Monte Part 4: Happy Seb, Angry Seb

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“I don’t care about him. You need to get that into your minds!”

So said Volkswagen team leader Sébastien Ogier at the end of today’s running. He was of course referring to questions about Sébastien Loeb, Citroën’s nine time world champion, who added a further 14 seconds to his lead over Ogier and thereby took his advantage to more than a minute and a half.

There is no love lost between the two Frenchmen, who endured a tumultuous season together at Citroën in 2011, and for Ogier it is clear that finding himself on the receiving end of such a whooping is unpleasant.

Loeb, meanwhile, is completely at ease. He is only taking part in four out of 13 events this year, not in contention for the title and as such just having fun. The icing on the cake, of course, is in taking the sheen off Volkswagen’s long-trumpeted WRC debut and providing a salutary reminder to Ogier just who is the faster Sébastien.

With the two Sébastiens monopolising the top of the timesheets, third place and title of the fastest non-Sébastien is currently in the hands of Citroën’s other asphalt ace, Dani Sordo. The Spaniard is locked in a riveting battle with the young Russian Evgeny Novikov, who was the fastest man on two of today’s stages, at the wheel of his M-Sport Fiesta WRC.

Next up are Finland’s former works Ford team-mates: Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala. Hirvonen is the Citroën team leader for 2013 but the Monte has never been his best event. He started today in third place and ended in a subdued fifth, while his countryman Latvala has had to climb from the bottom of the top 10 while struggling for confidence in the second Volkswagen.

A much happier Finn was seventh placed Juho Hänninen, making the first of two scheduled appearances at the wheel of his M-Sport Fiesta. The 2011 IRC champion started brightly yesterday but went for a more conservative approach to drop down the order. Today he found a much better balance and put himself in with a shout of a good finish.

In Hänninen’s wake is the Citroën of 2011 Monte winner Bryan Bouffier. Behind Bouffier is the M-Sport team leader Mads Østberg with a huge lead over the Fiesta of Czech perennial Martin Prokop, who rounds out the top 10. The WRC2 is now firmly Sepp Wiegand’s to lose after the Škoda star won six of the day’s stages. WRC3 for two-wheel-drive cars remains in the hands of Sébastien Chardonnet in his Citroën DS3.

There’s still a long way to go…

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Monte Part 2: Loeb redefines ‘country mile’

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Sébastien Loeb doesn’t have all that many records left to chase in the annals of the WRC – so why not have a crack at the biggest-ever margin of victory? So far so good.

After four stages on the opening day, his Citroën DS3 WRC holds an advantage of 1m 20s over the Volkswagen Polo R WRC of Sébastien Ogier. Or thereabouts… unfortunately the new timing company managed to get its knickers in a knot on SS3, resulting in teams having to mark their own cards temporarily until normal service was resumed.

When the official timing was restored for the fourth stage it showed that Loeb was fully 34 seconds faster than anyone else through the 30km Burzet test. Feel free to emit an appreciative whistle at this point!

A further boost to Citroën on this, its first day in action against the €100 million colossus from Germany, came in the form of its de facto team leader, Mikko Hirvonen – who climbed from seventh to third at the overnight halt. Behind him sits the third works Citroën of Dani Sordo, who has more than half a minute in hand over the second VW of Jari-Matti Latvala.

Fastest of the quartet of Qatar-backed M-Sport Ford Fiestas was Evgeny Novikov’s example, who has climbed to sixth place ahead of the works-supported Citroën of Bryan Bouffier. This battle for sixth is now a three-way affair with the second ‘works’ Fiesta of Juho Hänninen also in the hunt. The Finn was in particularly impressive form early in the day, but closed out the fourth stage by berating himself for opting to drive more conservatively through the afternoon and thereby losing ground.

The top 10 is completed by M-Sport’s 2013 team leader Mads Østberg in ninth and the Czech team Fiesta of Martin Prokop in tenth, almost two and a half minutes off Østberg’s pace. Meanwhile the first casualty among the 13 WRC starters came in the form of the final ‘works’ Fiesta of Thierry Neuville, who went off on the final stage of the day.

