Thursday, January 18, 2007

Green shoots of recovery?

In the early 1990s, there was an economic recession in Britain.  The
people, as they are wont to do when things go wrong, blamed the government. Stuck for any more sensible answer, the government of the time chose at first simply to deny that there was a recession at all. When this line became
untenable in the face of overwhelming evidence, they instead began to
tell us that the corner had been turned, and that we were now enjoying the "green shoots of recovery". Spring, one might
say, was a long time coming, and the phrase became something of a
running joke.

It was a strangely comic little episode that came back to me with the
beginning of the 2007 World Rally Championship this weekend. ISC, who
own the rights to the series, have spent a lot of time denying that
there is anything wrong whatsoever with the World Rally Championship.
After a season in which 15 of the 16 wins were shared between just 2
drivers, and only 2 full works teams were involved, that has become a
rather hard line to maintain. So now we are hearing that the worst is
over, and that the 2007 season will be an altogether more close fought

Well, maybe... There are, however, still only three full manufacturer
teams this year. Citroen are back as a full works team, with their new
C4. In a sense, they were never really away, as there was little doubt
that they were pulling a lot of the strings for Kronos last year, in an
effort to keep Sebastien Loeb from heading off elsewhere in search of a
competitive ride. Ford, and Subaru, of course, are still around.
However, just as last year, each of those three teams has only one
really established star driver. Sebastien Loeb, with his three straight
titles, needs no introduction. The same can be said of former champions,
Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg. But their number two
drivers? Of those, only Mikko Hirvonen has ever actually won a round of
the championship - and even then only because Loeb missed Rally
Australia last year, and Gronholm crashed out. Dani Sordo, over at
Citroen, is to my mind ultimately a more promising prospect than
Hirvonen, having won
the Junior WRC two years ago, but has only ever really impressed on
tarmac. Chris Atkinson strikes me as a rather eccentric choice for
Subaru, but the team have stuck with him for another year. He's proved
quick from time to time, but has been crash-prone to an extent that even

a young Colin McRae would have struggled to match.

Having said that, on the evidence of the Monte this year, perhaps the
understudies will be a little closer to their illustrious team mates
this year. I've never been especially enthusiastic about Mikko Hirvonen,

and have heard stories that he only got the drive at Ford because he
came with a truckload of cash, but he seemed nearer to Gronholm's pace
than was the case last year. Dani Sordo appeared to give an
admittedly below-par Loeb a run for his money at the front, although
whether either driver was really being allowed to fight is an open
question. Such was Citroen's margin of superiority in the Ardeche last
weekend, it is hard to know whether we saw anything more than a
demonstration run from the two drivers. In the end, it was Atkinson who
did best of the
trio, beating Petter Solberg fair and square, and mixing it with the
faster Ford of
Hirvonen into the bargain. For once, he didn't fall off the road and
finished a very creditable 4th, equalling his best finish of last year.

All the same, there are an awful lot of young, seemingly talented rally
drivers who might be more obvious candidates for the number 2 drives.
Its a
shame that third cars have become so uncommon over the last couple of
seasons, thanks to changes in the way manufacturer points are scored.
Were they not, surely somebody would be tempted to give Gigi Galli a
drive, for example. Its nice to see Jari-Matti Latvala getting a
full-time ride in the second-string Stobart Ford team, but, having seen
him in
action in the British championship from time to time, I can't help
feeling he's worthy of a full works seat. Jan Kopecky did a good job of
hustling the two year old Skoda Fabia into the points last weekend, and
is perhaps worthy of better equipment. All the same, the most striking
thing about
the Monte Carlo entry list is the number of really promising drivers
absent from it. Such is the lack of full works teams that there was no
place on it, for instance, for Francois Duval, Daniel Carlson and Janne
Tuohino. And that's to say nothing of the guys who have impressed in the
JWRC over the pastcouple of years, like Kris Meeke, Per-Gunnar Anderson,
Guy Wilks and Patrick Sandell. The trouble these drivers have is that,
to a much greater extent than is the case in circuit racing, it takes
time to become competitive at the top level in rally driving. Even the
supernaturally talented - the likes of Sebastien Loeb
and Petter Solberg, took a few seasons to find their feet before
launching a championship bid. Loeb was instantly quick on tarmac, but
took time to find real pace on tarmac. To some extent, the reverse was
true of Petter Solberg, though it is fair to say he took longer to make
an impact anyway. Currently, the big works teams (Citroen aside) seem
happier to run a reasonably experienced journeyman in their number two
seat than to take their chances with a less-than-mature talent.

So is the World Championship in any better state than last year? Well, I

suppose Jari-Matti Latvala's place at Stobart is worth something, and
Sordo will be more of a threat now he has a season's experience to draw
on, but overall, it still looks pretty weak. On one crude measure things
have improved. Last year, under the old SupeRally rules,
Loeb dropped five minutes and still finished second. Add a five minute
penalty to his winning time this year, and he wouldn't even have made
the points.

Overall, though, the lack of strength in depth in the series
is at its worst since the late eighties, after the abolition of Group B,

when Lancia basically had the sport to themselves for a few years. That
time round, it was understandable. Group B had been cancelled suddenly,
and its proposed replacement, Group S, had gone the same way, with the
formula that replaced it - Group A, looking decidedly unexciting by
comparison. It was not surprising that manufacturers were reluctant to
commit to the sport with such uncertainty about the future rules. This
time round, there is no such easy explanation.

The WRC rules have been around for the best part of a decade, there is
no need to go to the trouble of producing 5000 road cars, as used to be
the case, and yet still the manufacturers stay away. Other than the
anticipated entry of Suzuki into the series later in the year, there is
little sign that any of this is going to change in the immediate future
either. Green shoots of recovery? I suspect we could be a long time
waiting for the flowers to bloom.

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