Imagine if, during Sebastian Vettel’s first championship year Michael Schumacher (still at his best) had turned up to race occasionally, only when he felt like it and when schedules allowed, and had beaten Vettel. Would have taken the smile of his face and seen ‘the finger’ retracted, no? Well that’s what’s happening in the World Rally Championship this year with two more Sébastiens, Ogier and Loeb.
Heaven knows, the World Rally Championship doesn’t make life easy for itself, even with such real human drama on show. TV deals come and go and so, consequently, do manufacturers. This year’s series started not only without the full time commitment of its champion Loeb — its greatest ever champion, its Schumacher — but also without a Ford works team for the first time in 17 years, and without Mini.
But that’s not stopped it being a great competition. So we’ve decided we’re going to add the WRC to our regular motorsports roster. Rally is easy to love, after all, and maybe it will get its act together, right? And it is, finally, back on the telly: ITV4, the Tuesday after each rally finishes.
Ford and Mini might be gone, but their cars are still supported and the seven rounds we’ve seen so far have shown there is still life left in the stunning-looking little Fiesta RS WRC. Nonetheless this year has all been about WRC debutantes. We’re talking Volkswagen and Sebastian Ogier, the former teammate, heir apparent and certified nemesis of Loeb.
Ogier has won four rounds including a hat-trick in Sweden, Mexico and Portugal. With six rounds to go until the final round, the ‘Wales Rally GB’ (aka the RAC Rally) back in its proper date in November, Ogier is already two wins ahead of teammate Jari-Matti Latvala and three ahead of Fiesta driver Thierry Neuville.
Yet the inevitable championship may seem rather hollow for Ogier: whenever Loeb has started (he’s completed three of the four rallies he will do this year) he’s won, or should have won.
In Monte Carlo, the world’s most famous rally and the start of the season, Loeb was unbeatable on his farewell. Ogier let the world know the new VW Polo WRC was as good as it looked with the fastest time on the first special stage, but after that it was all about Loeb. In Sweden it was all about Ogier until the final day of the three when Loeb, who’d gone off-message on set-up, began to haul Ogier in, only to make a rare error. But the comeback kept coming and Ogier’s win was a narrow one. Nothing like enough for him to enjoy the win.
Loeb was too busy racing his McLaren in GTs to compete in Mexico and Portugal and Ogier duly took the wins, but Mads Østberg put his Fiesta in front in the Peninsula and for the first time this year the VW’s showed a touch of off-brand fragility. Loeb’s full time teammate in the full works Citroen DS3 WRC Mikko Hirvonen took both second places.
Loeb was back for Argentina and guess what? He won. Of course he did, Ogier buckling to the pressure and making in a mistake in the fog (literally) on day one. Another mistake, even with Loeb not there, on the very stage of the Acropolis rally (Hirvonen and Østberg made the same one) handed victory to Latvala, his first for VW, in Greece. He made amends last month in Sardinia however with dominant victory over Fiesta driver Thierry Neuville.
Loeb has one more round left in his schedule, in France in October, before then the WRC will visit Finland, Germany and Australia. Ogier might well have wrapped it by then, but Loeb will be back — the nine times champion, the greatest driver World Rallying has ever seen — one last time, to make his point.
So what’s your take on the season so far, TopGear.commers? Is this Ogier’s title, or has Loeb just decided to give it to him?