The king of rally, the once-in-a-lifetime genius, the demolisher of records, has just one more race to go before the checkered flag falls for the last time. In Strasbourg in October, on the Rallye de France-Alsace, Sebastien Loeb (ABOVE) will, on home-country roads, mark the end of his era – a period of dominance that rallying has never seen before nor is likely to witness again.
When Loeb debuted in the World Rally Championship in 1999, the stars of the show were Tommi Makinen, Carlos Sainz, Richard Burns and Colin McRae. To win an event, you needed a Mitsubishi or Subaru or even a Peugeot as long as the charismatic Finn Marcus Gronholm was behind the wheel. Then came Loeb, larger than life, winning nine titles in a row, all of them with Citroen.
To see Loeb compete – in the Xsara, then the C4, and finally the DS3 – was to witnesses greatness. They said that a non-Scandinavian could never win Finland's 1000 Lakes Rally, but if you were to place a pebble on the apex at the exit of a curve combination there, every driver would be at least a meter away from the sweet spot – except Loeb. He deserves all platitudes, but his abdication of the “best driver in the world” opens up significant new prospects for the WRC. If changes have to be made, now is the time to make them.
The Acropolis Rally in Greece is one of the iconic events in the calendar, driven on dusty, stony gravel paths around the Isthmus of Corinth, treacherous for every part of its 654-mile course length. The spectators along the route love the WRC. They come in their thousands to get covered in dust and bombarded with gravel from the cars' back wheels. They barbecue at the roadside for the special stages, armed with flags and cameras. Year after year, they stare, gleeful and amazed, as the heroes tear past in their loud, colorful cars. Economic crisis, unemployment, bad mood? Not here, not now. Just put on your VW cap and Ford T-shirt and join the party!
Ancient Greek stories established that, before the status of hero can be conferred, there comes a test, which, at least in the short term, leads to failure. Sebastien Ogier (ABOVE RIGHT), the staunch, upright driver of the VW team, was tested in battle against Loeb last season, driving a second-tier Skoda S2000. The current world championship leader, now driving a Polo, he sets off first as clear favorite.
Drivers here have particular respect for two special stages: the first from Kineta to Pissia, because it's tough and long; the second, Kineta, because it's driven at night. The banks of hood-mounted spotlights on 300hp-plus four-wheel-drive cars can't hope to elicit every secret from Greek donkey trails. An average speed of around 56mph is expected on a road that would shred the nerves of normal drivers in normal cars at normal speeds.
Ogier is expected to win the night stage handsomely, with an intimidating time, but it doesn't turn out that way. After just 10 minutes at racing speed, the VW Polo R WRC and its fuel supply have stopped. It's all over for Ogier. Later, the mechanics will determine that the plug to the fuel pump has come loose, and who knows how that could have happened? A stupid problem, but decisive for the race.
It's dark in Greece, but everyone's wide awake. The king of the night (and the next morning) is Russian driver Evgeny Novikov (LEFT), with the co-driving genius Ilka Minor from Austria at his side. Minor earned her championship chops at the right hand of Manfred Stohl, for years the best privateer in WRC, and later proved a flawless guide to Norway's Henning Solberg. She is now leading a rally for the first time.
“Finally we're right where we're supposed to be,” she says, standing in the dark in the service area. Novikov's joy is more internalized. He was once the youngest driver to win a WRC special stage, but that pales beside tonight's achievement. Novikov has the biggest balls of all the top drivers, but the next morning he rips a brake disc on a concealed stone, and then a brake line, a wheel rim, a wheel, a strut. But, in the end the man from Moscow wins four of the Acropolis Rally's 14 special stages.
Mikko Hirvonen of Citroen (RIGHT) had high hopes for Greece, but the once unflappable Finn is flapping. His data says he is slow, but if a technical problem in the first special stage means your front wheels no longer do what your steering wheel commands, a light foot on the pedal is better ascribed to caution than cowardice. Nonetheless, Hirvonen, whose 15 WRC victories make him the most successful of the current drivers apart from Loeb, is a long way from fulfilling the role intended for him: to defend the world championship for Citroen Sport. Hirvonen is no Loeb, and that's rarely been more apparent than this season, of all seasons, the one that would really count.
For a long stretch of the rally, the battle for the lead moves in time-lapse. To force a decision requires reflexes rather than brain capacity: at the limits, the car must become a part of the body, a part you can position down to less than an inch while driving at 100mph on a gravel lane, running on instincts or blind trust in whatever your co-driver tells you.
Ogier is managing that best, and lately, so has his teammate, the 28-year-old Finn Jari-Matti Latvala, who has been rallying's “man of the future” for what seems like a decade. By turns lightning fast and error-prone, Latvala has finally found his niche at VW. For a while he was playing workhorse at Ford, but the cool, calm, clever VW motorsports director Jost Capito gives him space: “Everyone can be a winner here.”
With Ogier's technical problems, it's Latvala who carries the team's hopes in Greece, and he performs brilliantly. On the rutted, unyielding gravel piste, there's a rock or a hole lying in wait around every corner that can stop your race dead. But slow down too much and you become prey to opponents who will notice any reduction in pace instantly.
After winning the rally, Latvala thanks and hugs everyone on his triumphant return to the service park, even the mechanics for Ogier and his young Norwegian teammate Andreas Mikkelsen. Forging a dominant troupe out of a functional team and breaking Citroen's perpetual dominance within half a season: this is all Capito's doing. Capito says that the objective for the season is to “fight for one of the two championship titles, driver or team, until the end,” and he has an unlikely advocate in Latvala, who says he has “ended many seasons in the top three of the drivers' championship but never won the team championship. That's my goal for this year. Anything else, I'll take it as it comes.”
In 2014, manufacturers will be allowed to bring new, improved cars to the starting line. VW voluntarily waived this right, aware of its opponents' issues. Citroen is casting an eye on the touring car scene as a future sphere of activity. Ford's involvement is down to the personal interest of motorsports boss Malcolm Wilson, with no more participation from the manufacturing side. And if Hyundai steps up as a new manufacturer, it's only fair that they start on a level playing field.
One thing is clear: the WRC, a mighty live experience, a superior sporting series, is currently having trouble establishing its force on the ground. In most parts of Europe, Latvala can walk the streets unrecognized, “and when I'm on holiday in California I may as well be an alien,” he adds. If it were up to the Finn, he would make sure that WRC were broadcast live around the world.
He might be in luck, because there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes to ensure better presentation of the sport. (MAVTV has announced a deal to show WRC events here in the U.S.) And Latvala received the Acropolis Rally winner's trophy from FIA president Jean Todt, an honor rarely even accorded Formula 1 victors.
About 50 million people worldwide currently watch the WRC on television. With Red Bull Media House assuming control of the rights in cooperation with the Sportsman Media Group, the aim is to double this figure in the short-to-medium term. The FIA rally chief, Michèle Mouton and WRC race organizers are currently rethinking the format of the rallies. What about a marathon day without servicing, for example? How do you make the most of the special stages? What do you do on the Sundays? How about a shootout for the final special stage: the fastest and second- fastest in the rally to that point competing for first place, third- and fourth-fastest for third, and so on, until 10th?
There are lots of options and ideas on the table, ideas to be discussed, discarded, determined by vote or democratically replaced with something better. These are exciting times for the World Rally Championship.
This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of The Red Bulletin, a monthly magazine produced by Red Bull energy drink.