Friday, March 31, 2006

WRC Prognosis

The World Rally Championship is a rather different beast this year and, despite many people moaning about its downfall, might actually be in better shape than ever.

I was lucky enough to visit the Swedish Rally in 2003, at a time when there were 6 factory teams. Four of them, Peugeot, Citroen, Hyundai and Ford were running 3 cars, making for a total of 16 factory entries in a rally which traditionally does not see much attrition. This year there were 14 manufacturer entries in the two classes.

I remember being surprised by the number of WRC cars being run by privateers such as Janne Tuohino, Juuso Pykalisto and Anthony Warmbold. There were in fact a total of 29 World Rallycars entered. This year in Sweden there were 26. It’s safe to say the amount of fast machinery hasn’t changed significantly in three years.

The biggest difference appears to be the level of driver talent. In 2006, the top 8 were covered by 9 minutes. Back in ’03 you would have to go back to 16th before you found a 9 minute gap. To me that says in 2006 there’s a select group of really fast drivers that make the others look slow.

I’ll be the first to admit that this year’s championship is likely to be a dogfight between Marcus Gronholm and Sebastien Loeb, whereas 3 years ago you had Makinen, McRae, Sainz, Burns and Solberg all in with a chance as well. So from that perspective, yes, the WRC is worse off. But this year, the “interlopers”, those drivers showing up on the podium, or ready to pick up the pieces when the superstars have problems, are much more numerous. Having so many stars like in ’03, no-one else had a shot. But this year, just look at the “second-tier” drivers who have stood on WRC podiums: Daniel Carlsson, Dani Sordo, Manfred Stohl and Toni Gardemeister. All of them were surprises and all of them made for a great story: Spain’s wonderkid, possibly the next Sainz, achieves 2nd in his home rally; a Swede, dropped by Mitsubishi, only to return in the same car, gets on the podium after a riveting battle; a former factory Ford driver cobbles together enough money to run a car that was always underachieving and gets 3rd in the first event of the season… This is all good stuff and is more in line with what rallying is supposed to be about – we’re talking about success against the odds, staying in the game and pure driving skill. This is not a case of millions of factory dollars buying podiums, and that can only be a good thing in the long run.

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