The World Rally Championship season commences at Sweden this weekend, and with six titles under his belt already, is there anyone out there who can stop Sebastien Loeb, the undisputed king of modern rallying?
Ever since Marcus Gronholm’s departure at the end of 2007, there has been a large void waiting to be filled. By someone who is deemed most likely to take the fight to Loeb and end his successful reign. The signs are that having been run ragged through the second half of last year, title number seven doesn’t look quite so certain for our French rallying master.
So I’m going to stick my neck out and wager that Mikko Hirvonen will be the one hoisted on to the bonnet of his car to hail his first WRC title at some point this year – you mark my words!
In years gone by, Loeb has wafted titles. In 2009 he had to graft for it. Yes Loeb eventually beat Hirvonen, in the closest title fight ever, but it was the Finn who put on a consistently impressive display all year long and emerged as the only driver truly capable of maintaining a threat to the rally titan.
Five rallies in last year and Loeb had won the lot. Another mediocre season appeared to be on the cards as the rally ace looked set to walk away with his sixth consecutive title with relative ease. But then something happened, and quick as a flash, Loeb’s domination seemed to have vanished. Between April and October, the man who could do nothing wrong, quickly became the man who could do nothing right.
What happened? No one really knows for sure quite how Loeb fell into his lull. Some suggest that his mind may have been elsewhere, amid rumours of a possible seat in Formula 1 with Toro Rosso, others reckon he may have just run out of motivation. Whatever the real reason, Loeb eventually came back from the brink and produced the result everyone had predicted at the start of the year. In the meantime though, Hirvonen was on magnificent form, and if he is able to repeat this again this season, Loeb will have his biggest challenge ever on his hands.
The ‘Flying Finn’ had hauled himself back from 20 points adrift half-way through last year and then ran Loeb right down to wire at the very last event in Wales. He finished on the podium on every rally except for the Argentinian event, when he suffered from his only mechanical retirement of the season. Were it not for this, and perhaps the bonnet of his Ford Focus flipping open on SS15 of the last rally, Loeb’s dominance in the sport would have already come to an end.
Without the mechanical mishaps, Hirvonen only lost the title last year as he didn’t come out of the blocks quick enough. The route to victory looks very different this year though. Full of confidence from his recent IRC victory in the recent Monte Carlo rally, and back to full health after suffering from a back injury for most of last year, Hirvonen should hit the ground running this time around. Starting with this weekend’s rally in Sweden; the ice and snow something he revels in, compared to Loeb who has confessed he hates the winter wonderland setting more than anything.
After minimal changes to either his or Loeb’s cars during the off-season, there is every reason to think that the pair will start this season as closely matched as they finished last year’s. Hirvonen is fully aware that his best chance of realising his rally ambitions is just around the corner, and the vast amount of mileage he has put in practicing on asphalt will see him do extremely well on all variety of surfaces this year, and not just on the gravel events.
His career path to date has shown he can come back stronger year after year, and with talk of Loeb possibly racing in this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours for a third time, who knows, perhaps a repeat of last year’s distractions will rear its ugly head?
You can bet that elsewhere, Hirvonen will remain fully focused on the job at hand, fighting hard to clinch his much deserved first WRC title. So long as he gets into his stride nice and early, and manages to control his new found aggression, the indications are that he should. Loeb faces his most difficult rally championship to date as Ford’s number one continues to get better and better, and with that, 2010 in the WRC looks set to be a bit of a belter.