The final of this year’s World Rally Championship was nothing short of dramatic. It was going to decide whether 7 times world Champion Loeb was going claim an 8th title, making him the most successful rally driver of all time.
Or, could Mikko Hirvonen snatch it from him and finally claim a WRC title?
Heading to Wales last weekend, we were all set ready to watch the new evolution of WRC cars battle it out.
One of the reasons for the new evolution of smaller cars was to bring more manufacturers into the championship, with Mini joining Ford and Citroën for 6 events in this year and VW joining in 2012, when the Mini WRC team will complete its first full championship.
The other reason was to close the gap between drivers – something it has evidentially done with only 0.2secs separating 1st and 2nd in Jordan early this year, and a full on battle raging between Hirvonen and Loeb going into this: Rally GB, the final the 2011 championship.
The first day saw Loeb ahead of Hirvonen by just 0.7secs. Hirvonen knew that he would be slower on the initial stages of the rally but said he could make it up. Mainly taking place on cocktail of gravel and mud stages, the cars were wearing the appropriate tall, narrow tyres through the opening stages, which actually took place on tarmac, around the roads of the Great Orme.
Although behind, he said that everything went as planned, and that “even if I’m 10 seconds behind, I’ll make it up”.
Confident, but with good reason. Just 3 stages into the second day, and Hirvonen had taken the lead, converting a 0.7sec shortfall into a 0.4sec lead. He was all set to take the championship, but would still need Loeb, who hasn’t lost a championship since 2004, to finish at least 3 places behind him. The battle was very much on, and he needed ‘Luck-of-the-gods’ Loeb to run out of fortune.
It was Hirvonen’s luck, however, that would run out first.
Racing through the Welsh forests on the next Special Stage (7 – Dyfnant), he span out, hitting debris on the side of the road. He quickly recovered from his spin, but the damage was done. The front radiator was punchered, and the Ford lost cooling, quickly overheating. Cutting out later in the stage, 3 minutes past before the Ford coughed into life and he could finish, with his Fiesta WRC sounding incredibly ill.
All he could do was get to the service area. Luckily, this was the next port of call in the Welsh Rally. He wasn’t to make it, though. Cutting out again, the Ford wouldn’t re-start. Hirvonen’s rally, and battle for the drivers’ championship, was over.
The rally seemed to lose its sparkle from here on in; Loeb was going to be crowned champion regardless of his position, as he had too big a point advantage over the other competitors – he didn’t even need to finish to gain his 8th title, something he would rely on later in the rally.
The following days…
Day 2 came to a close with Loeb 1.1secs ahead of Hirvonen’s team mate Latvala. By the end of Day 3, Loeb now cruising to the finish had dropped to 2nd place and was 6.1secs behind. Little did he know an incident would force him to retire early the following day.
We watched Loeb blast through Stage 18, opening the final day of the championship in the WRC. Moving to the next stage, Loeb was no-where to be seen. Although he was taking a leisurely approach to the event now his main rival was out, he shouldn’t have been this slow. Then we heard an announcement that Loeb was out.
Between stages, a Spanish driver had served to miss Loeb on the Welsh roads, but had gone the wrong way. Crashing head on, he damaged the DS3 WRC’s radiator and Loeb retired for the same mechanical fault as Hirvonen had just two days before. He explains the incident on the WRC.com website:
“We were on a road section and hit a car front on. I moved to the side of the road but we are in Wales and he is not Welsh so he went on the wrong side and we crashed. It was not a big impact but the radiator is holed, so we cannot go on. That’s it. But okay, we are world champion so no problems.”- Loeb
As ever, Loeb was cool and calm. Although he was now the world’s most successful rally driver, he didn’t make a song or dance about the incident or mock how his retirement hadn’t cost him anything, unlike his rival Hirvonen, who had retired into second place. For a 6th time in a row, the Finn had missed out on a WRC title.
Hirvonen ended in a well deserved second place, but just days after his disappointing finish, it has been revealed that he will no longer be a rival to Loeb, but in fact his teammate – after a startling revelation, Hirvonen is to join Loeb and drive for Citroen in 2012.
Looking into 2012
This, in my eyes, is a real shame – I can’t think of anything better that this battle continuing next year – the two big manufacturers, Ford and Citroën, battling it out as the two drivers lock horns in combat. Perhaps Loeb’s ex-teammate Ogier could upset the boat by joining Ford and taking the title. Now that is something you should definitely look out for. Ford, are you listening?
Another one to watch will be Mini, who is due to complete their first full season next year. Speaking to the BBC, David Richard, the Mini Team Principal said he “always knew we could make a great car from the Mini”.
Time will tell if this is true or not, but claiming they have created a world favourite is, for me, a step too far.
“And we always knew the Mini was a very appealing brand. We put the two together and we’ve created the world’s favourite rally car!”- Richards
Strong words, but it seems like the battle for 2012 has already started – if Ford secures Ogier, you’ll have two French-Finnish teams head to head.
I know I’ll be there watching. Will you?