What happened last week… ERC in Latvia

Jari Ketomaa

The second round of the 2013 FIA European Rally Championship – what used to be the Intercontinental Rally Challenge – brought Latvia to the top table of host nations in the sport. The second successive snowbound event of the year saw a less dramatic result than in Austria, but once again showed that there is a cracking season of rallying to be enjoyed here.

The Rally Liepāja-Ventspils was won by rising Finnish talent Jari Ketomaa in a Fiesta RRC, aided by the turbo car’s grunt against the awe-inspiring commitment of his closest pursuer Craig Breen and the enormous experience of François Delecour, who finished second and third respectively in their Peugeot 207 S2000s.

With opening round winners Jan Kopeçky and the Škoda team absent from Latvia, Ketomaa takes a slender lead in the title race. Banking the points ensures that Delecour is in the hunt, while Breen is no doubt looking forward to getting his hands on Peugeot’s new turbocharged 208 R5 as the limitations of the 207 S2000 – one of the most successful cars of the last decade – become increasingly obvious.

After all the snow of the opening rounds, the next event is the asphalt-based Corta Ingles, which takes place in the Canary Islands on 21-23 March. WRF cannot wait!

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Craig Breen speaks Franglais!

breenpug

You know those things that they call mash-ups – like when the curiously-attired Brazilian fiftysomething Wagner spent week after week shouting to the tune of ‘Love Shack’ and ‘She Bangs’ at the same time on X-Factor? Well the craze has apparently crossed over to rally PR.

Peugeot has issued some seriously interesting news and mashed it up with one of the most preposterous ‘quotes’ ever to grace a press release. The news is that hugely talented young Irishman, Craig Breen, will be driving very fast in a Peugeot 208 R5 on this year’s FIA European Rally Championship. The WRC’s 2012 champion in S2000 and 2011 FIA Academy winner is a major star in the making, and his eight rounds on the ERC will be spent developing the 208 R5 – no doubt with the accumulation of silverware also following in due course.

This news was twinned an alleged quote from Breen that was clearly written by a French PR person in their very best English. It’s endearingly awful. In fact they’ve become our new favourite PR person in the world. Here’s what they imagined Craig’s response to the Peugeot call-up to be:

“This is incredible and beyond my dreams. I am really excited to work with a manufacturer like Peugeot Sport, I think of it since I was a young boy. To arrive here in front of a nice season is a good position to be in. My objective is to show good speed and challenge for some victories on a regular basis. For the testing program, I will give the best I can to support the development of the 208 Type R5.

As the ERC continues to make inroads into people’s affections this year, the addition of the likeable Breen and a bonkers PR team is another major plus. Meanwhile, here’s Wagner in what we at WRF sincerely hope is a preview of how the rest of Peugeot’s press releases will be put together this year…

Loeb: masterly to the last

Before the start of this, his final event as a full-time WRC driver, Sébastien Loeb joked that ‘maybe one day’ someone would beat him in Spain. The thing is that we knew, just as well as he did, that re-floating the Titanic would be more likely.

And lo it came to pass that the nine-time world champion cruised to his 76th WRC victory little troubled by anyone else’s comings or goings. Day One on gravel with the accompaniment of biblical rainfall might have belonged to the Fiesta of Norway’s Mads Østberg, but Loeb stayed on his shoulder in the Citroën DS3. When Mads threw his car off the road early on the second day, Loeb shimmied through into a lead that never looked in danger from that moment to the rally’s end.

Dani Sordo may have been his usual inspired self on the asphalt stages that followed – but he had crashed out on the opening day, and was just entertaining his home fans. Jari-Matti Latvala pushed as hard as he dared on asphalt in his final performance with the works Ford squad, but second place was all that he could realistically hope for – and he delivered. His result ensured third place in the points standings as Ford quietly exits the WRC and the Finn moves to Volkswagen for 2013.

So many people scuppered themselves from potentially strong performances that Mikko Hirvonen, who trundled through the rally in as inoffensive a manner as he could, managed to ensure that his second Citroën pipped a recovering Østberg to the final step on the podium.

Jarkko Nikara ended up as the best-placed MINI

Almost a quarter of an hour after the big guns were finished, two of the big stars of the 2012 RACC Rally de España completed their event. Finnish young gun Jarkko Nikara had sold his famous green Mintsubishi Lancer Evo IX to pay for a drive in Prodrive’s MINI WRC, and claimed fifth overall. A couple of minutes further back was the SWRC Fiesta S2000 of all-Irish crew Craig Breen and Paul Nagle, delivering an inspired performance to claim class honours and put many of the WRC regulars to shame.

