right from the word ‘go’, he was bang on the money.
Indeed, in the second free practice session, Pauwels set the pace outright in Volland’s Audi A1, outperforming all of his adversaries to the tune of more than a third-of-a-second. Backing that up with the second-fastest time in both of the opening day’s qualifiers inevitably shifted the goalposts somewhat, and in Q3 the next morning, he stunned seasoned observers by getting the better of Belevskiy to top the timesheets.
The 16-year-old was nip-and-tuck with the Russian throughout the event, and after winning his semi-final at a canter, looked primed for a battle royale with the pre-season favourite in the final, only for contact from behind at the first corner to drop him down the order and dash his hopes of a brilliant triumph on his Euro RX3 bow.
Despite insisting that ‘it’s still far too early to be talking about the championship’, Pauwels will travel to Höljes next month (20-22 August) occupying second spot in the title standings, just six points shy of the summit – and fired-up to fight back.
“I was pleased with my performance in Barcelona, if not obviously the end result,” reflected the third-generation rallycross racer. “We didn’t expect to be so quick from the outset – going into the weekend, I didn’t have any expectations at all, to be honest, because everything was so unknown for me and I knew I still needed to adapt properly to the car, which is very different to the CrossCar I’ve been used to driving recently.
“Not only that, but aside from Yury [Belevskiy], I had never previously competed against any of the other drivers in the field and I was fully anticipating a big learning curve, so it was a really positive surprise to be fastest in free practice on the first day – and after we ended Q2 in second position overall, I said to my dad, ‘I think we need to adjust our objectives here...’
“With that in mind, I’m still finding it hard to accept what happened in the final; seeing the other guys up on the podium knowing I had been matching them for pace – if not better – was tough. I have no doubt it would have been a great battle and I was really looking forward to putting on an exciting show for all the fans trackside and at home following the action on RX+. At the end of the day, though, it’s just one of those things that happens sometimes in rallycross, particularly when there are so many different lines you can take through that corner.
“If I’d been offered a contract before the weekend saying I would leave Spain sitting second in the championship, I would have signed it immediately, but I’m not satisfied with second anymore, because I know more is possible. The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya was new to me, but I’ve got experience of Höljes from racing there in CrossCar last year and testing at the track pre-season, so hopefully we can go to Sweden and turn the tables...”