Yes, this is what success looks like…

Well it’s not often that a burnt-out car can be viewed as a symbol of success, unless you happen to be a rioter, but this husk of an ex-Loeb Citroën C4 WRC marks the rise of Robert Kubica’s international motor sport career like a phoenix from the flames (did you see what I did there?)

The absurdly talented Pole, still plagued with the legacy of injuries he suffered at the start 2011, took a whopping 80+ second lead from Freddy Loix’s Peugeot 307 WRC on the opening day of the Rallye du Var and built to a colossal 5 minute advantage of the the field before it all went a bit wrong. The result of Kubica’s prang was a written-off car with no damage to driver or co-driver – but a huge success in terms of how his skills and his comeback are being viewed at the top level of the sport.

Bravo, Robert – you deserve all the praise indeed.

Kubica wins in Como

Former Sauber and Renault Formula One driver Robert Kubica and co-driver Emmanuele Inglesi took victory on the 31st Rally di Como this weekend. As he continues his recovery from the dreadful injuries received at the start of 2011, Kubica set out on the event in a works-prepared Citroën C4 WRC. This was the Pole’s third rally win in as many months, having graduated from a 2007 Subaru Impreza. He’s back out again on the Rallye du Var next weekend… traditionally the best test for drivers wanting to take part in Monte Carlo.

Citroën gets its ducks in a row

The shape of next year’s Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team is expected to be announced in Paris tomorrow, with the Cantabrian press jumping the gun to suggest that, after weeks of feverish negotiation, Dani Sordo will rejoin the Citroën squad with whom he has spent the majority of his top flight career.

Sordo rose through the ranks in Citroën machinery, and joined the marque’s ‘privateer’ entry in the 2006 WRC alongside Sébastien Loeb, when Citroën Sport farmed out its title-winning Xsaras to the Kronos team in order to develop the incoming C4 WRC model. The young Spaniard remained as part of the Citroën setup until the end of 2010, when he was pushed out in favour of the team’s French prodigy, Sébastien Ogier.

Sordo claimed an IRC victory in Corsica with MINI S2000

Since then Sordo has been the de facto leader of Prodrive’s MINI WRC programme. A frustrating two years have ensued for the Cantabrian, who was known to be pushing for a campaign of at least 11 of next year’s 13 events as a prerequisite of signing any new contract after spending a good deal of time watching from the sidelines with MINI.

Earlier this year, Sordo deputised for the injured Jari-Matti Latvala in the works Ford squad and contested the Rally Argentina. Prodrive stated that it was keen to build its 2013 plans around him, while Volkswagen has also said that it was keen to bring Sordo in alongside Ogier and Latvala in a megabucks ‘superteam’.

It is expected that the new-look Citroën team for 2013, with funding from Abu Dhabi, will now feature both this year’s WRC runner-up Mikko Hirvonen and Sordo at all rounds of the 2013 WRC season. Its third car will be shared by nine-time WRC champion Loeb and former Ford WRC driver Khalid Al Qassimi, who is also chairman of the team’s new investor, Abu Dhabi Racing.

Abu Dhabi and Al Qassimi move to Citroën in 2013

The partnership of Hirvonen and Sordo would give Citroën strength in depth. Hirvonen is a strong performer on gravel, where he has won all of his 14 WRC events so far. Sordo has yet to take a victory at the top level of the sport, but when the series hits paved roads in 2013 he will never have enjoyed a better chance.

This combination is likely to prove string in the manufacturers’ battle for 2013, as Volkswagen is relying upon the gravel rally pace of its lead pairing of Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala has spent considerable time and resource on getting up towards the asphalt rally speed of drivers born and raised in continental Europe, and battles between him and Sordo could well become a clincher in the 2013 manufacturers’ standings.

All this means that Britain’s former IRC champion, Kris Meeke, appears to be out of the running despite his impressive test for the team. It also means that Norwegian ace Mads Østberg, who is rumoured to have been chasing the Citroën berth with his not-inconsiderable budget, is likely to remain at the wheel of a Ford next season – whether with his own Adapta team or on the books of the Qatar-funded M-Sport effort.

Thierry Neuville may have to step back to Peugeot

Citroën has also had young Belgian driver Thierry Neuville on its books as a junior in 2011-12. At this moment in time his position remains unclear, although with strong backing from Citroën’s PSA sister Peugeot, he might be mollified with leading the charge for WRC2 glory in its new 208 R5.

Full analysis will follow tomorrow’s announcement…

Kubica to compete ‘full-time’ in 2013

Polish star of race track and rally stage, Robert Kubica, claims that he is ready for a return to full-time competition following the disastrous accident he suffered on the Ronde di Andora in February 2011, when his Škoda Fabia S2000 struck the end of a guard rail. The accident resulted in partial amputation of his forearm, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as significant loss of blood which has required long and painful rehabilitation from the moment that his life was out of danger.

Kubica’s passion for rallying left him brutally injured in 2011

Throughout that time, Kubica’s employers at the Lotus F1 Team have kept his seat available ready for his return. Kubica’s revocery has been protracted, and suffered setbacks including slipping on ice in the street and falling last winter, aggravating his injuries. Nevertheless, the man himself is confident and in September this year he made a return to competition by winning the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana at the wheel of a Subaru Impreza WRC.

After surviving a crash on the San Martino di Castrozza Rally without further injury, Kubica won again in last month’s Rally Citta di Bassano, and stated at the time that he would be ready to attempt a full season in competition through 2013. This week, Kubica announced that he will be contesting one more Italian event, the Rally di Como on 15-17 November, and will then head to France for the Rallye du Var a week later. In both of these events he will be entered by Citroën Racing in a 2010-specification C4 WRC.

