Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Future of Rallying?

The Monte Carlo Rally was won by the reigning champion, a French guy called Sebastien. No surprise there, then. The winner, though, was not Mr Loeb, but Junior World Rally champion, Sebastien Ogier. The World Rally Championship seems peculiarly intent on committing hara-kiri and the latest nail in the coffin has been the series organisers' decision to adopt an events rotation system which this year sees the Monte Carlo Rally, the single most famous rally in the sport, ditched from the championship.

Rather than 'rest' the event for a year, or run it as a non-championship event, the Automobile Club de Monaco turned to the Eurosport-backed Intercontinental Rally Challenge, who probably couldn't believe their luck. For all that the WRC has been in a pretty dire state over the last 3 years or so, with rarely more than 3 potential winners in the field and no serious rival to Sebastien Loeb emerging for the world title (only a serious run of bad fortune for the Frenchman kept Hirvonen in the running as long as he was last year, and for all that Marcus Gronholm sometimes ran Loeb reasonably close on occasion, I never really had the sense that he was going to beat him over a season), the IRC has had a relatively low profile in the first years of its existence. It's a fact perhaps explained by the relative obscurity of the front-running competitors. Reigning champion Nicolas Vouilloz is probably still better known as a ten time downhill mountain bike champion than as a champion rally driver. His major rivals, Giandomenico Basso and Anton Alen are hardly household names either, even among racing fans.

With the Monte, though, the IRC got more publicity in one week than it had had in the whole of its history to date. It even got a four page spread in the Observer sports section, not normally noted for its in-depth coverage of rallying. Eurosport rose to the occasion, putting together what has got to be some of the best TV coverage rallying has ever known (much of which is available to watch on their website). Their live coverage of SS5, St Bonnet Le Froid which wound through nearly 25kms of picturesque, snow-covered Alpine countryside, much of it shown from the in-car camera of Jan Kopecky's Skoda Fabia, gave a real impression of what is actually involved in pushing a rally car to the limit for mile after mile in icy conditions with sheer drops off to the side. It's something which years of North One coverage of the WRC has never really captured and made quite an impact on me.

There was much talk of how the Monte has returned to its roots this year, having been homogenised by the FIA's demands that the event fit its standard WRC event template. This was, to my mind, about half true. The night stages at Col De Turini made a welcome return, and the event was spread over a geographically wider area, but the overall stage mileage was actually even lower than was the case previously and the trend for repeating morning stages in the afternoon remains. In other words, the Monte still retains many of the vices of modern rallying.

Perhaps the greatest novelty for anyone only used to following the WRC in recent years was the lack of certainty about who would be righting it out for victory. Nicolas Vouilloz seemed a good bet, but, thanks to a combination of the lack of competitive drives in the WRC just now, and the fact that, well, it's the Monte meant that he had plenty of opposition. Last year's runner-up Basso was back in an Abarth Grande Punto, and he was joined by Anton Alen and Suzuki WRC refugee Toni Gardemeister, in a privately run Fiat. The new works Skodas turned out to be very quick, and Juho Hanninen led much of the event, while Jan Kopecky ran quickly when he wasn't struggling with new-car gremlins. There were also a brace of good serious runners fighting to knock Vouilloz off his perch as the top Peugeot driver. Former Mitsubishi and Hyundai WRC driver Freddy Loix was entered in a Peugeot-Belgium machine, while Ulsterman Kris Meeke, a former JWRC front-runner whose career has suffered lately for the lack of works drives at the very top level, won stages in his Peugeot-UK backed car. Former Subaru tarmac specialist, former F1 driver Stephane Sarrazin was also very much in the running early on.

In the end, looking at the results, one might conclude that Sebastien Ogier had it easy. He won by nearly two minutes from Loix and Sarrazin, with only five drivers within 10 minutes of his winning time. The reality, though, was that Ogier was lucky that his major opponents hit trouble. Both Meeke and Hanninen had looked like they might challenge for victory before they crashed out, and Kopecky and Sarrazzin might have put up more of a fight had they not had niggling car troubles or got their tyre choices wrong.

