Sunday, January 22, 2006

The strange death of the World Rally Championship?

So is the World Rally Championship, which kicked off in Monte Carlo this weekend, in basically decent health despite the rash of withdrawals over the winter, or is it in serious, perhaps even terminal decline?

There are just two works teams in the series this year, and to make matters worse, each of those teams is running only one true top-line driver - Petter Solberg at Subaru and Marcus Gronholm over at Ford. Neither Miko Hirvonen at Ford, nor Stephane Sarrazin and Chris Atkinson at Subaru, have ever won a WRC round before, and barring disasters amongst the front runners, or a sudden improvement in form, they are unlikely to do so this year.

In addition to Gronholm and Solberg, Sebastian Loeb, the reigning world champion, must be considered a serious contender for the title again this year. His privately entered Kronos Racing Citroen looks for all the world like a thinly disguised works effort - Citroen even paid the £140k entry fee to register the team for manufacturers points. Three serious contenders may be enough to make for an interesting world championship battle, providing that Ford, Subaru and Kronos/Citroen all provide their lead drivers with competitive cars. Gronholm, Solberg and Loeb are all past or current world champions and stand head and shoulders above the rest of the field and a battle on a level playing field between these three will be well worth following. On the evidence of Monte Carlo, Loeb would appear still to have a significant competitive advantage, despite eventually losing out as a result of his first day error. The Frenchman, though, has always been particularly quick at Monte Carlo. Of his rivals, Gronholm had never won on tarmac until Sunday, despite being a double world champion, and Solberg, who went out early on with mechanical problems, has something of a jinx at Monte Carlo. In any case, as the season progresses, it is likely that the Citroen, which, for all that it may be a virtual works effort, will not be developed as heavily as its rivals and Loeb's current advantage may dissipate.

Markko Martin, the ex-Peugeot driver, has been particularly vocal in his criticisms of the current state of the championship, remarking that there are only three paid rides going, and that it is little more than a "hobby championship" for rich amateurs at present. I am not privy to the details of the contracts between Hirvonen, Atkinson and Sarrazin and their teams, so I don't know if money is changing hands in either direction. However, it is not clear that the absence of top-line drivers from the series is down to the lack of drives available. It is more the case that many of the big name drivers of the last ten years have come to the end of their careers over the last year or two. Past champions Sainz and Makinen have both called it a day over the last couple of years, while 2001 champion Richard Burns sadly passed away at the end of last year. Other past rally winners, such as Delecour, Auriol and Schwarz have also reached an age where options tend to run out. This leaves only Martin, whose absence may in part be explained by his ambivalence towards the whole sport following the accident which killed his long time co-driver Michael Park last year, and Scots rally legend, Colin McRae, who is also in semi-retirement. McRae showed that he still has a fair amount of pace, getting Skoda's Fabia much closer to the pace in Australia than either of its regular drivers had done all year, but there can be little doubt that he was comprehensively outclassed by Loeb in their time together at Citroen. Consequently, it is more than likely that there is a certain degree of disagreement between McRae and the major team bosses over how much he deserves to be recompensed for his services.

If there are only three works teams worth the name, then from the spectators' point of view, what the series needs is an influx of good, serious private entries. There are after all, plenty of WRC cars around now, and as I can confirm from my trips to see the Jim Clark rally in the past few years, they don't have to be top-line entries driven by world class drivers to look spectacular. Here, the news from Monte Carlo seems to be good. There were, if anything, more WRC cars on the entry than in previous years and many of the private entries looked really quite quick. Gigi Galli flew on the opening day in a Ralliart Italia entered Mitsubishi and Toni Gardemeister scored a podium finish and a fastest stage time in his Astra entered Peugeot 307. There were more Skoda Fabias than ever before at the Monte Carlo and Duval scored a fastest time on the first day with his, while Panizzi also showed well early on, suggesting that the Fabia is a pretty quick car on the rare occasions when it works properly. The exit of the works teams have left open more opportunity for the private teams to pick up a decent result and this has attracted a number of squads to the series. The veteran Manfred Stohl won the last two stages of the rally and beat 3 of the works drivers to finish 4th in his OMV backed 307 and he is contracted to do a full season (It has to be said that Stohl, who is decently quick and has vast experience, might make a better works no2 driver from a points-collecting point of view, than any of the drivers they have got).

The majority of the private teams are not intending to compete in all 16 rounds of the championship, but the European rounds, at least, are not likely to want for decent private entries. The Australian and Japanese rounds are likely to attract good local drivers, which leaves only the far-flung rounds in Argentina and Mexico, and possibly the car-wrecking rounds in Turkey and Cyprus looking likely to be rather lacking in proper entrants.

I'm hardly the only person who thinks that the world rally championship has gone in the wrong direction in a number of ways over the last few years, and I'll doubtless come back to this at some point in future. The Monte Carlo rally always tends to show the series off in best light: The nature of the stages make for good television and the rally's history and reputation usually guarantee a decent entry in fallow years for the championship as a whole. But at this stage, the series looks, if anything, to be a little more open than it was the year before.


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