Thursday, February 22, 2007

Once in a life time?

Regular readers will know that I have always been a little sceptical as to the abilities of Ford's number 2 WRC driver, Mikko Hirvonen. Having been comprehensively annihilated by Petter Solberg at Subaru in 2004, he made little impression at Ford for much of last year, and his continued retention seemed, to put it mildly, odd. Sure, there was a win in Australia, but against a field so depleted that any other result would have been a profound embarassment. Stories that he got the Ford drive by waving a large cheque book at the blue oval seemed all too plausible.

So it was all the more surprising to see him win the inaugural Rally Norway last weekend, not by default, but by taking command from the first stage and plain out-driving his two biggest rivals. Sure, Sebastien Loeb's chances ended in a snowbank, and there may have been team orders in play on the final day of the rally to ensure a Ford 1-2, but remember why Hirvonen was in that position in the first place. Over the first two days, he had been plain faster than Marcus Gronholm, and had put enough pressure on Loeb to force him into a series of uncharacteristic errors, culminating in the trip into a snowbank that cost him any chance of a points finish. Malcolm Wilson may or may not have called the race off between his two charges on the final day, but it was through superior pace that Hirvonen ended up in front when the music stopped.

It was refreshing too, to see a driver so happy at having won a rally. With Subaru remaining far from the pace, we haven't seen Petter Solberg on the top step of the podium in a long while, and Hirvonen's joy at beating two of the sport's all-time greats in a straight fight was a marked contrast to his monosyllabic and furrow-browed team mate. So was this a once-in-a-lifetime performance? A day-of-days to rank alongside, say, Damon Hill at Suzuka in 1994? Hirvonen has on occasion been fast before, and sometimes too, he has been consistent, but he's never merged the two before. Perhaps, but perhaps it is a sign that Hirvonen is finally maturing as a driver - that while not great in the Loeb sense, he's nonetheless a professional who deserves to be taken seriously.

Rallying is not like single seater racing. Only the most exceptional drivers are on the pace straight away. Think how underwhelming Petter Solberg was in his first year at Ford. Or remember that Marcus Gronholm took part in his first world rally championship event in 1986 - and yet he only rose to prominence when he found his way onto the works Peugeot team at an age when many F1 drivers would be winding down towards retirement. Rallying requires experience, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Hirvonen was at his best on a rally which was new to the series, and so put everyone, grizzled veteran and wet-behind-the-ears newcomer, on the same footing. All the same, one wonders what Gigi Galli might manage to achieve if one of the works teams had the foresight to draft him in as a number 2 for a year.

I've been rather negative about the world rally championship on more than one occasion on motorsports ramblings over the past year. Credit where credit is due, though - the Rally Norway looks like the best addition to the series in a long, long while. Rallying thrives on variety, and now that in our globally warmed world, snow on the Monte Carlo is a fading memory, its good to see the Norwegian rally bring the quota of events on the white stuff back up to two. The added bonus is that the Norwegian rally has, if anything, better stages than the Swedish event. The Swedish stages are interesting enough, but often a little too monotonously high-speed. The Norwegian event, on the other hand, mixes Swedish style fast stuff with twisty, snaking forest roads which were more than a little reminiscent of a snow-covered Kielder. And surely, in time, the fearsome 44km Elvirum stage will become every bit as much a legend as Hafren or the Col de Turini.

Another reason to welcome the Rally Norway onto the calendar is that Scandinavian rallies always attract a good entry, With a relative dearth of full-time works teams in the championship, this is more important than ever. The eleven minute gap back to 8th place Jan Kopecky in his Skoda Fabia might suggest otherwise, but this was really one of the most competitive WRC events in a long while.

Daniel Carlsson joined OMV regular Manfred Stohl and Gigi Galli was out playing with his bright yellow Pirelli-shod Citroen, setting a fastest stage time along the way. Despite more than a few lapses, he ended up top Citroen, ahead of both the works cars and both the OMV Xsaras, in 6th. One place ahead of him, and recording his first ever fastest stage time into the bargain, was Stobart Ford driver Jari-Matti Latvala. I first saw Latvala in action on the Jim Clark tarmac rally some four years back, where he caught my attention, looking noticeably more committed than any of the British or Irish regulars. This kid is one to watch.

His team mate, Henning Solberg was talked of, albeit mainly by his brother, as a dark horse for the victory. In the end, he was too inconsistent for that, but he racked up a few fastest stage times on the final day and claimed the 3rd, keeping Petter off the podium on the swansong event for the unloved Subaru Impreza WRC2006. Then there was Toni Gardemeister, who looked to be fastest privateer of all in his 2 year old Mitsubishi Lancer before losing time in a snowbank. Suffice to say that, after farcical events in Turkey and Cyprus, this new rally looks to have legs. And I wouldn't expect an entry list with anything like the same kind of strength in depth in Mexico next month.

However, if the WRC as a championship looks as fragile as ever, it is clear that some of the individual events are going to be very exciting indeed. Oh, and 10 or so years ago, I hitch-hiked round the south coast of Ireland, and I tell you, a rally on those roads is going to be something else again...

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

Yet as it stands right now, Norway (and Ireland) are not on the 2008 WRC calendar, replaced by South Africa and Jordan...

I've always liked Mikko, ever since I saw him at the Swdish Rally in 2003. Even when he's not fast he seems committed, and it was clear that he spent 2006 working on consistency, so he could finally harness his natural ability. I'm so pleased to see him start to truly challenge the top two. Who's next to rise to this level? Sordo?

2:53 PM  
Blogger rob ijbema said...

yes! he is the real deal.
ok he had the advantage of a new Rally,but
to beat gronholm in the snow,you've got to be special.
i d't think he needs a five!!year plan like mathew Wilson...

2:04 PM  

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