So is the IRC the answer for rally fans frustrated with the state of the World Rally Championship and looking for something more interesting to follow? Well, yes and no. The S2000 cars are much cheaper to run than their WRC counterparts, cheap enough to be a viable option for national dealer-teams to run competitively against the works efforts of Skoda and Abarth (indeed, Peugeot, whose 207 is probably the best car in the series at the moment, doesn't actually have a works team in the series right now, providing customer cars to dealer-backed entries, and support through the satellite Kronos team which ran Loeb to the 2006 title in a semi-privately entered Citroen Xsara.

Sadly, though, having followed the Monte, it is striking that the S2000 cars are not nearly as spectacular in motion as the WRC machines. They might have nearly the same horsepower as WRC cars, but it's all at the top end of the rev range, and they have only a small fraction of the torque. They certainly don't explode out of the corners in the way that late-period WRC cars do. One can see why Sebastien Loeb was horrified by the fact that the WRC will itself be reverting to S2000 cars from 2010 (albeit they will be turbocharged, and will thus have more grunt). I can't help thinking that one change which, over the long run, would cost nothing, would be to make the cars rear wheel drive. There's no real reason while rally cars should be four wheel drive. If its allowed by the regulations then, of course, cars will be 4WD but anyone who has ever seen a Mark 2 Escort rally car, or for that matter, one of the original Sierra Cosworths, will know that rear wheel drive machines are much better to watch.

On the events front, the IRC has done rather well. As well as the Monte, the IRC has taken over the Safari Rally, the African classic so foolishly tossed aside by the WRC. The San Remo Rally is on the calendar, as is the old ERC classic, the Ypres Rally in Belgium. Add to that a new Brazilian event based around Curitiba and the Rally Russia, and it is clear that the event really does live up to its 'Intercontinental' tag. And there's nothing on their calendar so monumentally pointless as the Rally Jordan either... The old European Rally Championship is perhaps what the IRC most closely resembles, not least in that it is much more asphalt-based that the WRC, with a 50/50 split between tarmac and gravel. This will doubtless help the Italian and French drivers against the Finns, though I've always felt rallying really ought to involve mud and trees. One rally that certainly will involve mud, and probably an awful lot of rain, is the Rally Scotland, which will round off the championship in November. I know I'm biased, living in Edinburgh myself, but I still think that Scotland has stages which are more than a match for anything that Wales can give us, and this is one event that I fully intend to see.

The WRC kicks off this weekend in Ireland, and while the Rally Ireland features some great roads, it hardly ranks alongside the Monte Carlo in the popular consciousness. The cars will be much more spectacular than the S2000 machines in the IRC, but I seriously doubt anyone other than Loeb and, perhaps, Hirvonen stand any chance of winning in the WRC on tarmac unless something really unexpected happens. When I first heard that the WRC was moving over to S2000 cars from 2010 I was disappointed, but on the strength of last weekend, it might just be exactly what the sport needs.

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Anonymous Peter White said...

I was excited to see Sebastien Ogier win the Monte Carlo rally, regardless of the status of the event. Sebastien is an elite skier and therefore has my own enormous respect even before he steps into a car...
Best wishes

4:26 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Hi Peter

Didn't know Ogier was a ski-er. Remarkable the number of rally drivers with other sporting achievements to their name - Loeb was a gymnast of some note before he became a rally driver, Vouilloz a downhill mountain bike champion...

Come to that, I've heard it said a number of F1 drivers had other sporting achievements to their name. Jackie Stewart narrowly missed out on the olympic shooting team, James Hunt was a good squash junior, and I've heard it said Michael Schumacher could have made a comfortable living as a footballer if he'd been so inclined. Maybe there's an article in there somewhere...

5:11 AM  

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