Season Preview 2012: WRC

By on Sunday, January 15, 2012

Loeb is gunning for number nine...

After a tumultuous few weeks for the World Rally Championship, with promoters and organisers arguing over the rights to the sport, the WRC season kicks off in Monte Carlo this week.

Without elaborating into too much detail, there was the very real risk that Monte was off and the championship in tatters. As it is, North One Sport has closed and Eurosport has picked up the rights. Eurosport’s influence can only be positive for a series that has become increasingly beleaguered over recent years with the domination of Sebastien Loeb, the lack of manufacturers and the rise of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge.

It still isn’t all good news though. Loeb is still around and now with a team mate unlikely to challenge his authority. Mini is under financial pressure, while Volkswagen’s entry with the Polo is still a year away. Here’s the lowdown of the year ahead.

Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena will be aiming for an astonishing ninth successive title. Loeb already has the Monte Carlo win almost in the bag (such is his record in the event) and now has Mikko Hirvonen riding shotgun, rather than the impetuously arrogant Sebastien Ogier. For Loeb, Ogier was the anti-Christ. While Loeb is still a relatively quiet and humble eight times world champion, Ogier was the brash youngster, threatening the hierarchy of a team that Loeb had built himself. Management reshuffles mean that those higher up in the team now favour Loeb and with Ogier out of contentions for wins this season, Loeb must be rather satisfied. Not that he will say it of course.

After several seasons of finishing as runner-up to Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen now gets to drive a car with ‘2’ slapped on several windows and panels. Not that Loeb will accept that, as the Frenchman told Autosport magazine last week that if Mikko was fastest, he’d be number one. There’d be no point fighting within the team and losing the championship. However, after years of Dani Sordo being Loeb’s whipping boy, you’d believe that Mikko won’t be allowed to win the title. Let’s see.

Neuville will be looking to make an impression

Also driving a Citroen DS3 are Nassar Al-Attiyah and Thierry Neuville. The Belgian driver, 24, is tipped as Sebastien Loeb’s heir and it will be interesting to see how Neuville, an established quick driver in IRC, will fare in the WRC

Ford has a genuinely exciting line-up, with Jari-Matti Latvala joined at the team by Petter Solberg. Latvala was the fastest of the Ford duo in 2011, albeit held back by team orders, mechanical probles and the occasional error. Seven gravel rallies will help the Finn, although it is on tarmac where the impact will need to be made. Beating Loeb – and potentially, Dani Sordo – on tarmac will be a difficult proposition. Therefore taking any opportunities will be key, although you’d think that Loeb’s bad luck struck in 2011 what with an hot-headed team mate, a puncture in Germany and an engine failure on home ground. Petter Solberg re-joins Ford after several years in the privateer doldrums and is clear on his role: he is the number two. For Solberg, and his legions of supporters, the fact the Norwegian is still around is a massive bonus. The only man to have beaten Loeb to a title, Solberg faced the end of his WRC career as he would not have been able to fund another year privately. Now, he has the potential to stand on top of the podium for the first time in seven years. Astonishingly, it has been that long since he last won a rally. Exciting youngsters Ott Tanak, Evgeny Novikov and Mads Ostberg will drive Ford Fiestas this season, although the pressure will be on Novikov to eradicate the errors. All eyes will be on Ostberg to see whether he can replicate his stunning 2011 form in Sweden in February.

Ford launched their car at the Autosport Show

Mini managed to shoot themselves in the foot by not giving Kris Meeke a full time seat, although Spaniard Dani Sordo will still enter all rounds in the Countryman. He will be joined by a variety of pay drivers, which doesn’t give off strong signals about BMW’s commitment to rallying. The strong rumour is that BMW is afraid of Volkswagen’s 2013 entry and fear they may be embarrassed. It’s a great shame when you consider the positive publicity Mini’s initial return to the WRC generated.

Away from entrants there are a few rule changes. Shakedown becomes a qualifying event in order to determine running order on Day One, while the running order will be reversed on the remaining days to avoid the tactical nonsense that has plagued gravel rallies for several seasons.

In terms of rounds, there will be thirteen events this season. New Zealand replaces Australia, while Britain and Spain swap places, with the organisers hoping that Wales in September will be a bit sunnier.

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