So we have now finished the RACC Rally Spain and a title race that was three strong is now down to two. Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb are now set for a thrilling one round shootout at the season finale in Great Britain. The French ace Loeb will carry an eight point lead into the final round which just so happens to be Ford’s stomping grounds. Though the title fight was on everyone’s mind, there were a number of great stories that came out of this year’s penultimate round.
Kris Meeke has struggled through most of 2011 and the results have shown it. Outclassed by former Citroen number two Dani Sordo, the Northern Irishman was in need of a good finish not only for himself, but also to keep the string of strong MINI performances together as well. Meeke performed very solid throughout the weekend with it culminating in a power stage victory. The first for Meeke and the first for MINI as well. Sordo would finish the power stage in second position after both MINIs opted for a soft Michelin tire as opposed to the harder tire chosen by their main rivals. The power stage would prove pretty damp and the MINI would take advantage being on the softer tire. The result would give Meeke his first championship points in the WRC. Sordo would claim fourth position and Meeke fifth on the final leaderboard.
While Ford was able to finish ahead of the Prodrive run MINI, this weekend’s performance has shown that MINI are and will be competitive at the top level of rally for seasons to come. Prodrive has the history and the talent on both the driving and engineering side to make this a successful partnership. A strong string of performances has MINI carrying a lot of momentum into the off season as they prepare for their first championship battle in the modern era.
Latvala in Prime Form:
Jari-Matti Latvala has proven yet again that he is in very rare form over the last couple of rounds. The Finnish number two at Ford has been an absolute force on tarmac this year. That is shocking really given Ford’s usual shortcomings on tarmac. Latvala went as far to beat Loeb during day two of the rally. That is unheard of and truly shows that Latavala is probably the fastest raw speed driver in the service park. It is often that speed that gets him into trouble, but when it clicks, he is simply untouchable. While the final results have not necessarily shown it, the pace of the Fiesta on sealed surfaces has been a huge step forward and hopefully one that Ford can build on in 2012.
Novikov Finishes and Scores Points:
It is no secret that Evgeny Novikov is tough on the equipment. It has especially shown this year when he was in control of the Ford Fiesta WRC. This weekend in Spain the Russian would make a switch to the Citroen DS3 for the first time. With the switch, Novikov would finish in the points and would not need super rally rules to restart either! While leading the power stage early on, Novikov would secure a seventh place on the Spanish mixed surface.
Hanninen Claims Spain and SWRC Title:
In what has been a roller coaster season for Juho Hanninen, he and Skoda have taken the SWRC championship in Spain over Ford and Ott Tanak. Hanninen just had to finish the event in Spain to take the title over Tanak, but conditions would see him take the top step as well for his third rally victory this season. Hanninen has proven to be one of the best S2000 drivers out there and is constantly improving on both tarmac and gravel surfaces. His SWRC crown marks a second championship in a row for (IRC 2010) the Finnish driver as he continues to work up to the WRC.
Volkswagen may be a very good option for Hanninen in 2013 given his Skoda success. He offers great speed on all surfaces and is a proven champion. He would be an ideal candidate for a seat heading forward. One more season in the SWRC should be great preparation for taking maybe the second or optional third seat at VW. I can’t really see him staying in the S2000 category too much longer.
Craig Breen is FAST
For those not aware of Mr. Breen, he has been participating in the FiA WRC Academy for most of the season. However, the last couple of rounds have seen the young star in the SWRC and putting on one amazing show. Breen finished fourth this weekend in Spain after driveshaft failure caused him to miss the podium. Breen has been knocking on the podium door for the last couple weeks and looks to be a phenomenal talent coming through the ranks. Remember his name, you will be hearing it a lot at rally’s top level shortly.
So there are a few stories I was tracking this weekend on the WRC radar. It all comes down to the last round of the season in Great Britain. Eight points is a pretty good hill to climb, but the cars return to gravel where Ford performs well. Any little mistake during the final round and it is game over. Loeb, Hirvonen for the main event. Eight points between them and 28 total points of for grabs. Does it get any better than this?