Craig Breen and Paul Nagle did stellar work in the Fiesta S2000

But we’ll leave the final words to the nine-time champion, for whom this weekend marks the end of a record of unbroken achievement that nobody in top-level motor sport – nor indeed any major sporting undertaking – can truly compare with.

“A big thank you to everyone, I’m pleased to finish the season and more or less my rallying career with a win,” an emotional Loeb said on the team radio as he completed his final stage.

“Once again, we had to fight to get the win, as the unpredictable weather didn’t really make our task any easier. We’ll all enjoy this result together. Thank you, thank you for everything we’ve experienced together. This marks the close of one chapter, but we’ve another ahead of us that is about to begin.”

Loeb looms large in Mads’ mirror

Mads Østberg retains the overnight lead in Spain, but he’s got a cushion of just 27.2 seconds over second placed Sébastien Loeb as the Rally de España heads for two days on asphalt roads. Østberg is always impressive on gravel, but he was still at school the last time that Loeb was beaten in Spain.

No pressure then, Mads!

Ostberg shone in the dreadful weather of the opening day

The superstar in his Citroën was content to play a waiting game on the first full day, taking great pains to avoid silly mistakes in a gruesomely wet and treacherous pair of loops which saw several other lead entries slip up. Whenever the going was good, Loeb stepped it up and vaulted up the order from fourth to second but it was clear that he is simply biding his time now in readiness for the coming asphalt action.

Third place overnight is being held by the charging works Ford Fiesta WRC of Jari-Matti Latvala. In his last appearance at the wheel of an M-Sport-prepared car, the Finn put on a decent spurt and remains just 20s shy of Loeb. Latvala’s only desire at this stage in the season is to take on and beat the mighty nine-time champion in order to claim his first asphalt victory, thereby fulfilling one of the biggest aims of his career and to make a suitable parting gift to the M-Sport team.

Just behind the top three are Mikko Hirvonen in the second works Citroën and Ott Tänak’s M-Sport Fiesta. A mighty chasm of almost five minutes follows them, but remarkably sixth place in the running is held by the S2000 Ford Fiesta of Irish youngster Craig Breen.

Craig Breen is the success story of Spain so far

Breen was helped up the order by a time-consuming puncture for Jarkko Nikara in the Prodrive MINI WRC, while S2000 favourite Sébastien Ogier’s Volkswagen-run Skoda Fabia S2000 stopped on the road section before Salou.

Breen therefore holdsthe lead in the SWRC class as well as his sixth spot on the leaderboard, ahead of Hans Weijs Jr in the Qatar Citroen. Nikara is eighth, while SWRC contender PG Andersson is ninth in his Proton Satria Neo, after losing time with a driveshaft breakage in the morning and then an error in the afternoon. The Top 10 is rounded out by Russian driver Evgeny Novikov’s M-SPort Ford Fiesta WRC, which is shod with DMACK tyres for the first time.

And so we move on to the asphalt…

Mads leads a mad Spanish dash

The final round of the 2012 WRC season is well underway, with Norway’s young star Mads Østberg out in front, heading a Ford 1-2 in front of the M-Sport Fiesta of Ott Tänak in a rain-lashed Rally de España. This is much-needed good news for Norway, given that its other two rally heroes – Ford’s Petter Solberg and VW’s Andreas Mikkelsen – both crashed out after hitting the same rock on SS2. They were joined by Citroën’s junior driver, Thierry Neuville, who also fell foul of the intransigent mineral.

Some rueful faces on SS2 following rock intervention…

Staying the course – so far at least – in the wake of the two leading Fiestas come the pair of works Citroën DS3s with Mikko Hirvonen in front of Sébastien Loeb, ahead of early leader Jari-Matti Latvala in the surviving works Ford, who is taking things very steadily indeed.

Less than a minute covers the top five after three stages, with all the drivers finding the conditions extreme and many spins and near-misses reported. In the wake of the surviving big guns, sixth place is held by the oft-overlooked Finn, Jarkko Nikara, in his paid-for run at the wheel of a Prodrive MINI although the second M-Sport Ford of Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov is hard on his heels.

Australia’s Chris Atkinson holds eighth in the ‘works’ MINI followed by the Qatar-backed Citroën DS3 of Dutchman Hans Weijs Jr. The top 10 is rounded out by the all-Irish crew of Craig Breen and co-driver Paul Nagle in their Fiesta S2000, in an impressive performance to stay in front of Sébastien Ogier’s VW-entered Škoda Fabia.