For nearly a decade the slightest mention of the World Rally Championship would be greeted with a groan and the immediate conclusion that no matter the challenger or conditions, Sebastien Loeb would be champion. Loeb’s partial retirement however, has put the spring back into the WRC’s step. The 9-time champion will only compete in four of his favourite events – including the season opening jewel-in-the-crown that is the Monte Carlo rally – and as a result, it wont be the Frenchman crowned at the end of the year. For the first time in far too long then, the WRC will see a new champion, and that, for the moment, is potentially enough to keep the series – which is wildly regarded as being a sport in decline – alive.
So if not Loeb, who? Well unlike the years of dominance by one driver that audiences have had to endure since Loeb became the undisputed number one, 2013 sees no one driver stand out above the others. There are no less than five in fact, that have a realistic chance at the title.
Of the full-time runners in 2013, marginal favourite would be Mikko Hirvonen. The Finn has finished runner-up to Loeb on four occasions and the heartbreak of missing out by a single point in 2009 will still hurt. In the last three years however, Hirvonen has taken victory in just four events and it’s a concern that that loss in ’09 has dented his confidence and whether the sheer speed is still within him remains to be seen. He takes the role of Citroen’s lead driver and the hope is that it will motivate him enough to return to his former winning ways. Among a field of young, fiery and less experienced drivers, his Mr Consistency reputation will undoubtedly help also.
VW have entered the WRC for the first time with a full factory supported attack and the debutant team have acquired the services of Hirvonen’s former team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala. His pace is undeniable and rally car designer Christian Loriaux considers him to be the fastest rally driver he’s ever seen. If it wasn’t for Latvala’s characteristic mistakes, he could very well be unbeatable, but the minor and major accidents that have plagued his career so far need to be a thing of the past if he’s to challenge for the title in 2013. A new team with a new car is a concern but VW’s testing and development programme is the most comprehensive seen in recent years and while the team is publicly stating that podiums are their target, they will be very disappointed if they don’t chalk up some wins and Jari should most certainly be able to provide them.
Latvala’s team-mate for 2013 is Sebastien Ogier, forming the most exciting partnership of the year. The young Frenchman is one of the most motivated and competitive drivers of the WRC and will by no means treat the year as a learning and development season; Ogier’s style is not just to win but he seems to be on a constant quest to humiliate his rivals, so expect either wins or spectacular crashes as he’ll be pushing hard.
Spain’s number one rally driver Dani Sordo returns to the Citroen outfit, with which he secured 28 podium results between 2006 and 2010. After a thoroughly disappointing stint with Prodrive’s Mini World Rally Team, Sordo returns to a team he can finally challenge for his first rally victory and despite the lack of that illusive win he must be considered a contender for his considerable experience and blinding pace.
Mads Otsberg is the final big name in the frame. While the 25-year-old Norwegian has won a rally event – the 2012 Rallye de Portugal – he has yet to show outright pace on a sufficiently consistent basis. Having said that though, every great driver has a breakthrough year and there’s a buzz around Otsberg that suggests 2013 could be his.
The likes of Thierry Neuville, Evgeny Novikov and Andreas Mikkelsen will all make appearances in 2013 and each are considered to be stars of the future but it will prove difficult for them to upset the form book in 2013 looking at the aforementioned drivers.
Behind the scenes of the World Rally Championship there are issues on the politics side of things, with promoting the series and television coverage – particularly in the UK – but the future looks bright in terms of the truly important aspect of the sport; the racing. Sebastian Loeb’s partial retirement has been a blessing to the sport and if 2013 is as exciting as it looks like it’s going to be then surely – hopefully – the politics, the money, the TV rights and the messy paperwork will fall into place, and the WRC can return to it’s former glory as one of the most exciting forms of motor racing.