There comes a time every year, usually around November, where I find myself writing a few words about how great Sébastien Loeb is. The upshot of this is that you probably don’t need to read what follows, because you know it’s going to boil down to: he’s good, he can only beat what’s put in front of him, he could try winning in another car. So to add a little variety this year, I’ll focus on the guy he beat and world rallying as a whole.
Just to recap for those of you who don’t go out of your way – and you would have no right to be expected to – to follow ‘minority’ motor sports such as rally driving. (I use the term ‘minority’ here, perhaps incorrectly, to refer to a kind of motor sport where information about what’s going in is not readily available to Joe Public. So everything other than F1, MotoGP and ‘blue ribband’ events like Le Mans, then). Sébastien Loeb and his co-driver Daniel Elena have just won their eighth straight World Rally Championship title, by virtue of their only remaining title rival retiring from the final round of the season. This is a staggering, staggering feat.
As much as I admire and respect Loeb, and he really did win this one fair and square, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the guy that lost out. Mikko Hirvonen. The Finn has run Loeb close to a World Driver’s Title before, back in 2009 when it went down to the last round in Wales and Hirvonen lost out due to an number of issues including, bizarrely, a loose bonnet. This time out he was actually leading the Frenchman until he spun off the road and collected some foliage. Among the foliage was a branch that punctured his Ford’s radiator, eventually causing the engine to be irreparably damaged.
It didn’t take long before photos of a clearly gutted Mikko started to circulate on the internet. The passionate half of my brian started to feel really sorry for the guy, whereas the rational half suggested he perhaps didn’t deserve it. He had to go so fast to keep up with Séb that he went off and damaged the car. Yes, but Loeb has crashed this year too. He was only in the title hunt because his teammate moved over four times for him to give him extra points and better finishes. True, but Citroen have been getting up to all kinds of jiggery-pokery as well. If one looks at the season as a whole, then there’s really no doubt that Loeb has been the more deserving driver. But a tiny, tiny part of me just wishes Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lethinen had sneaked it just this once, just to be able to add their names to the roll of world champions. The record books, however, have no soft spots for triers.
The magnitude of Loeb’s success gets greater year on year, and yet I reckon over 80% of The General Public have no idea who he is. This speaks volumes about the virtually non-existent public profile of rallying, which is a crying shame at a time when the record books are being re-written in the way Woods did for golf and Messi is doing for football. Increasing public awareness is bloody difficult, because why should the public have any right to be expected to care about any kind of sport, let alone one involving muddy cars? If I knew the answer to this question I wouldn’t be doing the job I am, but I will suggest one place the WRC can start. I mentioned above that Hirvonen’s teammate had moved over for him on several occasions to give the Ford pilot a leg-up in the latter part of the season – and, to be fair, Citroen have used similar tactics in recent years too. Such team orders are a surefire way to turn off the casual viewer. You can argue it’s a ‘team’ game until the cows come home and harp on ad nauseum about how this always used to happen back in the gold old days, but punters who have come to watch a day’s sport want exactly that – sport.
The same applies to the nonsense (thankfully stopping for next year) of slowing down so as not to be the ‘road-sweeper’ at the front for the next day. Again, tactics are part of motorsport, that I do not deny, but there’s a time and a place for them. Imagine Nani, faced with an open goal, passing the ball to Wayne Rooney from three yards out to ensure he gets the Golden Boot. Or Manchester City sandbagging to a 1-0 win so they only place second and avoid Barcelona in the next stage of the Champions League. Both clever and tactical ‘team’ decisions, but things that jar fundamentally with what The Public want to see. Sadly, the longer such things are allowed to go on on the WRC, the lower its profile will sink.
I really do hope the profile of the World Rally Championship rebounds, if only to draw attention to what a phenomenal athlete Sébastien Loeb is. Things are looking up, though – this year has seen a depth and quality of competition not seen for a good wee while, we have new constructor teams and a change in the running order rules for 2012. And with F1 seemingly off to Sky for next year, there’s a chance for an enterprising promoter to shrink-wrap rally driving into a palatable, two-hour Sunday afternoon slot. Now that’s a challenge…