partial retirement means the WRC will crown a new champion this year and, at long last, there isn’t one competitor standing out as the favourite. Loeb – winner of 15 per cent of all WRC rallies ever held – will contest four rounds of the 2013 season with Citroen as he eases into retirement. That won’t 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 Citroen’s 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 – among a field of fiery young chargers – than ever before.
Questions remain over the competitiveness of the Polo WRC, which hasn’t yet run against the stopwatch, but the most comprehensive testing and development programme of recent years surely means that VW’s challenger will be on the pace in no time. The Jost Capito-led outfit is modestly targeting podiums in 2013 – publicly, at least – 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 isn’t one to embark upon any competitive pursuit with anything less than the total humiliation of his rivals as his goal, so don’t expect him to treat this season as a learning and development year. Make no mistake, he’ll want that first title.
Prodrive’s Mini World Rally Team. Although Sordo hasn’t 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 he’ll challenge for the title in 2013, but he hasn’t 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-Sport’s 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 VW’s unprecedented factory campaign, and one now fears for the state of the series should the oil money ever dry up.
Andreas Mikkelsen, 23, is another one to watch in 2013, for he’ll 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 Loeb’s selected outings in settled conditions, it’s difficult to imagine the Frenchman not racking up a seventh Monte win. The forecast, however, is for snow. Loeb wasn’t at his best on this rally’s snowy stages last year and it’s 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 isn’t any margin for error.
As it stands, the outcome of Rallye Monte Carlo and the entire 2013 season is fiendishly difficult to predict and that hasn’t been true for close to a decade. British interest in the series is still marginal, though, for there’ll 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 championship’s 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 shouldn’t extend the WRC the courtesy of considering it anything other than a championship in decline. At least the foundations are now in place.