Sunday, January 10, 2010

Turning the Corner?

Assuming you're reading this from somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, you'll probably be as fed up as I am by now of the unexpectedly wintry winter we've been having. The coldest I can recall, though those some of the older faces in my office assure me that it's not yet up with the one they experienced in 1963. Any which way, I've certainly tired of sliding around on ice and pushing my way through slushy streets of late. Looking at the snow covered road outside my flat this morning, though, I was struck by a possible silver lining. If the weather keeps this up, at least there should be no shortage of snow in the north of Sweden when the World Rally Championship kicks off in 3 weeks time.

I was once a great fan of the WRC, and did all I could to catch every round, but in more recent times, I've struggled to work up much enthusiasm for a championship which always seems to boil down to a Finn in a Ford forlornly trying, and failing, to stop the mighty Sebastien Loeb/Citroen juggernaut, with everyone else no more than bit part players. Remember when Makinen, McRae, Gronholm, Burns, Sainz, Panizzi and Solberg were all fighting it out for wins in Mitsubishis, Peugeots, Fords and Subarus? The been a shadow of its former self for much of the last decade, and if I were being pessimistic, I would say that there are striking parallels between the WRC in the second half of the decade and the Champ Car World Series in its dying days. Maybe it's just new decade optimism, but I think there may at last be signs that the world of rallying may not be heading the same way after all.

For one thing, the entry for the first round in Sweden looks quite an appetising prospect. Marcus Gronholm will be making a return in a semi-works Focus, and must surely be at least an outside contender for victory, even if he is a few years older than Michael Schumacher and a couple of years out of full time competition. All the signs are that the Petter Solberg World Rally Team will be back too, with a Citroen C4 WRC which should enable him to pose rather more of a threat to the works teams than he was able to do with a four year old Xsara last year. Even better, if it turns out to be true, is the rumour that he'll be running a two-car squad with Per-Gunnar Andersson in the second car. Andersson has been one of the most inexplicably overlooked drivers of the decade. He won the Junior World Rally Championship twice, generally outpaced Toni Gardemeister in his single season with the hapless Suzuki SX4 WRC, and scored stage wins with an elderly Skoda Fabia in Norway last year. Why Ford and Citroen have persisted with Sordo and Latvala when he is available mystifies me.

To be fair, Latvala, at least, has always had pace, though he has thus far been unable to tame a wild streak which has seen him put his car into the scenery far too often to be a serious title contender. It's just possible, therefore, that 2010 might be the year in which he finally gets his wild streak under control and becomes a real title contender. If Ford let him... The trouble with there being only two teams in contention for the WRC is that there is a strong incentive for each to back one driver at the expense of the other to maximise their chances of claiming the title. At Citroen, that's pretty irrelevant, because Dani Sordo has rarely if ever looked capable of getting on terms with Loeb anyway, except perhaps on tarmac. At Ford, though, Latvala has often looked quicker, if much less consistent, than Hirvonen. And at Citroen this year, it is perhaps possible that Sebastien Ogier, back with the Junior team for a second season, might be able to challenge for victory where Sordo has thus far not been able to.

The appearance of Kimi Raikkonen just might be the acme that the WRC has been looking for in terms of publicity. If the Finn's presence encourages more people to pay attention to the world of rallying, and so makes it easier to attract publicity and sponsors to the series, then perhaps it will prove to be the launch pad for the series' revival. Even if it doesn't, it will be interesting to see how he goes. He was more than decently quick in his run in an s2000 Fiat Punto Abarth on the 1000 Lakes Rally last year, but there wasn't really strength in depth in the S2000 class, so it's hard to know how much that really means. Certainly, it will be interesting to see how the first front-running F1 driver in the modern era ever to switch full-time, at the peak of his career, from Grands Prix to the WRC. Perhaps the most intriguing two way competition, though, will be between Raikkonen and 2-wheel World Champion, Valentino Rossi, who is expected to take part in the Rally Mexico in a Ford. While there is little chance that either man will much trouble Sebastien Loeb, it will nonetheless be interesting to see which of the two of them, both of whom have some previous rally experience, will prove quicker. It's a bit like a tennis match between the World badminton and squash champions. You wouldn't expect either to give Roger Federer any trouble, but it's an intriguing contest.

On the subject of people coming to the WRC from elsewhere, I think the news that US rally star, snow boarder and shoe magnate, Ken Block will be competing with the 'Monster Energy' Rally team is another move which, it is to be hoped, might help to bring the WRC to a wider audience than it has been able to attract for some time. I doubt that he'll be able to threaten the front-runners - the American Rally Championship is not exactly a hotbed of competition, but I'd hope he might at least embarrass some of the pay-drivers who have been running in the Stobart Ford and Citroen Junior teams, should any of them come back again this year.

Of course, there is still the problem that there are only two works teams in the WRC at present - nobody driving anything other than a Ford or a Citroen is going to stand the remotest chance of being competitive. The late-period Subaru Imprezas, the Peugeot 307 Coupe and the Skoda Fabia WRC were not all that competitive when they were first rallied, and a privately entered example nowadays stands little chance of troubling the front-runners, no matter how talented the man at the wheel. There are glimmers of hope on the horizon though. Prodrive, it is widely rumoured, are due to announce a programme involving a WRC version of the Mini, while Volkswagen have been sniffing around the edges of the WRC for some years. That said, in order for any of that to happen, some coherence about the future direction of the sport is really needed. Is it S2000 with turbochargers? 1.6 litre turbocharged cars? A simplified version of the current WRC ruleset? Or something else entirely? If I ruled the world, I'd go with Dave Evan of Autosport's suggestion of rear wheel drive cars with big V6 normally aspirated engines, but I'm not holding my breath.

The other thing that the WRC has done little to address this year is the calendar. Losing the Monte Carlo Rally to enable 'event rotation', so we can have rallies in Turkey and Jordan is just madness. And what's the thinking behind the Rally Bulgaria? If the World Rally Championship is to break new ground, how about another trip to the US? Or what about going to Brazil? Jordan has little in the way of motorsports culture and I challenge you all to name a single Bulgarian rally driver of any note...

On the plus side, though, some recent lunacy has been put right. The confusing, unnecessary and orthographically dubious 'Superally' rules have gone, and the FIA have got rid of maximum stage length rules and allowed the reintroduction of night stages. The S2000 World Rally Cup is running to more sensible rules, with teams allowed to pick and choose their 7 rallies to suit their geographic base (though one must be outside Europe) and the category split away from the Production World Rally Championship. The WRC may not be out of the woods yet, but if BMW-Mini and Volkswagen come in, and Ford and Citroen stay, it just might be beginning to turn the corner at last.

PS - I'll be in Birmingham at the weekend for Alianora's Kart competition and thought I'd take the chance to drop in on the Autosport International show on Saturday afternoon while I'm down there. If anyone fancies meeting up, drop me an email at patrick [at] footle [dot] com.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahh, didn't realise it was you I was talking to at the karting yesterday!
It was good fun, both the driving and the meeting with people. Will have to do it again some time.

3:06 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Hi - I didn't realise it was you either! In fact, I'm not really sure *who* I knew 'online' on Saturday and who I'd never met before. It was good fun, though I did find the track was frustratingly lacking much in the way of overtaking opportunities. Or maybe I just lack skills in that department...

2:38 PM  

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