Monday, March 16, 2009

Loeb's Half-Century and the state of rallying

Last weekend's Cyprus Rally was a bit of a novelty. It was a mixed-surface event - with the first day taking place on the asphalt of the island's roads, and the second two days switching to gravel. And though it's been described as a a cost-cutting measure, watching the first day of the Cyprus Rally on the telly last weekend, I think the people behind the World Rally Championship have just stumbled upon a great way of improving the spectacle of the sport.

The WRC teams were forced to run the same tyres on the first day's tarmac stages as they would later run on the rest of the event's gravel tests. And the result? The cars were much more wildly sideways, more spectacular than rally cars have been on tarmac for a very long time. Watching Sebastien Loeb, who was, as ever, untouchable on asphalt, throwing his C4 around with abandon, it was like being transported back to the mid-1990s where much more primitive cars in the hands of such as McRae, Kankunnen and Sainz were chucking their Subarus and Toyotas around such places as Corsica and Catalunya, almost constantly sideways.

In recent times, improvements to rally car technology have resulted in the cars having much more grip on tarmac than was the case, say, ten years ago, and wild power-sliding is simpl no longer the fastest way to drive a rally car on tarmac. Except, put them on gravel-spec tyres, and suddenly, it is again. The fundamental truth is that too much traction and grip relative to power dilutes rallying as a spectacle. And today's cars have no more power than the early WRC cars (though they probably have a bit more torque) and a lot more grip. Never mind saving money on mixed surface events, now the cars run on a control Pirelli tyre, why not insist on gravel tyres at all the tarmac rounds of the series?

Because, truth be told, something needs to be done to enliven the spectacle of the World Rally Championship. Last weekend, Sebastien Loeb took the fiftieth win of his career. That's twenty more victories than the next most successful driver in the history of the sport, the recently retired Marcus Gronholm, and is all the more impressive that he only began competing full-time in a WRC machine in 2003 (though he did a few events for Citroen in the 'toe in the water' season in 2002). Truth be told, though, the man has made the sport his own to such an extent that people are simply switching off.

You can't possibly blame Loeb himself for that. He's just a sportsman who's incredibly good at what he does, giving his all. There's no doubt that he's one of the sport's greats - but is he the best of all time? Is he really so much better than Makinen, or Gronholm, Sainz or McRae? Or has he simply faced less competition? Does he look so good because the likes of Hirvonen, Sordo and Latvala simply aren't in the same class as the greats of the past? Or do the rest look mediocre because Loeb is so good?

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. I can't help but feel that Citroen have employed Sordo because they have him down as a man who is good enough to pick up manufacturer points, without being so quick as to take points off of team mate Loeb. And I still see the Ford team as essentially having two number-2 drivers. Hirvonen has come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years, but I'm still not entirely convinced by him, and Latvala? I had him down as a diamond in the rough, but after 82 rallies, it's really time that he started finishing on a regular basis.

The trouble is, unless you're in one of the works cars, then barring acts of god, you are not going to win a rally. And when there are just four works seats, and it is not even clear that the best four drivers are in those seats, the result is that the championship is all but a foregone conclusion. Petter Solberg did an impressive job in his old privately entered Citroen Xsara, and even beat Dani Sordo's works C4, but there was never any danger that he would beat Loeb in such a car (though he was closer to the pace than he had been in a works Subaru over the last couple of years, which suggests that the Japanese manufacturer really had lost the plot with its later Imprezas).

Sure, there are the satellite 'junior' teams, but with the honourable exception of Citroen's entry for Sebastien Ogier, these are running drivers with money or connections, rather than the most promising young talent. Nobody is going to persuade me that Conrad Rautenbach, Matthew Wilson or Henning Solberg deserve a place in the WRC more than, say, Per-Gunnar Andersen or Kris Meeke.

The switch to the Super 2000 regulations currently being used by the Intercontinental Rally Challenge looks like it might provide the solution to this problem. The opening round of that championship, in Monte Carlo, was very hotly contested, and even the recent rally in far-flung Brazil had, on balance, more potential winners than last weekend's Cyprus Rally. The key to that series' success appears to be that S2000 rally cars, unlike their more highly developed WRC brethren, are cheap enough to be a serious option for national dealer teams, such as Meeke's Peugeot UK entry, or Freddy Loix and Nicolas Voullioz Peugeot Benelux cars.

The IRC, despite having a much lower public profile, is also attracting more manufacturers than the WRC is capable of doing these days. Peugeot, Fiat/Abarth and Skoda look set to be joined by Proton, whose Satria looked devastatingly quick in the hands of Niall McShea when it made its debut on the Rally Ireland last month. It is widely assumed that Ford and Citroen will join the party when the rules switch is made, and there is even talk of Volkswagen running a diesel-powered Scirocco.

The reason why, as a fan, I'm nonetheless in two minds about the forthcoming switch to S2000 rules is that, if a WRC car on tarmac doesn't exactly thrill any more, then an S2000 car, which its' much lower torque looks decidedly tame. Sebastien Loeb has said that if the sport switches to S2000, he would rather retire than rally cars which he sees as unchallenging and dull to drive.

Thinking about this, in the light of watching the effects of the 'one tyre' rule in Cyprus, a solution struck me. All that is needed to make Super 2000 cars a challenge to drive, and to make them worth watching, is to stipulate that the cars must be rear-wheel drive. Sure, rallying is about car manufacturers advertising their wares, and yes, almost no modern family cars are rear-wheel drive, but to be blunt, show me where you can buy a four wheel drive Citroen C4 or Skoda Fabia? Rally cars are 4 wheel drive because four wheel drive cars are quicker than 2 wheel drive cars, and the rules allow it. With the exception of Subaru, and perhaps Mitsubishi, neither of which are any longer involved in the sport, the manufacturers are not in the sport in order to sell 4WD road cars. Rear wheel drive cars may not be much like what you can get in the showroom either, but at least they would be worth watching. And what's the point of using rallying to promote your cars if nobody is watching?


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Blogger Nicebloke said...

I liked the idea of the S2000 cars with upgrade kit (turbo and some other bits for $30k), but sounds like that's been tossed too. At this point I'd take tamer cars and more competition and variety over wild cars and no excitement.

3:24 PM  

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