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GP Week : Issue 171
20 GPWEEK.com // 20 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: OPINION The final result of Rallye de France Alsace may have hung heavily with inevitability, with Sebastien Loeb winning on home ground and him and his team Citroen claiming yet more world titles, but beneath the surface there was significance aplenty. How close are Ford to beating Citroen on Citroen’s hallowed turf, French asphalt stages? In Germany, the preceding tarmac rally, Loeb was first and Latvala was second, two minutes behind. Here, the result was the same but the gap was just 15.5 seconds. Quite clearly the difference between the Ford team and the Citroen team is not so much between the cars as between the drivers, or, more accurately, the one special driver that Citroen has. As Latvala said at the end-of-rally press conference the difference between him and Loeb is that Loeb does not make mistakes, however small, like he does. Expect a major change in the championship charts next year when Loeb only competes in a few selected events! But even with only two events between now and next year we have almost no idea of who is going to drive for whom. The only certainties are that Hirvonen stays with Citroen and Ogier with VW. The rest is open to debate. There are just as many hopeful drivers as nervous ones in the ser vice park these days. 27 year-old Latvala is at the top of a stack of playing cards, and the minute his future career is defined the rest of the stack is likely to fall into place on a heap in the table. Jari-Matti made it clear he is under no hurry to decide whether to stay with Ford (proven car and team, but only short term prospects) orgotoVW. Interestingly he said he only had offers from these teams, and not Citroen. It is clear that Citroen have a vacancy in the team which is impossible to fill satisfactorily. What came as a surprise in Alsace was news that Citroen do not necessarily regard Hirvonen as a number one driver. For Citroen, the drivers’ championship is secondary to the makes’ title, and each year the makes’ title is won by the team with the best balance of two top drivers. Citroen need someone who can be as good and as reliable as Hirvonen, rather than a junior driver ascending to the top level for the first time. Only two drivers have the sort of proven experience on their side that teams such as Citroen and Ford are seeking. First is Dani Sordo, who moved with high hopes to Mini where things then went disastrously wrong through no fault of his own. Second place in a car new to him at Monte Carlo, albeit more than two minutes behind Loeb, was a mighty encouragement and endorsement of Sordo’s talents. On the few occasions he has been active since, Sordo’s results have been disappointing, ending with retirement at Alsace due to damage caused by an impact. It is hard to analyse a driver’s potential when his experience comes from an unproven team, but Sordo is up there with a chance of a drive for either Citroen or Ford, especially if Prodrive cannot immediately offer assurance of a full WRC programme for 2013. The other driver fitting this job description is Petter Solberg who, in the earlier part of the 2012 season, supported the Ford challenge while Latvala was having difficult days. Solberg’s tenure at M-Sport in 2012 had been a mutual marriage of convenience but at the time of the season when he needed to impress things have not gone well. Accidents in Greece, Germany and France were bad calling cards. If Citroen does not take either Sordo or Solberg, their only option is to head for the younger driver market. And here there is an unprecedented wealth of opportunity, which Ford are already exploring eagerly. In addition to Loeb, two drivers have been really impressive in 2012. First is Ogier (29 years old), with only one black mark to his name, his accident in Monte Carlo. On the other nine events he has tackled since then he has won his class (for Super 2000 cars) on every occasion. He is out of the driver market, of course, being signed up and raring to go with the new Polo R World Rally Car. The other is the private team driver, Mads Ostberg, now 25 years old. On eight of the nine occasions he has competed this year he has finished the highest placed non-Citroen or Ford works driver, all with no special help from the team and in a very old car, beating many other drivers who have been trained by the big teams. Mads’ fifth place on the unfamiliar asphalt roads in Alsace was impressive. His strength had been his reliability, to the extent that he is generally dismissed as being a “slow driver” as opposed to being a fast driver which, considering his outright win in Portugal, seems to be inappropriate. Right until the end of Rallye de France Alsace long after Jari-Matti Latvala had lost his chances. Mads was still in the running to be 2012 world champion which was astonishing for a non-works driver. One of the impressive sights from Alsace was the speed at the end of the rally of 24 year-old Thierry Neuville, the protege of Citroen’s team manager (and fellow Belgian, Yves Matton) who put up a series of fastest stage times in conditions with which he was unfamiliar, and at a time when the leading drivers had eased their pace.His drives last year in the IRC had shown his amazing talents more clearly. Another protege driver in the market place is 25 year-old Ott Tanak, who has been taken under the wing of Malcolm Wilson at Ford. His season has been fraught, and in Alsace he was driving well within himself – and then suddenly he scored the fastest time on the Power Stage, quite out of keeping with his performance on the other stages. Strange! Yet another protege driver in the market place is 23 year-old Andreas Mikkelsen. It has been hard to understand VW’s intentions regarding junior drivers, of whom they speak a lot and provide an impressive amount of on-event experience in Super 2000 cars with no assurance of where this will lead. Nobody knows however whether they will eventually give a permanent WRC position to a young driver, such as Andreas or 23 year-old Kevin Abbring. Two drivers fighting impressively on their own without protege background are Russian Evgeniy Novikov, still only 22 years-old but developing considerable experience in the WRC in his private team car, and the peripatetic 32 year-old Australian Chris Atkinson, who gained an impressive fifth place, albeit over nine minutes behind the winner, in Germany on his first appearance in the Portugal team Mini. What happens next in the driver market is hard to predict, but Latvala said that he was waiting for either Ford or Volkswagen to impose a deadline for a decision, and at that moment we can expect an unprecedented rush of negotiations.There is going to be no respite for team and driver managers in the next few weeks. OPINION MARTIN HOLMES Rally Editor REPLACING THE IRREPLACEABLE