It has a number of years since I last followed the World Rally Championship properly – it is around the turn of the decade that I lost touch with the series. This had nothing to do with not liking the events and series, but more to do with the local network losing coverage; rallying simply fell off the radar. The same happened for CART and MotoGP too – once I left home, it became impossible to follow and eventually interest naturally waned.
To a degree, the WRC is always something that was going on in the background. It was impossible to have at least not heard of the exploits Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg, but I never followed it too closely until this season.
There are a large number of people that claim the Michael Schumacher/Ferrari era of dominance in Formula 1 was one of the worst in the sport’s history due to the sheer scale of his dominance over the field, but I have never agreed with that stance – if anything, there was a feeling of excitement as sheer excellence triumphed at the pinnacle of motorsports.
For this reason, I am somewhat saddened to have missed out on the last few years of the WRC, because Sebastien Loeb has been busy “doing a Schumacher” and destroying everything in his wake and on Sunday just gone, Loeb with his co-driver Daniel Elena, claimed his 54th Rally victory (from 125 starts) at the Rally of Britain and his sixth consecutive WRC title. One must also bare in mind that the Citroen driver could have made that seven straight titles, but lost out to Petter Solberg in 2003 by a single point.
Although made have had it easier in years gone by (2004 is a good example), this season he was really pushed by Finnish driver Mikko Hirvonen. Although the Ford driver first entered the WRC in 2002, it is only since the 2007 season that he has strung together consistently good performances and victories – 12 in all now – but this was the first year where Hirvonen looked really close to Loeb.
The Finn led the championship coming into the final Rally in Britain, but lost out to a superb drive by his rival, giving the title to the Frenchman. One thing is for certain though; Hirvonen’s time will come – at only 27, he’s still young, but he will be eager to claim at least one WRC before Loeb retires and with the Citroen man now on the wrong side of 35, that may only be a couple of seasons away.
If one were to look at the season as a whole, Loeb probably deserved it with his seven Rally victories to Hirvonen’s four; however it was Mikko’s consistency that really stood out this year. When he wasn’t winning, he was often in 2nd place and a drop-off in form mid-season by Loeb let Hirvonen back into the title.
Confusing matters though was an awful lot of talk of Loeb switching to Formula 1 to drive for Toro Rosso – in fact it was only four days before the Rally of Britain that he was denied his superlicence. Many in the Rally paddock spoke of the Citroen man suddenly becoming distracted from matters at hand and not quite focusing on the job, thereby letting Hirvonen creep up in the points standings.
We may now never know how competitive Loeb would have been in an F1 car; he has since conceeded that the Toro Rosso opportunity was his last chance and now signed on again for the French manufacturer for another season. One thing is for certain though, Loeb may well be in for a fight next yet; not only with Hirvonen, but it would seem his young team-mate, Dani Sordo, has finally found his feet and may fancy a challenge.