A French Sebastien, most likely. But which one is a tough call.
This week’s Loeb versus Ogier duel is shaping up to be one of the most exciting battles we’ve seen in the WRC for years. And the fact that they’re each so motivated to win makes it almost impossible predict a winner.
Regardless of the outcome, the 2013 Rallye de France - Alsace will go down in world motorsport history. The rally is Loeb’s last competitive outing for the works Citroën squad and, with 78 wins already under his belt, the nine-time World Champion will be looking for one final victory at what is undoubtedly one of his favourite events.
Loeb has won the rally twice before (in 2010 and 2012) and secured two of his world crowns there. The time he’ll relinquish his crown, and bow out from the WRC in front of his home crowd, racing on the streets of Haguenau where he grew up. What better way to do that than with his 79th win?
“Obviously, my aim is to achieve the best possible result, but you have to bear in mind that I haven’t competed in a rally since the start of May. And even then, it was on gravel in Argentina,” says Loeb, doing his best to downplay the encounter.
“OK, so I haven’t exactly been dossing around the house since then, but I’ll inevitably need some time to adapt and get back into the swing of things. How long it takes me to get up to speed will probably determine the final outcome for us. There’s no pressure on me, no championship to go for and I’ve nothing to prove. Above all, I’m here to enjoy myself, and thank all the people who have supported me for so long. I hope it’ll be a great big party.”
In contrast Ogier, who won here in 2011, does have the championship to go for, and something to prove - although needing just one point from the next three rallies, he’s not overburdened with pressure. If Thierry Neuville fails to win the rally opening Power Stage, then the championship is settled and we can concentrate on the battle between the two former team-mates.
The Ogier / Loeb duel has already been played out three times in 2013. Ahead of the Rally France, the score stands at 2:1 in favour of Loeb – which is a source of great motivation for his Volkswagen driving namesake.
As well as this mental spur, Ogier is likely to benefit from a road position advantage on day one, when his championship lead translates into first in the running order. Seventh in the drivers’ standings, Loeb will be seventh in the start order and could be hampered by dirt on the road, dragged there by the cars ahead cutting corners.
But while Seb versus Seb gets top billing this week, the results at Rallye Deutschland showed there are a handful of other drivers capable of springing a surprise, too.
Having taken the win there, expect Loeb's long time team-mate Dani Sordo to be fighting hard to prove it wasn't a career one-off. The DS3 driver finished Rally de France as runner-up in 2010 and 2011, and should arrive in confident form having finally shaken off the repeated questioning about when, or if, he would win his first rally.
Next up is Qatar M-Sport ace Thierry Neuville, the one driver able to halt Ogier’s charge to the championship, and the man who was on Sordo’s tail nearly all the way in Germany until a last stage error cost him his chance of a maiden win. Fourth in France last year, he’s had a remarkable season in the Fiesta so far and few doubt that the Belgian will make the top step of the podium soon.
Jari-Matti Latvala was another to impress on his most recent asphalt outing, when he led Rallye Deutschland in his Volkswagen Polo R. He has a score to settle too, since a single mistake saw him drop back down the field. Last year, the Finn finished runner-up in France to claim his best result to date at an asphalt rally. Perhaps more impressive was that after 404 kilometres of stages he was just 15 seconds behind Loeb.
Citroen’s Mikko Hirvonen also has a decent record on asphalt, with a run of six podium-finishes on the surface. The Finn says he is aiming for another podium this week, but as we saw last time out in Australia, last minute reshuffles can happen.
There are 14 World Rally Car drivers on the entry list, including Ford Fiesta RS pilot Mads Ostberg, who was fifth in France last year, and Andreas Mikkelsen of the Volkswagen Motorsport II team who will make his season debut on asphalt after missing Rallye Deutschland. Evgeny Novikov and Martin Prokop, both in Fiesta RS cars, round off the 10 manufacturer entries.
Endurance racer Romain Dumas heads the privateer drivers. The Frenchman has participated in every 24 Hours of Le Mans race since 200, winning his class in 2010 in an Audi R15, and this year in a Porsche 997. This week, he’ll swap the Porsche for a Fiesta RS WRC, co-driven by the experienced Denis Giraudet.
There are Fiesta RS WRC cars too for France’s Julien Maurin and Lionel Baud, while former DTM driver Tomas Kostka from the Czech Republic will be at the wheel of a Citroen DS3 WRC.
Aside from the WRC contenders, there is a full supporting cast of drivers in the WRC 2, WRC 3 and Junior WRC Championships. We’ll bring you separate category previews later this week.
France rewind: On this rally in 2012
France tyre facts