Sebastien Loeb has slowly damaged rallying. There, I said it. Now there’s no doubting that he is the greatest driver the sport has known, and is also possibly one of the greatest racing drivers full stop, but his continued domination of rallying has caused a decline in the popularity of the World Championship, which can also attributed to other factors. His full-time rally retirement (he will compete part-time next year before an expected move to the WTCC with Citroen) at the end of this season (a 9th title consecutive title already sewn up) will allow others to assume his almost permanent crown. My question is, are these ‘pretenders’ worthy of the titles they could win, or was Loeb so good that he made those under him look ordinary in comparison to other eras?
We should start by looking at a period of the WRC’s history that we can all look upon fondly, the Makinen/McRae/Sainz/Burns years where great drivers did battle in great cars like the Group A Lancers, the 555 Imprezas and the winged-Escort Cosworths. Looking at the stats, with 4 titles consecutively you’d think that Tommi Makinen had the field licked like Loeb has done in his reign, but Makinen’s success was done to speed, skill and sensibility, as well as bulletproof reliability from his Mitsubishi. There was no doubt that he was one of the top drivers, but despite his titles he is not the one remembered as the prime exponent of sideways action from those years. A certain Scot from Lanarkshire, since departed from us, takes that accolade.
Colin McRae, for his one title and 25 wins, stats that can’t compete with the likes of Loeb, Sainz and Gronholm, is still the most famous and beloved rally driver in the world. His famous quote ‘If in doubt, flat out’ is a mantra for almost every driver to have heard it, and there are endless videos on YouTube extolling the virtues of the wild style the man employed. Think of McRae and you immediately see a blue Subaru power sliding it’s way through the hills of Monte Carlo, or the forests of Britain, dancing between the curves in a way that no mortal would consider possible or safe, yet, this enthusiasm and raw skill never translated into stone cold success in the way that others with more restrained manners did.
I know what you’re thinking. If McRae was one of the greatest, how good did that make Makinen, Sainz etc.? Guys who could beat him, guys who won titles over him… especially when you compare it to Loeb, whose closest near-defeat came in 2009 when he only beat Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen by one point. These drivers must’ve been giants of any era, and they were… but I’m sure that Loeb is that bit better.
You can’t have 9 years of the rest of the world challenging you and no great rivals come through. There’s still a World Champion in the field to rival Loeb, Petter Solberg, but he hasn’t put together a consistent season in years (actually since his title in 2003). Jari-Matti Latvala is rated very highly amongst many people, but still manages to put his car out of crucial rallies at crucial times. Hirvonen himself is viewed as the most complete driver after Loeb, but could never get that extra edge over the Frenchman to beat him over a season. Are these drivers fit to be mentioned in the same tones as the 94-02 gang, or are they just the best of a poor crop from this last decade?
My opinion is that it’s a little of both. As good as Loeb is and has been, there’s no way one guy can dominate a series so completely and for so long without his rivals not being of the best quality, and that goes for cars as well as drivers. The Loeb/Citroen package has been the best in the business, with the French team’s lead driver backed up ably by workhorses like Dani Sordo (still without a WRC win) and the potentially Loeb-aping Sebastien Ogier (we’ll get onto him properly in a bit). As well prepared M-Sport’s Fords are, they’ve never been up to beating the Citroens. This just makes the other drivers jobs harder. When you see the Master serenely carve his way through a stage, not a bead of sweat on his brow, and juxtapose that with some of the blood, sweat and engine oil that goes into the runs of others, you know that the overall package is better. That’s not to slight the work Citroen and Loeb have done, they knew how to build and setup a better rally car than the others, and that’s to be commended. It’ll be interesting to see what happens once Loeb is gone, but one thinks he’ll always have a hand in the team’s rally programme as long as he’s connected to the main company.
Who is best placed to rise up and take Loeb’s throne then? Outside of the drivers mentioned (Latvala, Solberg, Hirvonen) are there any up-and-comer’s ready to become a star? Well, there’s one guy who has perhaps fallen off the radar this year, and not for lack of trying… Ogier. Taking an ‘off-year’ driving VW’s S2000Skoda Fabia in waiting for the full-time debut of the Polo WRC was always going to be a hard slog, and some fantastic stage times and results (beating WRC entries in many rallies) have served him well, but when he was on the cusp of overhauling Loeb in 2010, only to have the Citroen management haul him back, we were all sure this guy was the next big star, and just to be sure, he was French, drove a Citroen and was called Sebastien…
Given VW’s investment in it’s WRC program, Ogier can look forward to a competitive start to his (proper) life with the Wolfsburg outfit, and looking at it he could probably be considered an early favourite for the title. VW are rumoured to be interested in signing Latvala, which would ensure their competitiveness for their full-time debut. Ford has some interesting talent in it’s customer stable, with Ott Tanak, Evgeny Novikov and particularly Mads Ostberg all impressing over last year or so. Ostberg is the most likely to step up to a full manufacturer drive (though Ford is pulling back on it’s support, M-Sport still design and build Ford WRC cars and will continue to do so) and given he’s the only driver outside of the big two teams to win a rally (not even Solberg could top that in his self-run Citroen) in the last few years he should be given a chance. Otherwise you’ve got Thierry Neuville serving his apprenticeship, and other great drivers scattered around various series like Andreas Mikkelsen, Kris Meeke (why isn’t this guy driving properly this year) and Juho Hanninen who could all add to and improve the WRC field. In a Loeb-less era, all these guys have the quality to win rallies, and surely once you factor in new entries from VW, Hyundai and possibly Toyota, the WRC is looking like it’s genuinely on the edge of something new and exciting.
Red Bull have stepped in as promoter of the championship, which can only be a good thing considering their success in other ventures similar to this. They are a marketing giant, and that can only serve to improve the championship and those who compete in it.
Look out for Ostberg, Ogier and Tanak to take the fight to the established stars of Latvala, Solberg, Hirvonen and Sordo next year. It’s going to be great not knowing who will win this one… and the next few years will prove whether the current stars in rallying are as good as the greats from years gone by…