Further back, WRC2 is headed by the Škoda Fabia S2000 of Sepp Wiegand and the 2WD classes of WRC3 by the Citroën DS3 R3T of Renaud Poutot.

Monte Part 1: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back

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You might remember that, a couple of months back, Sébastien Loeb made an emotional farewell to the WRC at the end of his ninth straight title-winning campaign. If you hadn’t been paying much attention, therefore, one could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about when the new season starts and there’s a very familiar name at the top of the leaderboard.

Yes, you guessed it: Loeb leads the Monte Carlo Rally in the first of his four ‘farewell’ outings with Citroën this year.

The old master hasn’t had it all his own way, though. His former team-mate Sébastien Ogier set the pace to start with, showing that the new Volkswagen squad really did get its sums right and has started its debut WRC campaign as it means to go on. But then Loeb went fully 10 seconds faster through the next stage and now holds an advantage of almost seven seconds at the first halt.

With Ogier in second place, third spot is held by the second Citroën of Dani Sordo. The asphalt expert is more than half a minute in arrears of Ogier, however, and he in turn has the Ford Fiesta of M-Sport’s Juho Hänninen breathing down his neck. This is seriously good news for Hänninen, the 2010 Intercontinental Rally Challenge winner, who only has a deal to contest two events with M-Sport at present. Nevertheless it is the Finn who leads the four-car M-Sport entry from his team-mate, Thierry Neuville, holding fourth.

Meanwhile M-Sport’s leading drivers for this year have yet to find their feet in the Alpes Maritimes. Team leader Mads Østberg is seventh, just 0.4 seconds ahead of Evgeny Novikov in the sister car. Between them and the faster Fiestas of Hänninen and Neuville are Citroën’s season-long team leader Mikko Hirvonen, who is running in close company with the works-supported Citroën of 2011 Monte winner, Bryan Bouffier as they hold sixth and seventh respectively.

Jari-Matti Latvala has meanwhile been struggling in the second Volkswagen Polo. The Finn incurred a time penalty for being late arriving at SS2 and has not yet found great pace. He holds ninth ahead of the Czech National Team Fiesta WRC of Martin Prokop.

Elsewhere, the WRC2 is led by Olivier Burri’s Peugeot 207 S2000 from the Škoda Fabia S2000 of Sepp Wiegand. Most of the retirements so far have hit in this class, including that of Italy’s Luca Betti in his Peugeot.

Happy New Year, WRC fans

Plenty to happen in the next fortnight - then Monte is 'go!'

Plenty to happen in the next fortnight – then Monte is ‘go!’

We’ve got a fortnight until the WRC bursts back to life. In that time, big things will happen:

  • Red Bull, Sportsman and the FIA must get on the same page regarding the WRC’s promotion and TV coverage.
  • Nasser Al-Attiyah will be in the thick of the action on the Dakar.
  • The all-new FIA European Rally championship will kick off in the snow of Austria.

In the meantime the entry list for Monte Carlo is rather promising, with Citroën fielding Sébastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo with support for Bryan Bouffier in a fourth DS3 WRC. Volkswagen has its new Polos ready for Sébastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala. M-Sport has two teams and four Fiestas for Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov (running DMACK tyres), Juho Hänninen and Thierry Neuville.

The remaining WRC entries are for Martin Prokop’s Czech Fiesta, another Fiesta for Julien Maurin and a lone MINI WRC entered by Lotos for Poland’s former JWRC contender Michal Kościuszko.

In the first ever WRC2 class, there’s a works Škoda Fabia for Esapekka Lappi with a sister car entered by Škoda Deutschland for Sepp Wiegand. Leading the competition against the Czech cars will be Italy’s Luca Betti in his Peugeot 207 S2000. Four more S2000s (three Peugeots and another Fabia) will also take the start, as will a phalanx of Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X and Subaru Impreza WRXs, including a new-build R4 car for Ireland’s Eamonn Boland.

In the WRC3 classes a total of eight Citroën DS3 R3Ts will meet the challenge of a single Peugeot 208 R3T, six Renault Clio R3s will take on a lone Honda Civic R3, R2 is populated with Citroën C2s, Peugeot 208s and Ford Fiestas, there are five Suzuki Swifts, a pair of Citroën DS3 R1s, a Renault Twingo R1 and a smattering of Monte Carlo ‘randoms’ – including Czech driver Martin Rada in an Alfa Romeo 147!

