Sweden team-by-team

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Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team

1 Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena – 8/10

A disastrous qualifying stage left Loeb out in the cold in Sweden, and he only got to show his true pace on the final morning. He was able to kick great lumps out of Ogier’s lead but the damage was done. Worryingly for Citroën, the man who is only contesting four events this year was the only one to take any points away from Scandinavia.

2 Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen – 3/10

Disaster begat disaster for Hirvo on an event to forget. The WRC now moves to a string of gravel events, where he knows he has to deliver event wins.

Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team

4 Mads Østberg/Jonas Andersson – 8/10

Not-very-mad-Mads was back again, driving his second event at the head of the M-Sport squad in conservative style. He did enough to be the fastest non-Sébastien on the event, but the hoped-for sparkle was notably absent.

5 Evgeny Novikov/Ilka Minor – 6/10

Novikov had his sensible head on and drove a quiet rally to reach the finish. It’s not what he’s known for, but it keeps the repair bills down a bit.

Qatar World Rally Team

6 Matthew Wilson/Giovanni Bernacchini – 1/10

Last-minute substitution for an indisposed Nasser Al-Attiyah, Matthew wasn’t very fast and then crashed.

11 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul – 7/10

Neuville bounced back from his Monte disappointment to put in a strong performance and to record the longest jump at Colin’s Crest.

15 Juho Hänninen/Tomi Tuominen – 6/10

Officially that’s the end of the road for the former IRC champion… but you can expect to see him back in an M-Sport car before long. Didn’t sparkle as much as many had hoped in the snow, but unless your name is Sébastien not many people did.

Volkswagen Motorsport

7 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Antilla – 7/10

Latvala took a measured approach and delivered a solid finish.  Losing out on the podium to the Mads Østberg in what used to be his team-leading car at M-Sport was cruel. Ogier has delivered Volkswagen’s debut victory, so the pressure is not going to decrease on the likeable Finn.

8 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia – 10/10

A fantastic drive, with a relaxed and happy Ogier revelling in being the fastest Sébastien for the majority of the event. His eighth win at the sport’s top level was taken in style, and of course he now has his name in the record books as the first man to guide a Volkswagen to overall victory in the WRC. Throw in a strong position in the WRC points and the weekend could scarcely have gone better.

Abu Dhabi Citroën Total World Rally Team

10 Khalid Al Qassimi/Scott Martin – 1/10

AL Qassimi doesn’t have much in life that he really needs to worry about. Which must be nice.

14 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio – 3/10

Sordo is handy on asphalt. This was a snow rally. Wasn’t stellar.

Lotos Team WRC

14 Michál Kosciuszko/Maciek Szczepaniak – 4/10

It’s hard to tell whether the likeable Pole is good, bad or indifferent. So we’ll reserve judgement.

Jipocar Czech National Team

21 Martin Prokop/Michal Ernst – 7/10

Prokop used his experience to good effect and popped up into the points for the second time.

Sweden final: Ogier seals Volkswagen victory

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Sébastien Ogier withstood an early burst of pace on the final morning from nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb’s Citroën to claim the first victory for the new Volkswagen team and its Polo R WRC car on the Rally Sweden.

“This morning Sebastien was putting a lot of pressure on. He was flying into the stages. We tried to follow him without maximum risk but we had to push because he was so fast,” said a delighted Ogier. “To win like that is amazing.”

To keep things symmetrical, Mads Østberg held out to take third place in the M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC, putting the three main teams in the top three places. Which is nice. The young Norwegian kept the second Volkswagen of Jari-Matti Latvala off the podium.

Fifth to ninth places were all taken by M-Sport built Fiesta WRCs. Tenth overall and first in WRC2 was claimed by the M-Sport built Fiesta RRC of Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rajhi.

There was jubillation for Ogier at his eighth WRC win and for the  landmark first victory of the €100 million Volkswagen effort. At Citroën the disappointment of Loeb losing out from poor road position earlier in the rally was compounded by the complete absence of his team-mates from the action. With Loeb only taking part in four events, the pressure is on team leader Mikko Hirvonen and his team-mate Dani Sordo to take the fight to VW – and neither man shone in Sweden.

Sweden Part 1: Ogier in control

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Volkswagen Motorsport can breathe a sigh of relief as its star man Sébastien Ogier has won all but two of the eight stages so far on the Rally Sweden in his Polo R WRC. He stands just over half a minute ahead of the Citroën DS3 WRC of overnight leader and nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb, who in turn stated that the increasing gap to Ogier is down to the younger man’s pace.

Just 1.7 seconds behind Loeb at the end of Friday’s running is the second Volkswagen of Jari-Matti Latvala. Fourth place is held by the M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC of  Mads Østberg as the Norwegian recovers from a 20 second penalty to make his bid for the podium in one of his strongest events of the year.

