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.

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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!

Monte Part 5: Three makes in the top three

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Sébastien Loeb stretched his lead a little on the third morning of the Monte Carlo Rally. The reigning champion was clearly enjoying himself and revelling in the crisp, clear conditions and deep snow on offer in the Alpes Maritimes, declaring that it was ‘like Sweden’.

Given that Loeb will also be driving in Sweden in three weeks’ time, this was probably not what his rivals wanted to hear – least of all Sébastien Ogier in second place. Having adopted the policy of putting his fingers in his ears and going ‘la-la-laaa’ whenever Loeb’s name is mentioned, however, Ogier seems to have rediscovered a bit of equilibrium and was pleased with his pace.

If anyone was more bullish than Ogier it was Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov, who remained right on the pace in the morning loop and, on the first stage of the afternoon, was able to capitalise on a half-spin by Dani Sordo to put his Fiesta up into third place. As is so often the way, Novikov’s progress has been heart-in-the-mouth stuff and he’s flirted with disaster several times. So far so good, however, and there is now the possibility of seeing three cars from three makes on the podium.

The rest of the field is largely static. Mads Østberg passed Bryan Bouffier for eighth on SS11 and backed this up with his first stage win on SS13. His consistent, measured approach is the antithesis of team-mate Novikov’s balls-out charging but M-Sport should at least feel fairly confident of getting his car back in one piece.

Østberg is still some way behind his M-Sport companion Juho Hänninen. A certain flamboyance to the Finn’s cornering style has been costing him time as he in turn pursues countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, but he’s relishing this outing. Both Hirvonen and Latvala are also in better spirits than yesterday as they carry on a private battle in the middle of the WRC order.

Sébastien Chardonnay’s Citroën is now the only WRC3 contender left in the field. In WRC2, Sepp Wiegand’s Škoda has what looks to be an impregnable lead.

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…

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.

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.

S2000? WRC? R5? R2-D2? WTF!

If there is one thing that rallying has consistently managed to do, it’s create an utterly bewildering class structure that leaves all but the most dedicated anorak-wearing car spotters aghast.

A Formula One car is a Formula One car. A NASCAR is a NASCAR. A rally car is subject to different homologation requirements for the multitudinous sub-species of the genus. Let’s get this straight: it is geeky beyond words.

We are very fortunate, therefore, that the current FIA president is engaged to a Bond girl. You see, it pays not to get too geeky about the types of car that are taking part in a motor sport event. That’s something which Jean Todt understands only too well, with the result that a new and clearer-than-ever class structure now exists for rallying around the world so that Michelle Yeoh and other Bond girls worldwide can now breathe easy. Rallying is sexy again… and here’s our little guide:

1) Production-based ‘R cars’

The vast majority of rallies around the world will be contested by the various categories of Group R – namely production-based kit based on models of which no fewer than 2500 examples have been built in the previous 12 months. Group R will consist of six classes, designated R1, R2, R3, R4, R5 and RGT; some of these groups will contain their own sub-groups, with cars allocated to each group based on their weight, engine size and powertrain.

DS3 R3T one of the new generation of rally machines

NGT is the random factor in all this, being for production-based sports cars competing in asphalt events in Europe. While there have been a number of teams over the years who have run Porsche GT3 Cup cars and Ferrari 360 Challenge cars on asphalt rallies, the class is pretty well dead at present. You never know, however, and maybe an enterprising team could produce a Porsche to rival those of Almeras, Prodrive and others that enlivened the sport in the 1970s-1980s!

An NGT revival could bring fans some GT action like the 1980s

To be honest, however, you really don’t need to worry too much about the difference between an R1A or an R1B, whether an R3T could be developed into an R5 or what the future holds for R4. Basically the two-wheel-drive cars of the foundation classes R1-R3 are where aspiring talent is to be found at a national level and form the WRC3. We then get to 4WD turbos with R4-R5 which will contest the WRC2 – these cars also being among the front-runners in regional series like the new-look FIA European Rally Championship.

So far so good? OK then…

2) S2000 cars

Super 2000 rally cars have been with us for seven years now, producing a heap of cars either direct from the in-house workshops of big maunfacturers such as Škoda Motorsport and Abarth, or by enterprising privateers who have got manufacturer blessing, such as the Chris Mellors-produced Protons. They have 2.0-litre normally aspirated engines, low-tech suspension and 4WD transmission systems are more bespoke in construction than, say, a 1.6-litre turbo R5 car.

Modern WRC cars are S2000 with upgrades

The current generation of WRC cars are based on Super 2000 rules, with additional freedom on their aero kit, suspension and transmission as well as, of course, their 1.6-litre turbo engines. This means that the cars have an element of top-flight elite motor sport design in them, but that the fundamental architecture is that of affordable competition cars developed within the S2000 framework.

3) Regional Rally Cars

RRC cars don’t actually exist. Yes, we’ve seen them. Yes, they’ve won events – but they are NOT an official class. RRC is a phrase coined by M-Sport in order to sell what are effectively de-tuned Fiesta WRC cars, with less exotic suspension parts, a Super 2000 aero package and a bigger restrictor on their 1.6-turbo motors. They were allowed to market these cars for use alongside S2000 cars in regional series provided that parity could be achieved with the S2000 crowd. Citroën has now created a car to the same specification, which made its debut in the Rallye du Valais last week.

That’s where we stand in the big scheme of things.

Pure S2000 machinery is likely to disappear within a season or two, with either detuned 1.6 turbo engines making them ‘RRC’ specification or investment in R5 cars taking over. Similarly R4 is already all-but extinct, with the production-specification Mitsubishi Lancer Evos and Subaru Impreza WRXs now increasingly uncompetitive in all but club rallying.

The competing cars and teams will therefore evolve down clear routes: R1-R3 for low-cost front-wheel-drive cars, R5 for regional competitions and WRC2 and full WRC at the top of the tree.

Simple!