Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sebastien Loeb and Citroen Racing Untouchable in the land of the Long White Cloud, while Ford WRT Are Left licking Their Wounds, Again

Auckland New Zealand; The WRC as of late has become all too predictable and more often than not the overall winner is decided on the first day of the event. 2012 Brother Rally New Zealand was no different; Citroens Sebastien Loeb would once again take control of the rally on the first day, and basically never looked back.
Over the past few years many in the sport have grumbled that 8 time WRC Champion Sebastien Loeb is now bad for the sport, that he has become the Michael Schumacher of rally. Maybe there is merit in this thinking, as rally fans tend to tune out on certain rallies once Loeb takes control.
But should we outcast one who is so perfect in his art, because no driver can match his pace, on any consistent level that is?
Can Loeb be beat?, of course he can, does Loeb make mistakes? Of course he does, he’s only human [I think] but with the combination of Loeb, Daniel Elena and  Citroen’s DS3 WRC it just seems like they are a full step ahead of any other team in the World Rally Championship. Loeb won 7 out of the 22 stages on his way to victory on Rally New Zealand.
In the case of Brother Rally New Zealand 2012, Loeb was aided to victory in no small part by poor tire selection in the Ford camp, for the first four stages of the rally. It’s crazy to think that a rally of 22 stages was decided so early. Yet Loeb the perfectionist felt his performance was not perfect,
“It’s been a long weekend and my driving has not been perfect,” admitted Loeb. “We made a few mistakes in the closing Power Stage when we were pushing too hard but the most important thing is that we have won. It was an exciting battle with Mikko [Hirvonen] yesterday but it’s good to leave here with a victory.”
Loeb’s Citroen teammate Mikko Hirvonen was the closest to knocking Loeb off his throne in New Zealand. After putting in one hell of a battle over the first two days Mikko admitted at the end of day two that he could not match Loeb’s pace. Heading into day three word came down from the Citroen mother ship to play nice, and hold positions, game over.
Mikko Hirvonen would back off the push on Loeb on the final day and settle in to take his Citroen home in second overall; Mikko claimed four stages wins along the way.
Ford/MSport WRT came into round # 7 of the 2012 WRC with high hopes of taking it to Loeb and Citroen. In the days leading up to the start of the rally, Ford did not  identified a driver to lead the charge, it was more of a case of letting Petter Solberg and Jari-Matti Latvala chase for the win, and decide who would push for victory should the opportunity arise.  
Any hope of a Ford WRT driver grabbing the top step of the podium in New Zealand was quickly squashed on Friday, starting with a wrong tire choice for/by Petter Solberg and then Latvala going off the road on SS7.
Down but not out, Petter Solberg and co-driver Chris Patterson got to work mid day Friday and began their push back to the podium. With the Citroen boys, Loeb and Hirvonen well over a minute ahead after only four stages, the only option for Petter was to narrow the gap of 29s to third, take it and protect it. By the close of business on day one Petter was within 8.3 second of the low spot on the podium.
Solberg  would open big on day-two taking the stage win on SS9 and in doing so he grabbed the final podium spot. Petter would see little or no pressure for his position from the rest of the field, but readily admitted that the bridge to second was just too far.
 “I am very happy to have made it through the rally, especially after what happened on the first day,” said Solberg at the finish.
“We came here to win but a third place is still good so we must be happy with that. The team and the car is fantastic, but we just need to keep going and hopefully one day soon a win will follow.”
While Solberg lost a massive amount of time on the first four stages of day-one, Fords second driver Jari-Matti Latvala managed to stay within 16s of leader Hirvonen, but an off on the afternoon stages ended any chances of Jari's hopes in New Zealand.

Determined to save face, Latvala would put in one last big push for his Ford World Rally Team by taking victory on the final stage of the rally, SS22, Burnside/Wech Access, the power stage, therefore ending an otherwise disastrous outing at Brother Rally New Zealand. The win on the power stage meant that Latvala would bag 3 valuable points. Latvala would eventually finish 7th overall. With continued mistakes by Latvala while under pressure; his position in the team will also be under pressure, can Latvala wipe the slate clean with a victory at home in Finland?.
Both Ford and Citroen can come away more than satisfied with the performance of their young guns, Ford’s Evgeny Novikov[RUS] held off Citroens Thierry Neuville [BEL] by a mere 28s to finish 4th and 5th respectively.
For American Rally fans and his Hoonigan Nation, Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino put in a very respectable drive in New Zealand, bringing the Monster World Rally Ford Fiesta home in 9th overall.
"I'd like to do all of today’s stages again,” said Block at the end of day two, “These are absolutely my favorite roads in the world and this has been the most enjoyable day of my rallying career despite one little spin. I hope conditions stay dry for tomorrow so we can continue to enjoy these roads."
Block added: "We have just been sliding from camber to camber and having a ball out there today. I did some of these stages back in 2007 for Whangerai Rally in a Group N car so I have some experience. They are just incredible to drive and I’ve had a brilliant day.”  

Block’s experience on the WRC is really starting to show, Ken came out on top of a battle with Austrian rally legend Manfred Stohl who was also driving a Ford Fiesta RS. With a very limited schedule in 2012, this is Blocks second top ten finish on  two events, Ken finished 9th overall in Mexico in March.
Hayden Patton took the  top spot in SWRC on this his home rally, Hayden and fellow Kiwi John Kennard placed their S2000 Skoda Fabia 12th overall in the Rally.
Next up for the WRC will be Nestle Oil Rally Finland, a rally that was almost always dominated by the Flying Finns until recent years. We expect to see a big push from Latvala, but with his current form Loeb will again be the favorite.
Sebastien Loeb and Ken Block will depart from New Zealand and head directly to the USA where they will both compete at X Games Los Angles in RallyCross. This will be a first for Loeb competing in RallyCross at this level; it will also be a chance for Loeb to compete with his old rival Marcus Gronholm. Rally World News will be on hand in Los Angles to give a firsthand account of all the action from XGames RallyCross.

By Neil McDaid
Sources; WRC