Wednesday 16th January 2013


WRC 2013: PREVIEW

Only one thing is certain: Loeb won't be champion at the end of it


If a sport thrives on competition, itís a wonder we have a World Rally Championship in 2013. For far too many years the series has posed no new questions and its fans have grown weary of the familiar old answers. Owing to a single development, however, the forthcoming season has thrown up a raft of new questions to which we currently have no answers.

Loeb's retirement means Hirvonen's favourite
Loeb's retirement means Hirvonen's favourite
Sebastien Loebís partial retirement means the WRC will crown a new champion this year and, at long last, there isnít one competitor standing out as the favourite. Loeb Ė winner of 15 per cent of all WRC rallies ever held Ė will contest four rounds of the 2013 season with Citroen as he eases into retirement. That wonít be enough to give him the 2013 title, though, and there are no fewer than five names in the running to take on his mantle.

Mikko Hirvonen has the best record of any of the 2013 full-timers having finished as runner-up to Loeb four times, but with just four rally wins to his credit over the past three years one does wonder if he still has the sheer speed to challenge for the title. Competing as Citroenís lead driver in the DS3 WRC might just rekindle the motivation that appears to have waned since the Finn lost out on the 2009 title by a single point, and his Mr Consistency reputation will count for more Ė among a field of fiery young chargers Ė than ever before.

Latvala and Ogier should provide fireworks
Latvala and Ogier should provide fireworks
Former team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala switches to the debutant VW team for 2013 having competed in M-Sport Ford machinery since 2007. Legendary rally car designer Christian Loriaux considers 27-year-old Latvala as the fastest rally driver heís ever seen; if the seven-time rally winner can finally harness that pace and resist his characteristic mistakes, he could be unbeatable.

Questions remain over the competitiveness of the Polo WRC, which hasnít yet run against the stopwatch, but the most comprehensive testing and development programme of recent years surely means that VWís challenger will be on the pace in no time. The Jost Capito-led outfit is modestly targeting podiums in 2013 Ė publicly, at least Ė but expect rally wins as a minimum.

Latvala will partner Sebastien Ogier this season, forming the most incendiary driver line-up for a generation. The young Frenchman isnít one to embark upon any competitive pursuit with anything less than the total humiliation of his rivals as his goal, so donít expect him to treat this season as a learning and development year. Make no mistake, heíll want that first title.

Sordo will switch from Mini back to Citroen
Sordo will switch from Mini back to Citroen
Spaniard Dani Sordo returns to the Citroen outfit, with which he secured 28 podium results between 2006 and 2010, after an ultimately disappointing stint with Prodriveís Mini World Rally Team. Although Sordo hasnít yet won a round of the series, he must be considered a contender for his considerable experience and blinding sealed-surface pace.

The final name in the frame is a contentious one; Mads Ostberg. The 25-year-old Norwegian is a WRC rally winner having prevailed in the extraordinary 2012 Rallye de Portugal. Some commentators insist that heíll challenge for the title in 2013, but he hasnít yet shown the outright pace on a sufficiently regular basis to sway this commentator. Still, every great driver has a breakthrough year in which he discredits his doubters; this could be his.

Ostberg will lead M-Sportís campaign this year, which does without the official backing of Ford for the first time. The team is instead funded by the Middle Eastern state Qatar, as Citroen now takes much of its backing from Abu Dhabi. Time will tell if such arrangements can prove a match for the might of VWís unprecedented factory campaign, and one now fears for the state of the series should the oil money ever dry up.

M-Sport team will be backed by Qatar this year
M-Sport team will be backed by Qatar this year
The Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team is one of future promise, for alongside Ostberg will run Belgian Thierry Neuville and Russian Evgeny Novikov. All three Fiesta WRC drivers will upset their more experienced rivals on occasion this year. Weíll discuss their names in the manner that we currently do Ogier, Hirvonen and Latvala in years to come.

Andreas Mikkelsen, 23, is another one to watch in 2013, for heíll compete in a works Polo WRC from Rallye de Portugal onwards. Twice a champion of the now defunct Intercontinental Rally Challenge, the Norwegian will likely score podiums this year.

The season gets underway this week at the most celebrated rally of them all: Rallye Monte Carlo. As one of Loebís selected outings in settled conditions, itís difficult to imagine the Frenchman not racking up a seventh Monte win. The forecast, however, is for snow. Loeb wasnít at his best on this rallyís snowy stages last year and itís an effective leveller. Advantages in car performance will count for much less than correct tyre choice, and with no restarts for any driver who crashes out, there simply isnít any margin for error.

Will a switch to Citroen reinvigorate Hirvonen?
Will a switch to Citroen reinvigorate Hirvonen?
Snow could swing the rally in favour of the Northern European drivers. In that instance, do also keep an eye on Juho Hanninen. The Finn is the fastest driver in the world outside of the WRC regulars. With a two-rally deal with M-Sport in his pocket, Hanninen has an opportunity to prove that heís worthy of a full-time WRC ride.

As it stands, the outcome of Rallye Monte Carlo and the entire 2013 season is fiendishly difficult to predict and that hasnít been true for close to a decade. British interest in the series is still marginal, though, for thereíll not be a single home-grown talent competing in the top flight and television coverage on these shores will be limited to the Welsh-language channel S4C.

WRC has been trading on promises for far too long. Interested stakeholders continue to tell us that the new promoter, Red Bull Media House, has the know-how to turn the series around, but for those of us who adore the sport as enthusiasts the championshipís credit rating has defaulted. Until it proves to be a series on the up with innovative promotion and broadcasting, expanding manufacturer interest and genuinely exciting competition, we shouldnít extend the WRC the courtesy of considering it anything other than a championship in decline. At least the foundations are now in place.

Author: Dan Prosser
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