In orchestra terms, Sébastien Loeb is concertmaster, Mikko Hirvonen unfortunately very much second fiddle. At Ford it’s a pretty miserable picture, Petter Solberg third in the standings and Jari-Matti Latvala down in sixth. Only on one round of the championship, Rally Sweden, did the unlikely occur – a catastrophe for Citroen and four Scandinavians led by Latvala at the top of the field. But that’s Sweden, that’s snow and ice, that’s different.
So where is rally sport heading? Somewhere better I hope. Loeb has been dominant since 2004; Citroen – with three different cars – since 2003. So do Citroen make the best rally cars in the world? Perhaps. Is Loeb unbeatable in any car? Unlikely. The key element has been Loeb driving for Citroen and – dare I say it – massive sponsorship from a well-known Austrian energy drink company. But the times they are a-changin’ - or so we hope. Sébastien Ogier departed Citroen for the VW rally team in the hope of a good drive and the chance to win regularly by design rather than by accident. The new Polo R WRC has still to demonstrate what it can do, but there’s apparently no shortage of drivers already willing to sign up, including Jari-Matti Latvala, it seems.
After weeks of rain and some recent sun the roads of Central Finland will be in perfect condition – very little loose, ideal for late braking, good acceleration out of corners and fast stage times. This year we’re up against a Eurozone crisis and simultaneous broadcasting of the Olympics. Money is tight and the competition from other sporting events stiff. With the Polo R still to make its WRC debut – that’s scheduled for Sardinia in October - It feels a little like a gap year in more ways than one.
This year’s Rally Finland has just eighteen special stages totalling 303 kilometres in length. In my opinion that’s too short to do this legendary rally justice. More of a sprint than an endurance test, some are already saying. But Ouninpohja is back and set to provide the icing on this year’s rally cake. The script is clear: the double pass of Ouni to conclude the event promises last-gasp upsets and possible drama. That arrangement will certainly favour the speed merchants, Petter Solberg among them.
The winner? If he can stay focused, Latvala. More realistically, Loeb. The experienced Frenchman doesn’t need to win – so it’s risk avoidance on days one and two, do what you have to do on the Saturday. Matti Rantanen and Jari Ketomaa are there to provide a bit of colour, oh, and keep a close eye on Ott Tänak. A changing of the guard at Ford could mean good things for the young Estonian.