Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Schumacher of the Stages and the Young Pretenders

Just a couple of weeks after Andy Priaulx matched Michael Schumacher and Tommi Makinen by winning four consecutive FIA sanctioned championships, Sebastien Loeb equaled his feat. The French former gymnast has demonstrated a degree of dominance that has really only ever been matched in the motorsports world by Schumacher himself.

Let's not forget, after all, just how quickly he developed into a world class rally driver. After winning the first ever Junior World Rally Championship at the wheel of a Citroen Saxo in 2001, he came very close to winning his first rally outright at the end of the season in a Citroen Xsara Kit Car, finishing just 11 seconds behind Gilles Panizzi at the San Remo rally. A part-season spent developing the Citroen Xsara WRC brought him victory on the road in his first event in a WRC car at Monte Carlo (he was later penalised for a breach of servicing regulations and bumped back to 3rd), which he followed up with his first actual victory, later in the year at the Rally Germany.

In his first full season, he lost the World Championship to Petter Solberg by just a single point, ane even then only after having to follow team orders to take it steady at the final round - Wales Rally GB, as Citroen wanted to ensure that they at least walked away with the constructor's title. A year later, he dominated the championship, finishing over 20 points ahead of Petter Solberg to score the first of his four titles. Of course, it would be easy to suggest that he has done so by virtue of a large car advantage - and there is some truth in such a claim - certainly Subaru have been off the boil for the last couple of years, and Ford have only really sorted out their Focus this season - but it is worth remembering that in the time he has been driving for Citroen, Loeb has stacked up 36 victories. His team mates, over the same period, have won just three rallies - and those team mates have included no lesser men than Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae. In 2006, after all, he even won the title in an outdated privately entered Citroen Xsara.

All this is a quite remarkable achievement given that even the best world rally drivers usually take several years to learn their craft. Colin McRae was considered something of a youngster when he won his only title back in 1995, but by then he had been competing - if sporadically, in Group A8 machinery for half a decade or more. Marcus Gronholm and Tommi Makinen both spent years in relative obscurity before emerging as serious title contenders. In comparison to circuit racing, it would seem that in rallying, experience plays a much bigger part relative to innate ability. Perhaps no surprise given that, while the circuits the F1 boys visit are increasingly homogenous, there is little linking the challenges of Norway, Monte Carlo, the Acropolis, Catalunya and the Rally GB. Different surfaces, wildly varying weather conditions and fundamentally different stage layouts take time to master - unless, it would seem, you are Sebastien Loeb.

This year, though, he faced the toughest battle he has had since he fought Solberg and Burns for the title back in 2003. Marcus Gronholm finally got his Focus WRC06 working to his liking, and Loeb initially had to deal with iffy reliability on the new Citroen C4. With two rounds to go, Gronholm held a four point lead, but a crash on Rally Ireland put Loeb in the pound seats to win his fourth consecutive title at the final round - which he duly did.

The question, though, is where on earth Loeb's opposition will come from now that 40-something Gronholm has decided to hang up his helmet. It would not seem that that opposition is likely to come from team mate, and fellow graduate of the Citroen junior WRC team, Dani Sordo. Sordo may have done a competent job, and helped rack up constructors points for Citroen, but away from his preferred tarmac, he looked average at best. On snow, he was rather worse than that.

I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by Mikko Hirvonen this year. I had thought the Finn decidedly underwhelming when he first appeared as a works Subaru driver back in 2004, and had seen little to change my mind when he reappeared as a Ford works driver a couple of years ago. I initially put down his Norwegian Rally victory as a one-off, but his increasingly impressive form towards the end of this year suggest that he may at last be maturing into the kind of driver who can lead Ford's assault on the championship next year.

If Malcolm Wilson and the powers that be at Ford can face having two Finns in the works team next year, it appears to me that they could do a lot worse than to hire Jari-Matti Latvala to drive alongside Hirvonen next year. While Hirvonen was impressing everyone by out-pacing the two title contenders at the Rally GB, fewer people noticed that Latvala was going quicker than anyone else - and won all but 2 of Saturday and Sunday's stages. Had he not retired on Friday (he rejoined under the baffling SupeRally rules) with a windscreen that misted so badly he could no longer see where he was going, he would probably have won. Not bad for a guy in his first full season in the WRC, driving a second-string Stobart Focus.

If the thought of two Finns at Ford scares the marketing men too much (though they lived with it this year...) there are a few other options which would be well worth scoping out - drivers who, in any sane world, would have works drives, but are reduced to occasional private entries when they can get the money together. To my mind, the most promising candidate of the lot is Italian Gigi Galli. Thirty five year old Galli may be no youngster, but he impressed mightily on occasion in the odd outings he has had over the last couple of years. In Norway, he was right on the pace of the front runners in a privately entered Citroen until losing time with an off.

If Galli is too much of a gamble, and too old to seem like he's really the future, Ford (or perhaps Subaru) might like to re-investigate their recent past. Francois Duval comes with something of a chequered reputation, having had perhaps more than his fair share of big accidents in his time at Citroen and Ford. Thing is, though, Duval was seriously quick on occasion. And he showed that he still is, when he returned in a private Xsara at the Rally Deutschland this year and set stage times which gave Loeb pause for thought.

Whatever Ford decide to do, it is clear that something needs to be done to bring fresh talent into the WRC. With Gronholm's retirement, Petter Solberg is now the only front-running driver from the pre-Loeb era still competing. The Stobart team has afforded a vital opportunity for Latvala to learn the ropes this year, but the sport needs more opportunities for promising drivers, young or not-so-young to get experience in front-running cars. Large cheques and nepotism have allowed second-raters like Luis Perez-Companc, Matthew Wilson, Manfred Stohl and Henning Solberg to take up drives which more rightly should have gone to people like Guy Wilks, Per-Gunnar Anderson, Patrick Sandell and other emerging young drivers. If the sport, which has been going through something of an extended rough patch, is to survive and prosper, then it is vital that drivers who might have the raw ability to challenge Loeb are given the breaks they need.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home