WRC shows positive signs in Sweden

by Paul Fearnley on 14th February 2013

Can’t beat a snow rally for picturesque dramatic action. Stunning stuff. Even those of my friends who think motor sport the work of the Devil are (very briefly) impressed by the fact that white-out Rally Sweden is the fastest round of the World Rally Championship: Marcus Grönholm averaged 72mph in a Peugeot 206 WRC to win in 2003. This is particularly bamboozling for the uninitiated if they have just spent three hours nudging along the A3 in a bit of sleet.

I have been lucky enough to enjoy three bouts of ice driving in Norway. These have included sitting alongside Erik Carlsson and John Haugland. Oddly, however, it was a bloke in a VW Caravelle who provided my most memorable moment. Having just collected a brand-spanker Saab from the airport, we edged warily into the traffic – and promptly braced for impact. Yet. With a slide, a flick, and another slide, the oncoming Veedub was by us and gone: simply a Scando on his way to work, doing what he did every weekday morning during the long dark winters. Different world, far removed.

This year’s Rally Sweden, however, unusually possessed a distinct Gallic flavour: Sébs Ogier and Loeb battling for victory and in the process leaving local heroes in ditches or in their cups, fretting about their driving styles.

Reading the engaging Jari-Matti Latvala’s talk of his need to be more precise behind the wheel had me a-feared about the direction – literally – that the sport was taking. Let’s face it, we all loved Colin McRae for his spectacular style, in the same way that sideways Ari Vatanen was Colin’s hero – and mine, too – when he was growing up.

British TV is turning up a WRC blank in 2013 – a worrying indicator – but a quick trawl of YouTube unearthed some breathtaking action from the event. There is no doubt that Loeb’s immaculate neat technique has redefined the sport – in the same way that Miki Biasion’s fastidious pace notes and Walter Röhrl’s point-to-point approach did in the late 1980s and the ’70s – but the end result remains the same: thrilling to the core.

It was great to witness, too, three manufacturers – Volkswagen, Citröen and Ford – represented on the podium. The days of 150-plus entries are long gone, but there were 19 full-shot WRC cars in this year’s line-up of 47. That’s plenty for the purposes of, ahem, TV.

The sport is not out of the woods yet, but green shoots were peeking through the Swedish snow. As long as megabucks Veedub and the fantastique Monsieur Ogier do not bulldoze the rest into submission, a revival might take root.

It is such a shame then that Loeb, who this season is dividing his attention to also compete in GT races, will now not appear on the stages until Rally Argentina in May – and will contest just four rallies in total. Please could somebody change his mind?

He’s a genius who has paid his dues to the sport and has nothing left to prove – except that feisty Ogier did match him in every respect bar the politics when they were team-mates at Citroën in 2011. Another season of such intensity is precisely what the sport requires: a Senna and Prost of the stages.

Ogier could very well beat him – Loeb has admitted that his rival was in control in Sweden – but that would not dent his legendary status: he’d still be the Federer of rallying.

This is not going to happen, of course, and so we must cross our fingers for the WRC.

This year it celebrates its 40th anniversary and a quick revisit of the inaugural 1973 season – that year again! – provided me with continued hope because it acted as a reminder that struggle and resilience have always been the sport’s watchwords, with a bit of controversy and muddled thinking thrown in.

The 1973 Swedish Rally was held in the thick of an argument between its organisers KAK – I kid you not – and the national body. KAK – think RAC or AA – disassociated itself further by banning tyre studs on its event. Slithery chaos ensued, particularly during the recce when there were no snow banks upon which to lean.

Luckily the snow arrived just in time, and 42 of the 73 starters reached the finish, admittedly after a relaxing of the maximum permitted lateness.

Stig Blomqvist overcame a long delay caused by a failed fuel pump to secure his hat-trick in Saab’s thrumming 96 V4, and tough guy Harry ‘Sputnik’ Kallström finished fourth despite losing his windscreen when his Lancia Fulvia HF hit an (h)elk.

There were only eight works cars entered – plus Björn Waldegård in a Beetle and local Formula 1 star Ronnie Peterson, who drove across seven countries in a single night to be a part of the Ford Escort Mexico element – but the show went on. Fans lined the stages and halted their partying to huff, puff and grunt competitors’ cars from ditches’ clutches – they still do – and a talented Frenchman, Jean-Luc Thérier in the singleton Alpine-Renault A110, finished on the podium.

It’s the unchanging fundamentals and the quirky bits that occasionally come around that will – or at least should – see the WRC right.

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