WRC … Showdown in the Valleys : Part 1
Okay, I know this is a F1 Blog, but you guys like motorsport, this is motorsport, hey, lets see if you like it or not!
Regulars to Wheelnuts will remember my WRC Previews. If you're new, read it anyway. If you're new to the WRC, why not ask a question in the comment box down there.
The WRC is about to finish it's season, and it's going right down to the wire in the UK with a winner takes all fight between the master, Sebastien Loeb and the young flying Finn, Mikko Hirvonen. Hirvonen leads Loeb by only one point, so Loeb only needs to beat him by 2 points or more to take the championship, Hirvonen must finish ahead of Loeb at all costs! If the scores are tied (i.e. if Loeb finishes 8th and Hirvonen fails to finish) Loeb wins on count back.
I've split this into two parts. This first two parts is going to be the story of the season, then part three is the event preview.
Here we go then, 0 car clear, Stage is live!
The story so far...
For the first time in my memory, the WRC kicked off away from Monte Carlo, switching to the relatively new ground of Ireland. The change was prompted by a rotation system, but more about that later.
The teams lined up with new comers in their ranks, all in the M2 category for customer teams. Once again, reigning champion Sebastien Loeb would drive the Citroen C4, with Spanish driver Dani Sordo. Their only manufacturer team rivals were the Fords, since Subaru had left at the end of last season. Mikko Hirvonen and Jari Matti-Latvala drove the Blue Oval's cars. Interestingly, both manufactuers had favoured drivers with different surface specialities – Citroen's drivers prefer Tarmac, whilst Ford's pairing prefer loose surfaces.
In M2, Stobart returned with Matthew Wilson, Henning Solberg and Urmo Aava – In Ireland Aava and Solberg were to score points. Citroen took the wraps off their new junior team with ex Subaru driver Chris Atkinson, Russian Evengy Novikov, the hapless Conrad Rautenbach and Impressive JWRC champion Sebastien Ogier on their books. All 4 ran in Ireland, but Atkinson and Rautenbach were scoring points.
It was not the best of weather on the tarmac roads of north Ireland, and Atkinson's inexperience with the powerful Citroen showed when he slid off the road and took out a telegraph pole on the first day. Rautenbach also faltered as did Ogier, whilst Latvala had a disasterous event and finished 14th. The points scorers on the event were Khalid Al Qassimi driving the 3rd Ford works entry (by virtue of being a sponsor!) who scored his first WRC point in 2 years of trying by finishing 8th. Matthew Wilson came in 7th showing that stobart probably should have nominated him for points instead of the inexperienced Aava, Ogier had managed to recover to finish 6th but was clearly uncomfortable in the powerful C4 after dominating the JWRC in the much less powerful C2. 5th was Atikinson who had done a great job to recover from his accident, and scored useful points for the Citroen Juniors, whilst in 4th was Henning Solberg. Hirvonen had a torrid time on his least favoured surface and came in 3rd, leaving the top two spots to the Citroens. With Loeb taking yet another win.
As we'd all expected anyway.
The circus moved on to the frozen north land of Norway. The only snow rally on the calendar replacing Sweden on the rotation plan. You can positively rely upon the Scandinavian drivers to put on a good show with their mastery of the ice, and they didn't disappoint. But, they didn't win either. Maybe it was the wider, less grippy snow tyres (still complete with 450 tungsten tipped studs), Maybe it was their cars, Maybe they made too much use of the snow banks? Who knows?
Back for his home event with his winning charm, smile, and insanity, was old favourite Petter Solberg, who had bought an old Citroen and was looking forward to putting on a show (which he did, winning the superspecial and indulging in some out of the car antics again), and another pair of Norweigans returned with Subaru Imprezas with partial support from Prodrive in Banbury, The aptly named Mads Østberg took the leading car of the newly formed Adapta team. He just missed out on the points. Ogier also didn't like the ice and finished 10th, and neither citroen Junior driver finished – Novikov ended his rally in a ditch, and Rautenbach wasn't much better.
8th for Stobart was Aava, 7th was Wilson (who had not been nominated for points in favour of the other two drivers), 6th was the Resurgant Petter Solberg, 5th was Dani Sordo, who really dislikes snow, 4th was Henning Solberg, who loves it, 3rd was Jari-Matti Latvala, and 2nd was Hirvonen. To everyone's surprise, the winner was...
Sebastien Loeb. Again.
Journeying south, to the heat of Cyprus. The notorious car breaker was back again this year. Cypriot gravel is similar to Grecian gravel and falls into the category of “extrmely rough”. Some of the stones in that stuff are as big as bricks! There's huge jumps, it's very dusty, and there are big drops waiting to swallow the unwary. No pressure then.
Khalid Al Qassimi decided that he'd like some more points, and came in 8th to gain another one to add to his collection. Already this was turning out to be the arabian's best year. 7th was Munchi's driver Federico Villagra. Ah, Munchi's! Forgot about them. The Argentina are back with Villagra and Henning Solberg. The heat and dust was too much for Henning as he went off, and finished 18th ultimately. 6th place went to Conrad Rautenbach, who had done something right for a change, and Matthew Wilson brought home 5th place for Stobart. 4th was the usually tarmac perfering Dani Sordo. Then the results got interesting. 3Rd, in only his 2nd event in the Xsara was Petter Solberg. His talent apparently undiminished from several years driving uncompetitive Subarus. There was a large party in his service area later on. 2nd was Hirvonen.
And Sebastien Loeb won.
Moving on to Portugal, another classic event that had returned this year. It's hot, it's dusty, but smoother than Cyprus. There are still huge drops though – one of them disposed of Jari-Matti Latvala, who slid his Ford into a barrier, somersaulted over it, and rolled down a cliff! He and Mikko Antilla were ok, but the car is quite possibly what you just drank your beer out of. Malcolm Wilson, the team boss was not happy about this latest accident, and questions asked about Latvalas future career.
Al Qassimi was making a habit of picking up single points in his Ford with another 8th placed finish, Villagra finished 7th again, Mad Østberg went better in Portugal than he did in his native Norway with 6th, Henning Solberg took home 5th place after his disappointment in Cyprus, 4th went to his Brother who was still learning how to strangle the best out of his upgraded Xsara, Sordo took an unexpected 3rd place, Mikko Hirvonen took a totally expected 2nd and the 1st place went to the driver you've probably expected all along.
Yes, Loeb. Who else!?
Across the big pond, to Argentina. This is a high altitude, high speed event, with ludicrously enthusiastic spectators, and long distances.
8th place went to someone totally unexpected. Nasser Al-Attiyah. He wasn't driving a WRC car, not even a S2000 – he had a Group N car, and had kept out of trouble to get him to 8th place – a feat helped by 3 retirements from the WRC runners. Petter Solberg retired with technical problems, and Rautenbach and Hirvonen both failed to finish. The rest of the top 8 were all Team point scorers, Ogier came in 7th, Latvala was relieved to finish for once in 6th, 5th went to Wilson, Villagra did very well at his home event in 4th, but Henning Solberg went one better and finished 3rd. 2nd was Sordo, and if you really have to ask who was 1st then you haven't been paying attention.
Well pay more attention then. Loeb of course!
Tomorrow : Season so far, part 2