Posted by: hillad | October 31, 2009

Racing At It’s Best

250px-WRCThe World Rally Championship(WRC) recently ended their season with the Wales Rally. The race culminated a barnstorming battle this season between rivals Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen. Loeb being the 5 time consecutive rally champion coming into the season was expected to win once again. And he started brilliantly by winning the first five rallies of the year in Ireland, Norway, Cyprus, Portugal, and Argentina. It looked like he was going to run away with the title and have his best year yet. People were even murmuring about him possibly winning every rally in the calendar year.

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Loeb's mangled car after flipping in Greece

But then something strange happened, Loeb, who has been known for his ability to avoid mechanical trouble, became cursed at the Rally Italy. While playing cat and mouse games with Hirvonen, Loeb got a puncture and had to change it in the middle of the stage losing many valuable seconds. To add insult to injury, Loeb was charged with an additional time penalty due to his co-driver, Daniel Elena, unbuckling his safety harness before the car had come to a complete stop. Hirvonen also had some problems with dust clouds and had to finish second to his fellow Finn and teammate Jari-Matti Latvala(Mr. Enigma). Then in the Acropolis Rally in Greece, Loeb flipped his car and had to retire gaining no points and his rival getting all 10.  Again in the next rally, Rally Poland, Loeb had to retire again after hitting a hidden tree stump on th edge of the road. He was able to restart the next day but had to lean on the kindness of his other Citroen drivers to finish 7th. But the damage was done and Hirvonen took the Championship lead by a single point. Then came Rally Finland, Mikko Hirvonen’s home rally, where the Finn delivered a win for his fans, though Loeb finished second narrowly escaping incident with a damaged tire. The curse continued with Rally Australia. Loeb finished ahead of Hirvonen, but the victory was short lived when it was discovered that the Citroen team had irregularities in their roll bars. And thus were penalized a minute from their time, giving the victory and a larger points lead to Hirvonen. 4 consecutive rally wins for the Finn. With only two rallies left and five points behind Hirvonen it was looking like Loeb’s reign in the WRC was over.

But Loeb had other plans…

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Sordo in action saving Loeb's bacon

The second to last rally of the season was in Spain, a tarmac rally. Loeb is bar none the best tarmac rally driver in the world, but even if he won both the last two rallies and Hirvonen finished second, Hirvonen would win the Championship. So Loeb called on his teammate Dani Sordo, a Spaniard, to hold off Hirvonen for second place. And that’s exactly what he did, Sordo even out-drove Loeb for much of the rally, pulling out the best performance of his young career. The plan came to fruition, it ended Loeb 1st Sordo 2nd Hirvonen 3rd. So it was going to come down to the last rally. Rally Wales.

In a winner take all scenario, no one knew what to expect. Both Loeb and Hirvonen had won Rally Wales in the past, and both were going to be driving at the very limit of grip. It was bound to be historic. The conditions were traditionally Welsh, rainy and muddy, which made it likely mistakes would be made.

Loeb got off to a good start on day one by winning the first three stages only to see Hirvonen close within a few seconds of the world champion by the end of the day’s racing. However, there was a problem in the Ford camp. For some reason their drive shafts were failing, with Jari-Matti Latvala and Khalid al-Qassimi having to stop before the end of the day. Was Hirvonen’s car going to hold up? That would be seen in day two.

Mikko Hirvonen got off to a good start on day two as he beat Loeb in the first stage to get even closer to the lead. Things weren’t looking all that good for Loeb, Hirvonen was snapping at his heels and seemed to have all the momentum.  Sebastien Loeb then showed why he is considered by many to be the best rally driver in history and pulled away from Hirvonen by 25 seconds in the next two stages. Hirvonen was just left shaking his head and blaming some phantom problem with the car. He had some serious work to do in order to get back into contention and it showed in the following stage as he won but almost crashed a couple times pushing to the very limit. Loeb answered by winning the next two stages to take a 30 second lead into the third day.

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Hirvonen's hood coming off blinding him

Day Three, the day the champion would be crowned. Would it be a Frenchman or a Finn? Mikko Hirvonen got off to a good start by winning the first stage, but didn’t gain enough time to put a large dent in Loeb’s lead. Then in the second stage, Hirvonen took a big chunk out of Loeb’s lead almost halving it. Loeb was having problems with his turbo. At this rate Loeb would lose his lead on the very last stage of the season to his rival. Hirvonen knew something was wrong with Loeb and pushed especially hard. Then a miracle happened, the Driving Gods came down from the heavens and presented Loeb with the greatest gift he’s gotten as a driver. Hirvonen’s hood came undone after landing a jump, practically blinding him from seeing the road. Disaster for Hirvonen. The only option was to get out and frantically toss the hood away without losing too much time. But the damage had been done. Stopping had cost Hirvonen more than a minute, an eternity in rally racing.  And that was that, Loeb was able to get to the end and celebrate.

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Loeb the 2009 Champion

A sixth consecutive Driver’s Championship as well as winning the Manufacturer’s Championship a week prior. Sebastien Loeb is quite simply the best driver in the world right now. I’m one of those people who doesn’t like watching a team or a person endlessly winning and I’m not Loeb’s biggest fan(Petter Solberg fan), but I recognize true greatness when I see it. The greats like Michael Jordan, Ted Williams, Joe Montana, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Michael Schumacher, and Sebastien Loeb.

You can get more info at the wonderful WRC.com

Also a note, our Gymkhana friend Ken Block will be participating in a number of rallies next season in the WRC. So we can look forward to that.

So I hope next season will be as exciting as the last. And it starts again, this time in snowy Sweden in mid February. Will Loeb win it again? I wouldn’t bet against him.

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