Many FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) punters had figured Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Volkswagen Motorsport) to claim victory in this past weekend’s Rally Argentina. However, 172 days after his previous gravel rally victory, it was Frenchman Sebastien Loeb and Monegasque co-driver Daniel Elena (Citroën TOTAL Abu Dhabi World Rally Team) who trumped all to record their eighth victory on South American soil for what is most likely their last-ever gravel event in the WRC…
It is not simply that Loeb defeated an all-firing, all-confident Ogier who was looking for his fourth-straight win in 2013, but it was the manner in which Loeb did so. In his trademark cool and collected fashion, with only one mishap of running wide into a fast corner, Loeb was able stick within 20sec of the younger Seb, and this scribe believes it was the mounting mental pressure from Loeb on Ogier’s shoulders that led to an error that cost Ogier 40sec and the rally lead. Loeb’s then lead over Ogier was not so comfortable as to rule out any attacks from the Volkswagen driver, instead Loeb was able to charge to the finish on Sunday afternoon somewhat unfazed with a 55sec cushion over his rival. In fact, Citroën team-mate Mikko Hirvonen was proving to be so aggressive on the event he too was in with a very real chance at claiming his first win in 2013, but his DS3 WRC succumbed first to a puncture then an electrical bug that cost him over six minutes. It would have been a very intriguing battle had Ogier and Hirvonen not suffered any ill fortune, but this scribe still believes the overall winner would be not different to the one grabbing this article’s headline.
Any doubts about Loeb having lost any of his ability on the gravel or of being too rusty to challenge Ogier, Hirvonen et al this past weekend evaporated after Day One. Loeb was in fine form, and ready for a challenge from any corner. This victory was Loeb’s 78th career WRC win, and most probably his final gravel rally victory…
“It’s great emotion to win here,” said Loeb. “It was a tough rally with complicated stages, but there was a great atmosphere and it was great to feel that all weekend. After so many months since my last gravel rally it was difficult to find the feeling in the first stage and to get the car working for me, but it was the perfect drive.”
Ogier was leading the event by 40sec when his handbrake malfunctioned and caused him to slip off the road. After winning five of the opening day’s six special stages, and carrying that momentum with him to enjoy a 17sec cushion over the nine-times World Rally Champion, it took little to see this error capitalized on by Loeb. He hit the front and extended that lead over a stressed Ogier, and there was nothing that Seb 2.0 or hard-charging team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala (Volkswagen Motorsport) could do about it.
Below Loeb and Ogier on the leader board should have read the names Mads Ostberg, Dani Sordo and Mikko Hirvonen (in no particular order). We’ll get to that next, but first we welcome Jari-Matti Latvala back to the WRC podium with his third place for Volkswagen Motorsport. Latvala enjoyed a strong outing, and thrived on a battle with Evgeny Novikov (Qatar M-Sport Rally Team). The Finn and Russian put on a good show for the tens of thousands of fans that lined the stages, and Latvala was long overdue on scoring a podium. Novikov, however, shone in his new found pace in Argentina. Another great drive from this driver in 2013.
Thierry Neuville finished fifth in the second Qatar Ford Fiesta RS WRC, outpacing the ever-consistent Citroën DS3 WRC of Mikko Hirvonen in the very last stage to claim the position. As started earlier, Hirvonen should have been on the podium were it not for the unfortunate electrical gremlin. Mads Ostberg (Qatar M-Sport Rally Team) posed a threat to the established top order early on in the event, but after damaging his car’s steering and driveshaft on the opening day he was merely left to rue a weekend of “What If…”
Dani Sordo rolled his DS3 WRC on Day One, and that poor car was never the same after that. He suffered with various problems throughout the event, and did well to bring it to the finish behind Volkswagen Motorsport’s blue-eyed boy Andreas Mikkelsen in eighth. Martin Prokop and his Jipocar Czech National Rally Team Ford Fiesta RS WRC, affectionately nicknamed Fiona, claimed the final top ten position after he too survived a roll on Day One and dragged his car through the stages. The Czech driver is improving steadily on each successive round of the season completed, and his progress is interesting to follow.
The WRC Rally Argentina, with its high-speed and dramatic action unfortunately paled into the background this week, as revelations from the FIA and the WRC promoter Red Bull Media House/Sportsman Media Group were published by Autosport (and you can read the article here: http://bit.ly/12ZEQ3x).
One suggestion tabled was to transform the Power Stage into a position-deciding shoot-out.
It has upset many WRC and rally fans, and left even the wider motorsport fans and insiders baffled. To undertake such far-reaching changes, and in effect to strip away the essence of what a special stage rally is, to make it more marketable for certain TV broadcasters is simply ludicrous. Of course, HANDBRAKES & HAIRPINS are not objective in their approaches to this, as are all who read this eMagazine: we are passionate about our favourite sport. But, why would a promoter sign on to promote the sport and then make an abrupt U-turn after five events to call for far-reaching changes to the sport’s formula? And, these are only some of the hundreds of questions posed on Social Media platforms in the days running up to this article’s publication. After analyzing journalist David Evans’ written words, those insiders closer to the sport’s inner circle, and even those far-removed from any rally stage, it is clear to see that no one is particularly happy with the current state of WRC; all fans want to see the sport as cherished and valued as its FIA stablemate Formula One.
All we can hope for is that sanity prevails and logic returns to those in charge of plotting the future of this sport on 24 May when they sit to discuss this matter. If it is relevance the broadcaster and couch-fans are seeking, it should be an exercise in Public Relations to re-address the sport’s current viewership and market. The Power Stage should be left untouched, in our opinion. It is a healthy added boost in the arm for Championship fights and it adds more excitement. The WRC Promoter Oliver Cesl has opened a can of worms, and it is probably not a bad thing to do. But, such ludicrous ideas should be left unsaid. What of market research? Such studies into the habits of motorsport fans and average households will return more insight into the direction of the PR of the sport than any discussion by the Powers That Be at this moment.
One weapon in the arsenal of rallying is its visual impact. The Intercontinental Rally Challenge series had this down to a fine art with its multiple stages broadcast live on TVs across Europe (and online streaming too), proving the mass appeal of motorsport and rallying. This is but one area that can be addressed, without the need to rewrite the fundamental characteristics of what constitutes special stage rallying.