Sunday, October 25, 2009

Loeb Makes it Six from Six

One week after Jenson Button claimed the F1 title, another World Championship went to the wire down in the forests of Wales last weekend, when Mikko Hirvonen went head to head with Sebastien Loeb for the World Rally Championship. In the end, Hirvonen fell at the final hurdle, dropping out of contention when he damaged the bonnet on his Ford Focus WRC on the penultimate stage, costing him just over a minute. And so Sebastien Loeb extended his record run of consecutive world titles to six.

I had been paying only the scantest of attention to what had been happening in the world of rallying this year - only when the digital TV transmitters were changed and I found myself able to pick up Dave for the first time did I start paying attention again. When I was last taking notice, Sebastien Loeb had won all five of the opening rounds of the World Championship, and I figured that if he could win in the snows of Norway, there wasn't any realistic chance of a challenger emerging over the remainder of the season. Miko Hirvonen had, to be fair, been doing a very good job of keeping Loeb honest in points table terms. In those opening rounds, only in Argentina, when he was put out by an engine failure, was he not on the podium. Nonetheless, if Loeb was winning on tarmac, on gravel, and on snow, there seemed little realistic prospect that Hirvonen would be able to do anything to reel him in during the second half of the season.

It didn't work out that way. Amazingly, Loeb didn't win a rally for nearly six months, and after five straight wins came five straight defeats. It started in Sardinia. In the days when the Rally Italia was an all-tarmac affair, I doubt anyone could have touched Loeb, but as a mixed tarmac-gravel event, Jari-Matti Latvala dominated from the start. Loeb was hampered with punctures and ended up finishing a distant fourth, behind Petter Solberg in a privately entered and rather elderly Citroen Xsara WRC. Then came crashes both in Greece and Poland, a straightforward defeat to Hirvonen in the Finn's home rally, a time penalty which cost him victory in Australia for running unhomologated anti-roll bars, all of which meant that when Loeb reversed put the form book back on its head by winning the Rally Catalunya last month, he was still one point shy of Ford's Hirvonen in the title race.

With six wins to Hirvonen's four, though, Loeb only needed to tie Hirvonen on points in order to retain his crown, and so a potentially thrilling finale was set up. Each had simply to beat the other to win the title. There was no room for team tactics, gamesmanship, or other nonsense of the kind which rather seems to have infected rallying of late. Normally, in a straight fight, it would be a very brave man who bet against Loeb, and I've never seen Hirvonen as being in quite the same class to be honest. But, but... If there was anywhere, Finland aside, where Hirvonen might be able to beat Loeb in a straight fight, it must surely be the sodden, muddy, foggy forests of Wales. Loeb has made no secret of the fact that he's never felt entirely at home on such stages, whereas for Hirvonen they are perhaps the closest thing on the WRC calendar this year to the forest stages of Finland which he dominated in August.

In the end, Loeb led from start to finish, but his winning margin of over a minute was a deceptive. While he went into the final day with a 30 second lead, Loeb found himself under attack from Hirvonen over the final stages, and with two stages to go, the Ford driver had cut his advantage down to 18s. Then, trying perhaps a mite too hard, Hirvonen landed heavily on a jump, damaged his radiator, and lost the best part of a minute on the stage when he had to stop to allow his co-driver to rip the offending piece of bodywork from the car. And so the way was clear for Loeb to go one better than Michael Schumacher and score his sixth consecutive World Title.

Unfortunately for Loeb, I doubt his achievements can be seen as being of quite the same order as those of Schumacher. The sad truth is that the state of rallying in the latter part of the decade has been such that Loeb has faced relatively little in the way of real opposition. Since Subaru first went off the rails and then withdrew from the WRC, Loeb's only competition has come from the Ford team, and usually only from one of its drivers at a time. The lack of more than a handful of works drives means that this year, there have never really been more than three or four contenders for victory (four only if you believe than Dani Sordo would be allowed to beat Loeb, even if he were capable). When one compares the current state of the WRC with the time when the likes of Makinen, McRae, Sainz, Burns, Gronholm and yes, at the very end of this era, a young Loeb, were going for the title it's sad just how far it has fallen.

As a result, there simply aren't the places for promising young junior drivers to be given
seat time in a pukka WRC car. Yes, there is the second-string Stobart Ford team, and the Citroen Junior Squad, but if these were really concerned with bringing on young talent, rather than generating revenue for the works teams, there would surely be places for Kris Meeke, Jan Kopecky and Per-Gunnar Andersson ahead of such as Henning Solberg, Matthew Wilson, Yvgeny Novikov and Conrad Rautenbach (whose money, it seems, may come from a particularly unsavoury source.)

I half wonder if Sebastien Loeb's apparent dip in form in the middle part of this year was indicative of the fact that even he was beginning to get bored by life in the WRC. He told L'Equipe that he was interested in replacing Sebastien Bourdais at Toro Rosso, and had tested a year old Red Bull fairly competitively the previous Winter. In the end, I suspect that it was only his lack of pace in a GP2 test earlier in the month, where he ended up the slowest of all, that put paid to his hopes of driving in the final round at Abu Dhabi this weekend. On this, I think the FIA were right. Loeb might be one of the most talented drivers in the world, but he has relatively little experience of race driving, and still less of single seater racing. As Luca Badoer demonstrated earlier this year, being decently competitive in an F1 car requires rather more than a basic familiarity with the car, and Loeb would almost certainly have succeeded only in embarassing himself. What the FIA should be concentrating on, is ensuring that the World Rally Championship is competitive enough in future than its stars feel no need for such distractions...

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