Thursday, January 18, 2007

WRC Preview

With what must be the shortest winter break of any major motorsport, the World Rally Championship returns to action this weekend with the 75th running of the Monte Carlo Rally. Typically this event features unpredictable surfaces and weather, but the winner in the past few years has been anything but - if it wasn't for a slight slip on the first leg last year, Sebastien Loeb would have made it four wins in a row. Come to think of it, a small infringement in 2002 (tyre changing in parc ferme) was all that stopped Loeb from starting his run of victories one year earlier.

The Monte is not the best place to get a feel for the form of the year's WRC entrants due its unique nature, but that shouldn't stop us taking a look at the main contenders for 2007.

Citroen Total World Rally Team: Citroen return in full-factory guise this year with a new car, the C4, and it's this detail that casts some doubt over whether they'll be as dominant as they have been in the past. Admittedly the car has been testing for a year now, so should be well-developed, but no matter how hard a team tries, testing will never replicate the rigours of competition. They have possibly the greatest rally driver of all time behind the wheel of the 1 car, Seb Loeb, so if anyone can maximize the C4's performance, it's him. Joining him is the extremely fast Dani Sordo, whose development is mirroring Loeb's: initially fast on tarmac, improving on gravel but having some big spills in the process. Look at Loeb's results in 2002 to get an idea of where Sordo will finish.

BP Ford World Rally Team: Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen both performed extremely well in 2006, and there's no reason to doubt a repeat performance in 2007. Now that Mikko has learnt consistency, the big question is how hard will he push Marcus this year? The latest version of the Focus should have gotten past any teething troubles, unlike its Citroen rival, so expect a much closer battle this year.

Subaru World Rally Team: Subaru had their worst season since 1994 last year, and many people blamed that on the Pirelli tyres that only Subaru was using. Now they've switched to the same BF Goodrich rubber that everyone else is on, so the playing field is theoretically level again. This should return Petter Solberg to a competitive pace, and give Chris Atkinson no more excuses. It's a make or break year for the Aussie. I'm voting for "break".

OMV Kronos Citroen World Rally Team: In a marriage of convenience Kronos (without drivers or sponsors but with cars) joins up with Manfred Stohl (flush with OMV sponsorship but without a drive). This leaves Stohl's previous team, Bozian Peugeot, somewhat in the wilderness, and it is undetermined what they'll be doing in 2007. Kronos can expect a solid year with occasional podiums and consistent points finishes, especially with Swedish hotshot Daniel Carlsson in the second car for a number of events. Carlsson turned in an exceptional performance in a Mitsubishi at the Swedish Rally last year but couldn't find the funding for any additional drives. The Belgian outfit will be a significantly smaller operation than last year, when they functioned as a quasi-factory Citroen team.

Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team: Stobart return as Ford's "B" team, and rather sensibly have decided to not have Matthew Wilson be nominated for manufacturer points. That duty will fall to new signing Henning Solberg and young, fast Finn Jari-Matti Latvala. Wilson continues, but as a third driver. Solberg should be worth some mid-points finishes and if luck goes his way might pick up a podium. Latvala is the more exciting prospect - a 5th on Rally GB last year proved his talent, and he's got previous experience with Ford in the WRC and British championship. What may hold the team back a little is the fact they'll be running with one-year-old cars.

Munchi's Ford Rally Team: This will be Ford's third team, funded with sponsorship from Luis-Perez Companc. Partnering the beaver-like Argentinian will be Juan-Pablo Raies. Companc's beaver impressions went beyond appearance last year - he seemed to be very good at finding trees to munch on, and when he wasn't crashing, he was slow. The Red Bull Skoda team may be gone, but Munchi's will be a perfect successor for the title of "basement team". Incidentally, Munchi's is an Argentinian ice cream manufacturer, and their website shows some very tasty treats...

The others: We'll see the usual supporting cast this year, headed by Mitsubishi, who have committed to three events but will likely run most of the season, except perhaps for the long-haul rallies. Toni Gardemeister will be very quick, as usual, and will almost certainly upset the six manufacturer teams from time to time. Team-mate Xavier Pons will be less of a threat but has a full-season's experience to help him.

Irishman Gareth MacHale plans on doing 11 events, and will swap his venerable Focus WRC03 for something newer after Monte Carlo.

Khalid Al-Qassimi's plans finally came together, with a Subaru Impreza WRC his weapon of choice for a full-season campaign.

Gigi Galli has once again secured backing from Pirelli and will compete in eight rallies. He'll be using one of the PH Sport Citroen Xsaras this time around, possibly the chassis used so successfully by Gardemeister last year.

Other drivers we can expect to see from time to time include Francois Duval, Guy Wilks, Thomas Schie, Jan Kopecky, Janne Tuohino, Jussi Valimaki and Stephane Sarrazin.

Most tantalizing of all though will be the arrival of Suzuki towards the end of the year, and Travis Pastrana at three unnamed events in a Group N Subaru. Both new arrivals will be a taste of things to come in 2008 and beyond.

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