Monday, October 29, 2007

Loeb vs. Gronholm - mistakes

After two incredibly dull tarmac rallies, this weekend's WRC event in Japan was full of drama. As it has been throughout the season, Marcus Gronholm has made mistakes when we expected them, and Seb Loeb has made them when we haven't.

Things started as we've come to expect them: a fast young Finn took early control with the terrific Jari-Matti Latvala putting in some storming early times (albeit on roads that had been swept by the championship leaders in gradually improving weather conditions). Marcus soon moved to the front, with team-mate Mikko Hirvonen lurking in contention. It all went pear-shaped on SS4, the short Rikubetsu spectator stage, when Gronholm went wide on a corner and slid down a bank. What could have been an irritating time delay turned into disaster when it was deemed that the roll cage was too badly damaged to continue. This struck me as bad luck, since the off wasn't that dramatic. Hirvonen now led, with Loeb coming from behind fast. Meanwhile Gronholm was looking at turning a 4-point lead into a 4- or 6-point deficit.

Day two looked to be the day that Seb would either cruise to consolidate an easy second, or chip away at Hirvonen and eventually take the lead. Neither happened. Loeb's ultra-efficient co-driver Daniel Elena (who some of my rally friends called T4, the latest version of the Terminator due to his robot-like skills) called a "plus-plus" instead of a "minus-minus" on one corner, sending Loeb flying off the road and out of the rally. Everything was now even again. Behind Hirvonen, some unusual names were sneaking into the top eight, as Subaru managed to lose all three cars, making way for the likes of Henning Solberg, Luis-Perez Companc, and World's Worst Son Matthew Wilson, who makes a fool of his Dad every time he gets into his WRC car. This time however he was at the sharp end.

So as it stands right now here's how things look. Let's presume Seb and Marcus finish one-two in the remaining two rallies.

1. If Seb wins both with Marcus second, they will be tied on 120 points. Seb would win the title based on the "rallies won" tie-breaker (Seb would be at 9, Marcus at 4)

2. If Seb wins one and Marcus wins one, Marcus wins the title, 122 points to 118.

3. If Marcus wins both, it'll be an easy 124 to 116 victory for him.

What is actually likely to happen is that Loeb will win in Ireland, making Rally GB a must win for both drivers. Although Marcus ran a rally in Ireland earlier this year in which he came second, Loeb has done two Irish events, both of which he won. The stages share much in common with the first day of Rally Deutschland - narrow, wooded and fast. And we all know how well Seb does in those conditions.

So we can fairly confidently expect an incredible showdown in the Welsh forests, scene of so many epic championship-deciding thrillers. I was there in 2003 when it was Solberg vs. Loeb, but in that situation Loeb had been told to hold station in second to guarantee the manufacturer's title, thereby losing the driver's crown. It was still incredibly exciting stuff in the damp, fog and rain on classic stages with names like Brechfa, Resolfen and Rhondda...

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