Happy days are here again as Kubica’s recovery continues

Lotus has meanwhile soldiered on in Kubica’s absence: a miserable 2011 season led to the signing of 2007 F1 world champion and latterly WRC contestant Kimi Räikkönen on a one-year deal for 2012, delivering his best year’s racing in almost a decade. Kimi has re-signed for Lotus in 2013, while the second driver – Franco-Swiss hotshoe Sébastien Grosjean – has alternately shone and infuriated the team and the F1 paddock as a whole.

Grosjean’s position in the team is in the balance despite the patronage of team principal Eric Boullier, and it may well be that the team is seeking to honour its commitment to Kubica if he proves himself strong enough to cope with the g-forces entailed in hustling an F1 car about the place. If not for a full season, then for as many races as is prudent with an eye to supporting a title bid for Räikkönen and scoring constructors’ points, with Grosjean being offered a deal to drive whenever Kubica is unable to do so.

“At the moment I’m working on the possibility of a full season of starts in 2013 to the highest possible level,” Kubica recently said to Autosport.cz.

Räikkönen returned from WRC to win for Lotus F1

Interestingly he has also stated to Italian magazine Autosprint that he envisages the year ahead being split between circuit his two beloved disciplines: ‘I think of my future I see it 70 per cent on track and 30 per cent in rallying,’ he said.

With a pair of part-time drives available at the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team next year, Kubica’s 30 per cent season of rallying might well tie in nicely with the vacant seat in Khalid Al Qassimi’s DS3 WRC. The Rallye du Var is for many teams the ideal test session for January’s Monte Carlo Rally, in which Kubica could take part and get used to the hubbub of media attention before trying his hand at the wheel of a Formula One machine once again.

For one of the sport’s good guys, we can only hope that 2013 marks an enjoyable new beginning.

A dozen years in the making… Loeb’s astonishing success

So he’s done it. With the 75th WRC victory of his astonishing career, Sébastien Loeb has ensured his ninth consecutive drivers’ championship – with Daniel Elena taking the honours as co-driver for the ninth time and Citroën taking its eighth manufacturers’ crown.

This is not news, of course.

We had all been expecting this result, and once the rally proper got underway on Saturday morning, Loeb did what was needed and built towards the magic 30-second cushion. At the halfway point this was done – not even Colin McRae at his feistiest ever thought that a 30s gap was surmountable if both cars were running well.

The 2012 Rallye de France-Alsace became yet another tour-de-force and thereafter the hyperbole began to spout – as did the detractors who claim that Loeb can’t be compared to (insert the name of your preferred 1970s-1990s icon here) because of the lack of competition in the sport during his reign.

Well… yes and no.

The WRC has crumbled during Loeb’s reign, with only Ford offering any meaningful resistance at all from 2006. But let us not forget that in his early years, Loeb was thrown into the lion’s den.

Astonishing pace defeated all the big names – if not the rules! – on 2002 Monte

The biggest and most successful names of the previous generation may have been getting long in the tooth but the likes of Sainz, McRae, Burns, Makinen, Grönholm, Delecour, Auriol and Panizzi were all very much active when the ‘boy wonder’ appeared in their midst. Loeb even had both Sainz and McRae as team-mates in 2003 and outpaced them both.

Those who say that the WRC became boring in the Loeb/Citroën era also have a point, although that is no fault of the competitors. From the high water mark of seven manufacturers doing battle in 1999-2000 it fell to six in 2001, five in 2004, three in 2006 and two in 2009.

There are also many who decry the metronomic precision with which Loeb and Elena applied themselves to the job – that a scientific, calculated approach is an anathema to going sideways through forests at 100mph. Well, yes, but the thing is that inspirational drivers seldom achieve as much as they should.

2006 title secured with privateer Kronos effort – and a broken arm!

In F1 Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve and Jean Alesi won hearts but seldom races and never titles. In rallying Markku Alén never won a pukka world championship and neither did Henri Toivonen. Colin McRae was too inconsistent too repeat his 1995 title despite all the efforts of first Subaru and then Ford.

Pace is one thing, but control is quite another.

Being able to drive within the limits of yourself and your car and still be so far ahead of rivals of the calibre of, say, Marcus Grönholm in the course of season after season, on snow, asphalt and gravel and all the many permutations of the WRC calendar… that is undeniably special.

Four titles came at the wheel of the Citroën C4 WRC

That is why WRF joins the salute to our record-breaking world champion as he seals what might just be his last WRC title. We hope not, because we’re a bit anally retentive and 10 titles is a much better number to retire with than nine.

Perhaps that’s how Seb is going to make it more of a challenge next year – he won the title in 2006 despite missing the last four rounds, so why not skip a few more and still clean up on awards night? After all, when you look at what Loeb has achieved – and Elena and Citroën – it goes far beyond any rational argument to say that it can’t happen.

Loeb holds records for the most championships, rally wins, stage wins, podium finishes and points in WRC history – records of towering achievement that it will take almost a decade for a similarly-accomplished driver to match. To do so would mean the sort of skill that has delivered only 25 retirements from 162 starts, and aside from Loeb, that’s a statistic nobody has achieved.

When you look at it that way, you can only wonder where the likes of Mikko Hirvonen, Petter Solberg and Jari-Matti Latvala have even found the willpower to turn up and offer any sort of resistance over the past few years. They were in the best place to know that, when it comes to Loeb, resistance is futile.

Leaping into the history books in 2012

Félicitations, champion des champions – et bonne chance à l’avenir.