Events of the Month

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WRC Rally Mexico
Leon, Mexico

A Sebastien Loeb victory in Mexico – his fiffh there in succession wasn’t what those advocating the World Rally Championship’s new era had yearned for when the series resumed in March.

The Citroen driver has claimed the last seven drivers’ titles and his win on the mainly slippery gravel stages around the city of Leon, his 63rd in 140 starts, continued his dominance. It also restored Loeb’s reputation following an off-song effort on the snow-based Rally Sweden in February, where he languished sixth after encountering the worst of the stage conditions.

While Loeb’s winning margin of almost 1min 40sec in Mexico suggested that the revamped technical rules 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo engines now power punchy, more agile and cheaper hatchbacks have done liffle to spice and even up the show, nothing could be further from the truth.

Not for the first time, Loeb was raffled by the pace of young team-mate Sebastien Ogler, who crashed out of the lead with three stages remaining. “He was very fast,” said Loeb. “I really had to push to stay with him.”

Ogier is not the only young star emerging this season. In Sweden, Mods Ostberg was a close second to Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen in a privateer Fiesta. He excelled again in Mexico, taking fifth on an event he’d never tackled before.

Evgeny Novikov returned to the series in Mexico and is also highly rated. The Russian, 20, showed glimpses of his early promise, despite not driving his Fiesta prior to the pre-rally shakedown.

Novikov will contest at least five more rounds in 2011, a prospect that has cheered Ford team boss Malcolm Wilson. “There’s no question he can deliver the goods,” Wilson reckons.

Of the 12 new-generation World Rally Cars in Mexico, Wilson’s Cumbria-based M-Sport operation was responsible for nine, including two Ford-backed entries for Hirvonen and Jail-Matti Latvala.

But Wilson knows that the WRC needs additional car makes if it’s to take off: “There’s no question we need more manufacturers for the long term. It’s going to put more pressure on us but it will make the sport stronger.”

The WRC’s strength was boosted on the eve of Rally Mexico when Conyers Sports Initiatives acquired the series’ promoter North One Sport Backed by Russian entrepreneur and rally enthusiast Vladimir Antonov, the deal will hand the WRC much-needed promotional investment and enable North One to deliver similar initiatives as the Power Stage, a made-for-live-TV end-of-rally stage that awards bonus points to the fastest three drivers.

Purists sneered at the concept, but the stage was hotly contested in Mexico with several drivers looking to make up for earlier disappointments, such as 2003 champion Petter Solberg, who lost out on a second straight podium after his privateer Citroen suffered an electrical glitch on day one.

So what of those sought-after manufacturers? Mini has confirmed its factory team will debut on Rally d’Italia Sardegna in May, with W/, Saab and possibly Toyota waiting in the wings.

“When you hear this news it’s good,” said Loeb. “If the goal of the new rules was to bring in manufacturers and improve the race then the WRC can be exciting again.” Richard Rodgers

*

Daytona 500
Daytona Beach, Florida

This year’s 53RD Daytona 500 produced a new winner in Trevor Bayne, who turned 20 the day before NASCAR’s traditional season-opener. Bayne was making only his second start in the first-division Sprint Cup series and drove a flawless race aboard the Wood Brothers’ Ford to score the team’s first win in 10 years and its first at Daytona since David Pearson’s 1976 victory.

Bayne led a Ford 1-2-3 ahead of Carl Edwards and David Gilliland to seal the manufacturer’s 600th Sprint Cup win. He became NASCAR’s second youngest winner behind Joey Logan°, who won his first race in 2009 aged 19.

The Wood Bros is NASCAR’s secondoldest team behind Petty Enterprises, founded in 1949. Glen and Leonard Wood stated their team in 1950, with Glen driving and Leonard working as crew chief. Over the decades top stars such as Curtis Turner Cale Yarborough, Dan Gurney, AJ Foyt, David Pearson, Buddy Baker and Bill Elliott have driven for the Wood Bros, and Bayne’s win was the team’s 98th in NASCAR’s top flight.

This year’s 500 was a messy race, with a record 16 yellow flag periods. As a result it was the second-slowest 500, but there were also a record 74 lead changes as the drivers discovered a two-car push-draffing technique on the smooth new track surface.

Many favourites were delayed or eliminated in a series of accidents. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson and team-mate Jeff Gordon lost out in an early multi-car crash, while polesiffer Dale Earnhardt Jr was knocked out at the end of the race. Gordon Kirby

*

Race Retro
Stoneleigh Park, Coventry

With the event celebrating 100 years of Lancia, it was wholly appropriate that double World Rally Champion Miki Biasion was the star guest at this year’s Race Retro, the International Historic Motorsport Show.

To the delight of fans, Biasion was reunited with a Lancia Delta Integrale for the live rally stage. He threw the car around the shot test set up in the National Agricultural Centre’s car parks. “Driving the Integrale is like finding an old girlfriend; I really enjoyed it,” said Biasion, who took both his world titles in such a car. Its owner Justin Law, the Group C racer, was just as spectacular as his illustrious team-mate.

Inside the halls, major race and championship organisers reported good levels of interest for the coming season, although the growing number of clashing series was apparent. Both Group C Racing and Masters displayed relevant cars. Pride of place on the Group C stand went to a Sauber Mercedes C291, the last Merc to win a Gp C race in the hands of Michael Schumacher. After 20 years in the private collection of Peter Sauber, chassis 04 is now owned by Andrew Haddon and should race later this year.

The remarkable Lola T310 Can-Am car made its first public appearance in the UK. The monstrous 1972 car is a whopping 17ff long and new owner Peter Schleifer plans to race it in the new Cam-Am Challenge series.

Other displays included a celebration of 100 years of the Monte Carlo Rally, topped by the 1931-winning lnvicta of Donald Healey and the Sunbeam Talbot taken to sixth overall in 1953 by Stirling Moss. Paul Lawrence

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