“I’ve always maintained that winning rallies is hard,” says the man who normally makes it look easy. “And winning championships is even more difficult.”
In both 2006 and 2009 Loeb won the World Rally Championship by just one point and judging by the way things look now, it could be an even closer finish this time round. For the first time in seven months, Loeb is not in the exclusive lead of the championship and the feeling (in public at least) from Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Ogier is that they are ready to take him on.
But Loeb should still do it - just. On paper, provided everything goes as planned, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t win the RallyRACC-Rally of Spain, just as he has done for the last six years. Ogier rather than Hirvonen should be the big threat there, but Loeb has been reassured by Citroen’s management that he is the team leader, and as such his team mate will be expected to take on a supporting role. Similarly, Mikko Hirvonen will be able to rely on Jari-Matti Latvala’s help once more, but in Catalunya Citroen should on paper have an advantage.
So depending on what the situation looks like after Spain, Loeb should be able to relax a little bit more on Wales Rally GB and still win the title by finishing behind Hirvonen - although the Frenchman has more than enough pace to win the rally from the front if that’s what it’s going to take.
However, this is all very theoretical as what the Rallye de France Alsace does mean is that Loeb’s safety margin is gone. From now on, there is nowhere to hide and no comfort zone. “A zero score can turn everything on its head these days,” reflected Loeb, and as is the case with most things in rallying, he’s spot on. The main reason why Mikko Hirvonen is leading the championship is because he has scored points on every round (his worst result was fourth place - in Portugal, Jordan, Finland and Germany) while Ogier by contrast has been playing catch-up since binning his DS3 in Mexico at the start of the year.
Maybe it’s the points system, but retirement is almost a case of sudden death in the WRC, and now we’re definitely into the metaphorical territory of goals in extra time, with just two rounds remaining. Retirement in Spain - or even an unrepresentatively bad result from any of the three title protagonists - means that the number of contenders will be reduced to two in Wales.
For Loeb, it would be more than convenient if it were to be Hirvonen hitting problems, and consequently it’s the Finn who has it all to do in Spain. Adding to Hirvonen’s pain is MINI, which has shown pace that is prodigious enough on asphalt not only to come between Citroen and Ford, but also to cause a serious headache to the rally leaders. It’s quite remarkable that Dani Sordo came closer to winning an event in four rallies with MINI than he did in five years with Citroen.