2011 Rally Sweden and WRC 2011 Preview

World Rally Championship
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As I’ve recently mentioned, my love of rallying has recently been reignited and I’ve gone back to watch all of the past seasons that I’ve missed since I last followed the sport. Rally Sweden is one of the toughest events of the year. The snow and ice conditions make it incredibly slippery and tough for the drivers to cope, even with the studded tyres. The roads are also incredibly narrow which means you have to be so precise to maintain maximum speed through the stages. The snow banks are right up against the edge of the road. This can be both a help and a hindrance, as it will be quite forgiving of mistakes that would wreck the car in other events, but if you clip it too often then you’ll lose valuable momentum. You could call in the Monaco GP of rallying.

This was not only the start of the new Rally Season, which is always exciting, but it’s the dawn of a new era in WRC, as the new world rally cars are introduced into competition for the first time. These new cars are considerably smaller than the outgoing ones, with Citroen replacing the C4 with the DS3 and Ford now using the Fiesta over the Focus. These new cars are based on their Super 2000 equivalents but with some changes. They must have a 1.6 litre engine with a turbo rather than the old 2 litre engines found in the old cars.

The new cars are more nimble due to their size and from what I’ve seen so far, all ditch the duel-direction paddle shifter on the previous WRC cars, which is in my opinion a shame as they look more fun to drive with. The cars now have a sequential gear level next to the handbrake. This will make steering harder as the driver’s hand will be off the wheel for longer than before.

All of the changes are interesting but it’s clear that Ford will have been more excited about the change than Citroen, as it gives them the perfect opportunity to finally get back on a level playing field with Citroen after the C4 dominated for the last 5 years.

It looks to have ended up that way if Rally Sweden gives any indication of things to come for the remaining events for the year. The Fiesta drivers took all three podium positions with Mads Ostberg taking a great second place finish after leading for the first half of the event. Mikko Hirvonen was just too strong however, taking his second Rally Sweden win in the last 2 years. Shockingly, it has been 12 months since his last win, such was the extent of his shocking 2010 season.

Hopefully he can build on this success to go back to his title challenging form of 2009 where he missed out on the title by a point. Mads Ostberg and Jari-Matti Latvala can also build on their great podiums in this opening event. Ostberg seems to finally have been given his big break with an M-Sport drive and a compeitive car in this new Fiesta. In previous year’s he’s driven privateer Subaru’s in partial campaigns and never really been able to show his true potential.

Sebastien Ogier was the highest placed Citroen in 4th, with Solberg 5th and Loeb 6th after being the fall guy in the opening day by having to sweep away fresh snow and create a line for the other drivers. He also suffered with punctures and was unable to do anything about the deficit to the top 5 ahead of him, although he did have a considerable buffer to 7th place PG Andersson who had the pace to contend but made several costly mistakes. Expect the 7 time defending champion to be back on form in Mexico as he and Citroen will have a point to prove.

Raikkonen and Block did well to finish the event, especially Block who had never driven a Snow rally on studded tyres before, not to mention barely having much running in his new Ford Fiesta.

Solberg was incredibly lucky to still escape with 5th after a bizarre incident where Petter’s co-driver Chris Patterson was forced to drive the last power stage which was broadcast live on TV. Solberg was caught speeding on Friday while rushing to get to the next stage. He had 48 hours before his license was taken away. This time expired just before the final stage. Chris Patterson did a great job on his WRC debut to bring the car home in tricky conditions and still keep the pair ahead of Sebastian. The affair cost Petter 4th place but I suppose there has to be some penalty for speeding and he has surely learned his lesson.

I can’t wait until the next round in Mexico, where the racing gets back to a more regular surface in the shape of loose gravel. Hopefully the DS3 can show its true potential here and we have a really competitive event where no-one is handicapped in the way Loeb was in Sweden.


WRC 2010 Season Thoughts and Rallying in General

Sébastien Loeb driving his Citroën C4 WRC at t...
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After I did this for Nascar, I thought I should for WRC as well, as I’m an even bigger fan of this sport. When I was younger I remember watching Rallying on TV and seeing people like Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz doing incredible things for teams such as Toyota and Subaru. Unfortunately, those great brands and others like Mitsubishi don’t appear in the main WRC series at the current time due to the economy, but I hope this changes soon. This upcoming season does see the return of Mini, with their new Countryman car. Hopefully the other big names of the past decide to come back soon too, as there are not enough WRC cars competing at the moment in my opinion.

While those manufacturers are still missing, I’m back watching after many years of letting the sport pass me by. The 2010 season I watched entirely on the review DVD and it was really great to see the incredible driving skills of these competitors. It was almost the perfect season for Loeb, who cruised to victory in his native French Rally. The event even finished by driving a special stage around his home town. It couldn’t have been a more perfect way for him to capture his 7th world title.

Mikko Hirvonen however had an absolute season to forget after coming within a point of glory in 2009. He won the opening round in Sweden but that was as good as it got for him. He quickly relinquished the lead to Loeb in the second event after a 4th place, and Sebastien and Citroen never looked back. He just seemed to either have trouble getting up to speed in events, or experienced some kind of car mechanical failure that took him out of contention. It ended up being his team-mate and “number 2 driver” Yari-Matti Latvala who somewhat ironically ended up in the runner-up spot for the season over his more experienced and favoured team-mate.

I think it was a great season of a great sport with arguably the best drivers in the world, especially Sebastien Loeb who is undoubtedly the best rally driver ever in my opionion, and maybe one of the best drivers in the world generally. Not too many people would disagree with either of those points. I just feel that because rally drivers have more adjustments to make, different surfaces to drive on and stages to learn, they have a harder time of it than F1 and other circuit racing drivers do.

In 2011 I’m excited to see how the new, smaller cars work and how well the drivers adapt to them. It will also be interesting to find out if the Citroen DS3 WRC can follow the untouchable C4 in being as competitive of a rally car. It’s going to be hard for them to dominate as they have done even with Loeb behind the wheel however. These regulation changes give Ford a perfect opportunity to close the gap to the French team. How will Mini do in their first season back and can Kimi Raikkonen and Ken Block improve on their troubled but promosing WRC debut seasons. I’m excited to find out when Rally Sweden starts on the 10th of February.