Plenty to look forward to there…

Citroën confirms Sordo

As predicted yesterday, the soon-to-be-renamed Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team has confirmed that Dani Sordo will join its squad in 2013, returning to the French brand with which he made his full-time debut in 2006 and drove with for five seasons until he was pushed out in favour of Sébastien Ogier at the end of 2010.

A lot of cobblers is now being talked about Sordo being the best man for the job. He isn’t. The Spaniard is a splendid fellow but he is an asphalt specialist in a series which, in 2013, has very few asphalt events scheduled.

The confusing thing is that Sébastien Loeb is also expected to be in the squad for the asphalt events on the calendar… and he is significantly faster than Sordo on paved roads. The only comfort must be that one or other driver will score valuable manufacturers’ points in Germany, France, Spain and Monte Carlo when the de facto team leader and loose surface specialist Mikko Hirvonen will struggle.

Nevertheless, in Mexico and Argentina it is sure that Citroën, Total and Abu Dhabi will reap a huge PR reward from having a driver in the squad who can speak in the native tongue. Spain might not have any money in its economy but Latin America does, so you can be sure that Sordo will be working hard.

It’s hard to put a value on these things, but if you want to know the value of the Citroën seat to a driver who can go fast on both gravel and asphalt, just ask Kris Meeke or Mads Østberg…

40th WRC Season Review Pt.2 – The Teams

The bald facts are that the 2012 season gave Citroën Racing the chance to continue a 100% record in the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in this, the 1.6-litre era of the WRC. Through the course of the season it seized that chance with both hands.

The DS3 WRC is a fine little car, one blessed with chuckable handling which Loeb professes to enjoy far more than the bigger C4s and Xsaras of his early years of dominance. In 2012 nothing really failed to perform to title-winning standards, with two notable exceptions.

The team messed up sufficiently to get Hirvonen excluded from victory in Portugal, which was a blip. Secondly,and of longer-term concern, is that Hirvonen himself has not yet shown that he can pick up where Loeb leaves off. Nevertheless, in 2012, Hirvonen’s consistency was a blessing for the team – particularly in ensuring that fabulous string of consecutive 1-2 results at the mid-point of the year, which smothered any hopes that those in the Ford camp may have harboured.

The Citroën squad was further bolstered by a Junior Team entry for Belgian driver Thierry Neuville and by the Qatar World Rally Team entry of Nasser Al-Attiyah. This was intended to be a precursor to deeper ties between Citroën and Qatar in 2013, but instead the French marque has allied itself with Abu Dhabi, causing Nasser to abandon his campaign early.

Of course the might of the French squad’s claim to both drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles was greatly assisted by the number of times that Ford drivers dropped the ball, lost the ball or left the ball on the dressing table at home when rushing to get to the airport. For the Ford World Rally Team, 2012 would prove to be its last – and despite the firm’s financial troubles, the responsibility for losing the iconic Blue Oval from the WRC must be shouldered by the men of the M-Sport team.

Bringing Petter Solberg in to partner Jari-Matti Latvala in the works squad looked like a good move. Solberg was the only other world champion still active in the sport, the fans love him and he signed on in the knowledge that his primary role was in giving support to the younger man. The early season problem was that, all too often, the younger man had already gone out on the first day, making the supporting role redundant. Later on in the season, the pair seemed to be in competition for the most retirements.

Ford boys got themselves in a knot throughout 2012

With Loeb leading from the front all season long, neither of the Ford drivers made a convincing case that they were competing to win a single round of the 2012 WRC. In truth they only ever looked likely to get an each-way result – and even that was on the proviso that they could refrain from going off the road, which they very often did.

Latvala crashed out of three from the first four rallies of the year, before missing the fifth with a broken collarbone. Solberg took a conservative route to third on the Monte, got told to speed up, and then he too started crashing and collecting damage more regularly.

Some have speculated that the Fiesta is a very, very hard car to drive on the limit and much less forgiving than the Citroën DS3. For his part, Latvala claimed with characteristic candour that he put himself under too much pressure to stay on Loeb’s pace when clearly he wasn’t up to it, and thus took himself out of contention by going past his own limits.

