WRC 2013 Comment:
The king is dead, long live the king! As the WRC bandwagon arrived in France the inevitable finally happened. VW’s French ace Sébastien Ogier, one championship point shy of the title after victory in Australia, watched on as Citroën’s Dani Sordo went fastest on the opening power stage. With the Spaniard claiming three bonus points, Ogier’s last remaining title rival, Thierry Neuville, saw his paper thin hopes of catching the Frenchman finally disappear. And with that, a new King Sébastien ascended to the WRC throne.
In truth, the events of Thursday evening came as a surprise to nobody; Neuville would have needed the biggest sporting miracle of all time to overturn the 83 point deficit with three rounds remaining. Yet the scenes on the streets of Strasbourg still seemed very serial. Ogier had been crowned champion without even turning a wheel in anger, with organisers taking the unusual step of running the power stage on the first evening, and with three whole days of competition ahead of them, the flying Frenchman and co-driver Julien Ingrassia had no time to celebrate. It is surely a testament to the pair’s concentration and professionalism that after such a euphoric and emotionally draining evening, they got back in the car, knuckled down and won the rally! Winning, it seems, is definitely a habit.
However, as one empire conquers another must fall. Since the momentous announcement at the end of last season that the reigning world champion would not be defending his title, WRC fans the world over have known that Rallye de France 2013 would be the final bow of Sébastien Loeb. A legend with almost no parallel, the Alsatian has utterly dominated the sport for the last decade. His nine back to back world titles have afforded him almost mythical status and, for his swansong, Loeb was hoping to delight the home crowd for one last time with victory in the very streets where he secured his seventh world title in 2010. The stage was set, the crowds were out to salute their hero, even the car was adorned in special livery commemorating his career achievements: 168 rallies, 116 podiums, 78 wins, 9 world championships. However, the legend did not end, as so many would have hoped, with Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena holding trophy number 79 aloft above the adoring masses. Instead, the career of WRC’s most revered ever competitor concluded with his Citroën DS3 WRC upturned in a ditch on a deserted county lane, deep in the rain-soaked French countryside. An inauspicious ending to such an illustrious career. Of course, nobody doubts that Loeb has gone out at the top of his game, wins in Monaco and Argentina this year are ample proof of that, but the timing and circumstances of his exit seemed all the more symbolic.
Almost relegated to a sideshow, the rally itself saw some genuinely thrilling action. At various points, no less than five different drivers held the lead. Loeb began strongly but it was Neuville who set the early pace, holding a healthy 16 second lead by the end of day two. However, a puncture put pay to the M-Sport man’s chances and by stage 13 Latvala, Sordo, Ogier and Loeb were locked in a tense tussle for top spot, with just 5.5 seconds separating the quartet. But by the time Loeb rolled out of contention his younger compatriot was already pulling clear, recovering sublimely from a lethargic showing on day two, the morning after the night before, as it were. Four stages later and it was mission accomplished, with Ogier and Ingrassia completing an unforgettable championship and rally double on home turf. For the French fans who packed the streets there were mixed feelings. There may have been no fairy-tale ending for the man they had idolised for the last nine years but they did get to witness the coronation of a new hero, a man who will keep the tricolour flying high over WRC for at least another year.
So as we head to Spain for the penultimate instalment of WRC 2013 with the big issue already wrapped up, one question still remains. Will Séb Mk II be able to emulate his illustrious predecessor and go on to forge his own legacy of dominance? One thing is for sure, with new talents like Neuville waiting in the wings, old rivals gunning harder than ever to shoot him down and brand new manufacturers entering the fray, next year the competition will certainly be tougher for the defending champion. But that is a question for another day. Right now, all attention turns to Tarragona for Rally de España and the only mixed asphalt and gravel event of the season. With everyone looking to finish the season strongly, will VW and Ogier once again reign supreme? Can a rejuvenated Dani Sordi take the spoils in his own back yard? Or will Belgian ace Thierry Neuville finally break his WRC duck?
Although the streets of Alsace may have fallen quiet once more until next year, the momentous events of Rallye de France 2013 mean that it will be remembered as perhaps the most significant moment in WRC for a decade. The passing of the baton, the changing of the guard, call it what you will, but the old regime has fallen and the world of WRC will pay homage to a different Sébastien from now on.