In the WRC, all-conquering teams and drivers usually come in pairs – Miki Biasion and Lancia, Carlos Sainz and Toyota, Tommi Makinen and Mitsubishi, Marcus Gronholm and Peugeot to name a few of them. However all of these past greats have paled into insignificance compared to one duo that has been unstoppable since what feels like the dawn of time these days – Sebastien Loeb and Citroen.
Some say Loeb and Citroen’s situation is just Schumacher and Ferrari all over again, but in a different sport. It certainly isn’t however – Citroen managed their situation much better than the Prancing Horse ever did. To start with he wasn’t even the first choice driver at Citroen, that honour going to tarmac specialist Philippe Bugalski. However in 2002 Loeb had the measure of his vastly more experienced team-mate, winning the opening round of the season, only to have it taken away from him for a technical infringement. He rectified that later in the same season however, winning Rally Deutschland, which has almost become his second home since.
The rest is history. After heartbreak in Great Britian a year later, he went on to dominate the next six years of world rally, leaving past masters like Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg scratching their heads and unable to live with Loeb’s lightning fast pace and cool mentality.
Six years later it seems someone has finally stepped up to the plate and been able to rattle Loeb’s mansion-sized cage – but unfortunately that man is another Frenchman, another Citroen driver, another product of their young driver system.
Sebastien Ogier only started his rally career four years ago in the Peugeot 207 Cup, but winning the championship at his first attempt got both Citroen and the FFSA interested. With backing from both the French marque and the country’s motorsport association, he entered the JWRC – and won at his first attempt. After a season ironing out the rookie errors last year, he took his debut victory at Rally de Portugal only a few weeks ago.
Citroen had found another super-talented driver from apparently nowhere, something they seem to have knack for. Ogier has proved he has the talent to succeed Loeb this season, after being in contention for victory at almost every rally, even coming three corners from winning in New Zealand until a spin handed victory to Ford driver Jari-Matti Latvala.
That win is an ever rarer sight these days, with Ford duo Latvala and Mikko Hirvonen looking dejected this season. Hirvonen pushed Loeb harder than anyone else had since 2003 – coming within a point of taking the championship title – but ultimately he fell short. His momentum continued into the season opener, winning in Sweden, but since then his form seems to have fallen off a cliff.
Latvala has had his fair share of confidence issues too – his crash in Portugal a year ago left him shaken to his core, and struggling to find his feet. Winning in New Zealand was something of a pick-me-up, however he is Ford’s number two driver and isn’t expected to challenge for the title. Combined with Hirvonen’s issues, Ford looks to be out of the hunt.
This apparently left Loeb in the clear – his own team-mate Dani Sordo not a threat to him, his main antagonists in the Ford camp suffering something of a crisis, and the only driver that can seem to challenge him on raw pace is being held at arms length by team principal Olivier Quesnel, team orders ensuring Loeb won’t have any competition from within the team’s own ranks.
For this year at least, only one driver is left that can fight for the title against the all-conquering Loeb, the only man to beat him in a head-to-head title fight – Petter Solberg. However he too is driving a C4, albeit for his own team.
You could be forgiven for mistaking the WRC for a one make series these days – Citroen podium lockouts are looking more inevitable as the days pass, and the French marque has been receiving much criticism from the sport’s fans for turning the sport into a one man show.
However the issue is not that Citroen has become more powerful than the rest – they have not dominated to the point their rivals called it quits because they couldn’t keep up – the other teams merely left by their own accord, mostly for financial reasons. The problem is not Citroen having a huge advantage, it’s that Ford is the only team there trying to overturn that defecit.
Prodrive’s return to the sport next year with the all-new Mini Crossover may help, especially if the new Citroen DS3 S2000 isn’t at the same level the C4 was. However driver lineups will still be key – with Loeb and Ogier pretty much a done deal at Citroen next year, and a thrid car a possibility to retain Sordo or promote Solberg, the other teams are running short on world-beating talent to choose from.
Solberg could move back to Prodrive – he won’t have forgotten the 8 years spent there as a works Subaru driver, the team that gave him his sole world title. Another driver on Prodrive’s list is Jarkko Nikara, the latest in a line of talented young Finns rising through the ranks, who could be part of the next generation, post Loeb. Who knows, maybe we could have Ogier and Nikara re-creating last year’s title fight several years from now.
Either way, right now, the only thing stopping Citroen from dominating the next decade of WRC as well is the manufacturers that haven’t even entered the sport. There are rumours of a return for Toyota, Subaru are willing to return under the right financial conditions, and another attempt at a works Skoda team isn’t farfetched considering they have a car that is proven as a winner.
Whenever I reminisce about the ‘golden age’ of rallying, I end up looking back to 2001 – McRae, Makinen, Sainz, Burns, Gronholm, Auriol, Schwarz and Eriksson are all there, driving for Peugeot, Ford, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Skoda and Hyundai. There were so many competitive cars in the field that year you could bet on a winner and likely get it completely wrong. Even drivers who weren’t title contenders were able to take victories – tarmac experts like JesÃºs Puras and Gilles Panizzi, and Harri Rovanpera winning on his Peugeot debut.
If the WRC wants to go back in time by 10 years, it needs to find more manufacturers, willing to pour money and resources into serious efforts (unlike the seemingly strung together Suzuki effort of a few years ago, which went through an internal civil war in the middle of its debut season). Citroen and Ford are the only ones doing this right now, and when one hits a rough patch, the other will dominate. Ford has just hit too many rough patches over the past few years to swing the balance in their favour, and end the seemingly endless Citroen domination.
So, just like everything in motorsport these days, money is the answer. Or rather, the lack of people other than Citroen wanting to spend it.