Østberg is in good cheer. More so than Citroën team leader Mikko Hirvonen, who earned a full 50 seconds as his penalty applied to for arriving late at the third time control – caused by rolling his Fiesta at the start of the second stage. Hirvonen ended the day with a fastest stage time, but has an uphill struggle to reach the points.

Østberg leads a phalanx of Fiestas in which his team-mate in the Qatar-sponsored M-Sport squad, Evgeny Novikov, is holding off local hero Pontus Tidemand in his PDS-entered example. Behind the Swede is Finnish ace Juho Hänninen in another Qatar-funded entry from Thierry Neuville in the fourth of five cars under M-Sport’s banner. Two privately-entered Fiestas round out the top 10 with Henning Solberg keeping ahead of Martin Prokop.

A much larger entry for the main WRC class has ensured that plenty of runners are scratching their heads and trying to work out a way into the points. Former MINI WRC team leader Dani Sordo for one, in his Citroën, albeit considerably closer to the points than the Abu Dhabi team’s sponsor Khalid Al Qassimi in the fourth Citroën.

Matthew Wilson’s run in M-Sport’s entry for their Qatari sponsor Nasser Al-Attiyah is also going to require Lazarus-like qualities to get a sniff of the points. So too is the lone privateer MINI of Michal Koszciuszko.

At the sharp end of WRC2, meanwhile, Sweden is delivering an event that favours the grunty, stable and stolid production cars over the flighty S2000-based machines. Norway’s Anders Grǿndal has a 34 second advantage after eight stages, his Subaru Impreza holding sway over the Fiesta RRC of Saudi Arabian driver Yazeed Al Rajhi.

Monte Final: Loeb’s victory parade cut short

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A cathartic final day on the Monte Carlo Rally ended early but the result was entirely familiar, with Sébastien Loeb winning and a couple of damaged Ford Fiestas. Massive crowds caused the abandonment of the final two stages on the grounds of safety, allowing the celebrations to start early in the Citroën camp…

Two of three runs through the Col de Turini were completed and these ultimately defined the day: the legendary asphalt being a coated in a treacherous mixture of ice and slush. On the first run through it was 2011 Monte winner Bryan Bouffier who set the pace – such as it was, averaging just 37mph. That was a clear indication that this was not going to be a day for swashbuckling charges – and perhaps inevitably meant that Evgeny Novikov would be the first man to crash out.

M-Sport’s young Russian was the hero of the day yesterday, but ended up a forlorn figure on Turini standing beside his three-wheeled Fiesta after knocking the left rear off. Novikov had ridden his luck hard to get that far, but soon enough Jari-Matti Latvala also notched up his first retirement with Volkswagen, and then Juho Hänninen’s first run in an M-Sport Fiesta  came to a sudden halt as well.

So it was that Citroën was to see the greatest possible profit from this chaos, with works team leader Mikko Hirvonen finding himself promoted back to fourth and the works-supported entry of Bouffier getting a boost to fifth – positions they held until the premature finish.

Of the top five positions, four ultimately belonged to the French team. Only Sébastien Ogier’s Volkswagen, in second place, prevented a whitewash for Citroën on the world’s most famous rally, which it has long treated as a home event. M-Sport team leader Mads Østberg brought his Fiesta home in sixth, some way behind, with Martin Prokop’s DMACK-shod Fiesta entered by the Czech national team claiming seventh.

WRC2 winner Sepp Wiegand finished eighth overall in his Škoda Fabia S2000. WRC3 winner Sébastien Chardonnet – the last man standing among the 2WD contenders – claimed 13th overall in his Citroën.

So it is that Sébastien Loeb starts 2013 as he ended 2012 – at the top of the WRC points table. Citroën has also done better than it could have hoped in accumulating manufacturers’ points. Sébastien Ogier might not have had anything in his arsenal to contend with his nemesis in Monte Carlo, but can take solace in the points cushion he holds over Hirvonen and Østberg, his two most likely challengers over the full 13 rounds of the 2013 WRC season.

Monte Part 6: Shiny, happy people…

Ostberg closed Day 3 with his first stage win

Ostberg closed Day 3 with his first stage win

Sisteron is an emblematic stage and it closed the third day’s action in the Alpes Maritimes. Despite extremely icy conditions, almost everyone came through with a smile on their face. All except Mikko Hirvonen…

Sébastien Loeb was happy to have nudged a second or two further away from anyone else. But with his Citroën more than 90 seconds ahead after 13 stages, it’s all fairly academic. In second place, Volkswagen’s star Sébastien Ogier is also a picture of contentment, choosing to ignore Loeb’s very existence and focus instead on his own 90-second advantage over Evgeny Novikov in third.

The young Russian charger has been spectacular throughout, and by putting his M-Sport Fiesta in contention for a podium he is doing all that Malcolm Wilson could ask. He gets the quote of the day award, too, for stating that it had been ‘a fine day’. Presumably he is honing his ENglish skills from watching 1950s war movies and will soon appear in the service park smoking a pipe and with a spaniel skipping along at his heels.

