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.

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.

WRC 2013 – let’s get cracking, shall we?

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It’s the Monte Carlo Rally, good people. That’s the Monte Carlo Rally! Cue the lights, cue the music, cue Kermit the Frog running past going ‘yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayy’.

Unlike Kermit, however, the Monte’s not on TV… unless you happen to have access to the Red Bull-owned Servus TV station in what used to be called ‘Greater Germany’, you watch Sky TV in New Zealand or you have S4C in Wales. Everyone else should form an orderly queue to hear Jon Desborough’s pearls of wisdom here:

This is the official Red Bull rally channel!

So huddle over your laptops for the time being and let’s share our enjoyment of the Monte by whatever means possible.

Regulars here will know who’s who, what’s what and where’s where – so I’m not previewing it. Oh, all right then… there are Qatar-sponsored Fords that are painted to look like the UAE flag, UAE-sponsored Citroëns painted to look like Christmas decorations and Red Bull-sponsored VWs that have cost €100 million to get this far, so they look uncommonly sensible. There’s also supporting action from privately-entered WRC cars, the new support class structure to enjoy and it looks like there will be plenty of snow.

Despite the return of Dani Sordo to a competitive team (Citroën) and the arrival of Volkswagen, if I were a betting man I’d be putting money on Loeb.

All will be revealed in the next few days, though. Hurrah!

If you’re not a regular on the blog yet then feel free to dig around and piece together a season preview of your own. You will find babies that look like Mikko Hirvonen, filthy old Toyota Corollas and Daniel Elena’s true vocation as the Go Compare man. And some other stuff, of course. Not all of it very sensible.

You won’t find anything about today’s announcements by Hyundai about its plans for 2014, however. Why? Because it’s very poor form to try and hijack the start of a real, live championship with yet more pictures of a concept car and not one actual piece of news. Nice try, Hyundai – now run along and come back when you’ve done something interesting.

Newsround… Newsround… Newsround…

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It’s the Autosport International Show, folks. This means that there will be drunken chaos in the Metropole Hotel tonight, during which the subject of conversation will include such nuggets as:

Michal Kociuszko will contest a full season in the WRC at the wheel of his Lotos-backed, Motorsport Italia-run MINI, sans the Red Bull Mobile advertising

The Czech National Team Fiesta WRC of Martin Prokop will appear in an extended schedule of 11 out of the 13 WRC rounds this year after opting to run DMACK tyres

Ford has relevealed its definitive 2013 livery. As was pictured last month it blends the burgundy of Qatar with the green of Castrol and black of M-Sport. A late infusion of blue stops it looking quite so much like the UAE flag… although it still does!

Jänner Rallye winner Jan Kopeçky is pushing Škoda Motorsport to extend his season to give him a shot at winning the FIA ERC title

Petter Solberg will be putting his marriage vows to the test next weekend when he debuts his new Ford Esort RS1800 in a local snow rally, co-driven by wife Pernilla

Prodrive will be entering a pair of MINI S2000s in WRC2 for Ukrainian drivers Valery Gorban and Oleksii Kikireshko, sponsored by Mentos and Chupa Chups. Apparently there is more mileage in this than the confectionary giant’s previous sponsorships, including Sheffield Wednesday football club.

Fantastic start to FIA ERC

Kopecky in Janner action

Kopecky in Janner action

This weekend saw top-flight rallying get back under way in 2013 with the opening round of the new Eurosport-officiated FIA European Rally Championship. The snow/ice/slush/asphalt of Austria played host to the Jänner Rallye and drew a reasonable entry headed by the works Škoda Fabia S2000 of Czech asphalt ace Jan Kopeçky – who triumphed by just half a second.

A trouble-free run on the opening day, which saw the surface conditions changing from one stage to the next, saw Kopeçky at the front of the field by more than 20 seconds after opting to run on studded wet weather tyres, ahead of the Peugeot 207 S2000 of Bryan Bouffier and the Red Bull-backed Škoda of Raimund Baumschlager, who struggled initially on full snow tyres.

A puncture on the second afternoon, however, saw Kopeçky fall back and he entered the last stage 10.6 seconds behind Bouffier. In a drive that is sure to become a Youtube classic, the Czech star threw caution to the wind and beat Bouffier through by 11.1 seconds, making the margin for victory one of the closest on record.

Baumschlager claimed third, Czech regular Vaclav Pech was fourth in his MINI S2000 and Beppo Harrach finished fifth and first Production Cup runner in his Mitsubishi. The event also saw a return to action for two of the most enduring names in the sport, with François Delecour finishing seventh in his Peugeot 207 S2000 and Stig Blomqvist with a spring in his step aged 66, finishing 12th overall and fourth in Production Cup at the wheel of a Mitsubishi.

Monte MINI breaks cover

Kościuszko has Red Bull rather than red-and-white on his MINI

Kościuszko has Red Bull rather than red-and-white on his MINI

The first pic of Michal Kościuszko’s MINI WRC has broken cover and it looks very smart indeed. It’s also got a nifty line in Red Bull branding on the side.

The Polish driver’s car, prepared by Lotos, will be the only MINI Countryman taking the start of this year’s event.

Honest Dave’s Used Car Sales

dr_miniProdrive has talked a good game with MINI and of plans for 2013 but it hasn’t contested a full season, even with investment from BMW. To no great surprise, therefore, it’s apparent that a number of cars are being offered for sale. No classified ads have been taken – although you can have plenty of fun inventing your own.

“Very low mileage, seldom raced or rallied, genuine reason for sale’ etc.

01B 2012 new: £320,000
01B Works ex-Sordo (2012): £290,000
01B  Works ex-Nikara (2011): £270,000
01A R-Tec Snijers (2011): £231,000