Either way, Ford was on a hiding to nothing with its works team – and so too were the majority of its privateers.

The fastest non-works car was almost always Mads Østberg’s Fiesta, tended by the Adapta squad. Mads was there to pick up the pieces when the works cars hit trouble, and when Hirvonen was penalised in Portugal he was handed victory on a plate. This M-Sport supported effort delivered the reliability it needed to and got its driver out of any mechanical issues with commendable skill. The point must soon come, however, when its star man will have to move on or go backwards.

Østberg was a solid performer and his victory was a Ford highlight

M-Sport had another busy year. The Ford ‘B-team’ took on a new look at the start of the season, with the arrival of Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov and the equally youthful Estonian driver Ott Tänak, after several seasons of fielding M-Sport team boss Malcolm Wilson’s son Matthew and Petter Solberg’s brother Henning.

At the start of the year it seemed as though Henning and Matthew would be competing all year in a Ford ‘C-team’ under the Go-Fast Energy Drink banner, but this fizzled out after Sweden. Instead, M-Sport gave Novikov a forum to show that his talent is beginning to draw level with his wallet, while on the other hand the much-touted Tänak appeared to suffer a crisis of confidence in the second M-Sport car.

Novikov took the lead within the M-Sport setup

 

A fourth Ford effort was pieced together by M-Sport under the Monster World Rally Team colours as a means of getting three more rallies out of the viral movie stunt driver, Ken Block. Quite why they bothered is a mystery, as Block once again showed that there is a world of difference between going sideways around an abandoned warehouse for an Internet film and successfully completing a WRC event. A second car was entered for Chris Atkinson in Mexico.

The other regular Ford runner was the Czech National Team, built around the hard-trying talents of Martin Prokop. It did a decent job, then lost its car in a fire on the Rallye Deutschland and was forced by fiscal prudence – there can be no other explanation – to switch to DMACK tyres. One suspects that, like Wyle E. Coyote, Prokop will keep coming back in the WRC, although success will continue to prove as elusive as pursuing a cartoon Roadrunner.

If Ford was everywhere and nowhere in 2012, BMW had confused everyone with its WRC programme for the MINI. It attempted to bail out of its deal with Prodrive at the start of the season, failed on legal grounds, and so took its works status and granted it to  the Motorsport Italia-run WRC MINI Team Portugal.

MINI will seemingly always be left in the Mini-Cooper’s shade

This fairly inexplicable move by BMW came across as some sort of Bavarian hissyfit – completely bonkers, given that Motorsport Italia was dependent upon Prodrive for development, parts and support. Whether due to the pressure of works status or simply the Mediterranean temperament, the team dropped its lead driver, former PWRC champion Armindo Araújo. It replaced him with Chris Atkinson, who managed to drive all three of the competing cars in one season thanks to stints with Monster (Ford), Qatar (Citroën) and MINI Team Portugal.

The Munich marque has now washed its hands of MINI rally cars and the WRC completely – which is a shame. Prodrive remains in an optimistic mood and is seeking to contest all of next year’s events – although without Dani Sordo, the performances of the succession of rent-a-drivers it placed in the car during 2012 don’t give cause for great optimism.

There ends the WRC team review, but if we’re talking teams and manufacturers then mention must be made of Volkswagen Motorsport.

Ogier flew high in the S2000 Fabia for his Volkswagen team

 

Entering a pair of Škoda Fabia S2000s in the SWRC, the team’s star driver, Sébastien Ogier, truly lived up to his billing. He was flat-out everywhere, refusing to concede ground to the turbocharged WRC cars and running happily in the top eight, often the top six, on virtually every round he entered.

Kevin Abbring made four appearances in the second Volkswagen car and Sepp Wiegand made a one-off run, but for the majority of the time Ogier was paired with Škoda’s double IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen, who earned a pass to the WRC squad for next year with an impressive season. The SWRC campaign was a signal of intent from the German giant – and a deeply impressive performance on its own merits.

Coming up in Pt.3 we have the story of the support classes: PWRC and SWRC.

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…