Novikov’s ascent was aided by Dani Sordo having a spin in his Citroën. Nevertheless, Novikov had been hauling him in at a furious pace, so the Spaniard was fairly sanguine about it all.

Joy was unbounded for fifth placed Jari-Matti Latvala, however, in the second Volkswagen. Although the Polo has escaped damage in what has been a remarkably hesitant first event for the former Ford team leader, Sisteron was the first time he looked competitive all weekend and by bagging the second fastest time through the stage he also swept past Citroën team leader Mikko Hirvonen.

Hirvo was the most glum of the front runners. on a particularly icy day which brought out the Finn’s cautious side. He explained that he had spent so much time on the brakes that they overheated, dropping still more time to let his countryman and former team-mate Latvala through into fifth place.

Juho Hänninen holds eighth in his M-Sport car, making his the second best Fiesta so far on the event – a good reason to be cheerful in his first event at the wheel of a contemporary WRC car. The Finn’s margin over his team leader Mads Østberg is nevertheless depleted after the young Norwegian bagged his first stage win with a fine drive through Sisteron. The top 10 is completed by the works-supported Citroën of Bryan Bouffier and the Czech-entered Fiesta of Martin Prokop.

Young German ace Sepp Wiegand continued on his way towards WRC2 victory in the Škoda Fabia S2000 despite an electrical gremlin. The sole surviving WRC3 entrant, Sébastien Chardonnet, was meanwhile having plenty of fun in his Citroën DS3 R3T after putting spikes on the front wheels and finding the handling so good that his time was good enough to beat most of the 4WD WRC2 cars!

Principles in the Principality

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Last night the world listened to Lance Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. At last he publicly acknowledged that every one of his sporting accolades was obtained with the illegal assistance of advanced medical and chemical support.

The baying masses wanted tears and contrition but Armstrong refused. Instead he explained that, as far as he is concerned, there were at least 200 cyclists who operated just as far outside the written rules of the sport as himself. Therefore, in his mind, Armstrong was only doing what was needed to be done to stay competitive. If he did it more ruthlessly than them, well, that was his advantage.

To be honest, I can understand his logic entirely. That’s not an endorsement of the man because some of his actions – notably his wilful ransacking of careers and reputations among professional support staff – are unforgivable. But the competitive logic is pure.

Perhaps it is a matter of conditioning – after all, motor sport seeks ‘the unfair advantage’ in virtually every discipline. Engineers make their money and reputation from designing something that nobody else in the field has got, something which can be exploited to remove all possibility of being beaten.

Some 50 years ago, for example, the works BMC rally team took the sport into the modern age thanks to the inventive and restless brilliance of its manager, Stuart Turner. He brought about gravel and ice note crews, a whole host of inventive ways to service the team en route and of course the cars themselves were tailored to eke the maximum  possible advantage of the rules.

The Mini was bred in 997cc, 998cc, 1071cc or 1275cc guise to fit different classes with maximum competitiveness, while each and every loophole was explored to the fullest. Of course this spelt the end of the sport for many competitors, not least my wife’s grandfather, the accomplished Monte specialist J.W. Bowdage, who realised that the gentlemen had been surpassed by the players and he was only going to either go bankrupt or get hurt if he tried to keep up with Turner’s deft rewriting of the rulebook.

Today one of Turner’s teams would last about five minutes before falling foul of one regulation or another… but it makes him no less a hero to many like me nor detract from his record in the sport’s roll of honour. BMC’s record with the Mini, MGB and Austin-Healey was an example of brilliance that few team managers in any discipline have ever rivalled. His competitors were forced to play to his rules, give up or, in the case of the 1966 Monte, changed the rulebook during the event!

Coming back to 2013, we see another ‘unfair advantage’ being exploited for all that it’s worth in Monte Carlo. Indeed, I fear that it might yet provoke a complete meltdown from Sébastien Ogier.

Here is a man who has an enviable quota of self belief and the backing of Volkswagen’s €100 million superteam. He is almost 1 minute 20s ahead of his nearest challenger, Dani Sordo, and exactly 2 minutes ahead of the man expected to lead Citroën’s campaign through the full 13 events this season, Mikko Hirvonen. He’s light years ahead of his team-mate, former Ford number 1 Jari-Matti latvala. Yet last night Ogier was almost beside himself with rage.

All it took was the mention of Sébastien Loeb. The nine-time champion is in an event of his own, which is currently taking place a minute and a half further ahead of Ogier. While the prospect of Loeb’s points will be an extremely welcome one for his Citroën team, the complete demolition job being wrought on Ogier’s psyche through being forced to concede by such a margin will be of even greater long-term benefit.

Lance Armstrong lied again last night, when he defined cheating as seeking the means ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have’. That, my dear Lance, is precisely why many competitors get out of bed in the morning.

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.