Thoughts: MexicoArgentinaJordan

I’m in a rush! Rally d’Italia Sardegna starts in an hour and a half, and dangit, I’m posting something before it starts!

I wasn’t really motivated to post anything after Mexico and Argentina, because there was so little to chew on. What can I analyze when Sebastien Loeb easily wins another rally over three other drivers? There were some interesting bits though. There have been plenty of swappage in the leaderboards this year and in the championship standings. But I chalk it up to the high attrition rates and scant entry lists of the rock-strewn, long-haul rallies.

My quick rundown of the drivers looks like this:
Seb Loeb: Lady Luck is done with the honeymoon phase and is treating him like any other driver. He wins AND loses. But he’s mostly winning.
Mikko Hirvonen: He’s getting out of a funk–the kind of funk you get into when someone steals your thunder. That someone being…
Jari-Matti Latvala: He’s young, he’s exciting, he’s sometimes faster than Loeb. But he’s a good boy and listens to his Ford bosses, cuz he’s in this for a career and not a quick thrill. Can we say “rallying’s Lewis Hamilton?”
Chris Atkinson: His brain is wired to be a champion. He may have scored three podiums in a row, but he’s not exactly happy. He’s only happy if he’s winning. Atko also reminds me of Lewis Hamilton in that sense: genial personality, but kind of a drag when he’s not atop the podium.
Dani Sordo: He’d be more exciting if he weren’t so boring. Match that driving ability with a more fun personality, and he’d break through to the level of Latvala.
Gigi Galli: Sardinia, please give him the lucky break that he deserves. Have mercy on your own kin!
Petter Solberg: Running out of excuses why he’s not faster than Atko. At least he’s complaining less and seeing the silver lining on a very black cloud that looks like his car. But I’d love it if the new Impreza were good and he won a rally this year.
Henning Solberg: Where’s the exuberant Henning that we all fell in love with two years ago? I hope he’s not fading away. Maybe he can regain that infectious energy and speed in time to compete against Petter in his new Impreza. That’d make for great stories in the Norwegian press.
Matthew Wilson: He’s still here. Driving. Finishing well when everyone else retires. Same ol’, same ol’.
Special mention: Sebastien Ogier. The J-WRC is usually a group of young pretenders to the throne, hoping to step up to greater things. Ogier doesn’t hope. He will.

Lastly, it was fascinating to see tactics play out on day two of Rally Jordan (which was a great rally, by the way, newcomer or not). Poor Dani Sordo was left to sweep the road when the Ford boys dropped time on the last kilometer of the last stage. Mikko reached a new level of cheeky when he declared, “my foot slipped off the throttle.” I laughed so hard!

PS: Rally Radio is as great as ever, but where are the live split times? Whoever took them away, you stole the wind in my rally sail. It was so much more fun with split times to digest.

Yes! I made it. Sardinia doesn’t start for another hour. Whew!

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May 15, 2008. Ford, Funny Quotes, Rally, Rally Radio, Rally Reports, Rallying, The Adventures of Henning Solberg, Thoughts, WRC. 3 comments.

Rally Report: Swedish Rally 2008

Now, things are interesting, aren’t they? For anyone (including me) who thought that the year was just going to be Sebastien Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen winning every rally, I am pleased to say that Jari-Matti Latvala has just stolen the show.

A lot of Jari-Matti fans have been vindicated surprisingly early. We loved him, sure. Admired his speed. Enjoyed his enthusiasm. But we didn’t think we’d cheer him on to a victory in the second rally of 2008! It’s like Christmas in January: who cares if it’s early, I’m taking the presents! Anyway, he’s already been praised the world over for his drive, his maturity and his ability to handle the pressure at the record age of 22.* So instead, I’m just going to end his paragraph with a “wooooooooo!”

Mikko was the man people expected to win. But when, in all three days, he could only muster enough speed to win one stage out of twenty, we’ve all got to wonder why that was. Jari-Matti had an advantage in the first day’s running order, but I don’t think anyone can fully explain why Mikko couldn’t keep up in the same car. But at least he stayed on the road, which is more than you could say for Seb.

Gigi Galli on the podium! Another “wooooooooo!” So well deserved. Gigi’s been through a lot, struggling to dig up sponsors when they should have come begging to him. Happy day.

Petter Solberg’s fourth-place finish is a good sign. Even in a lame-duck car that’s proven to be so crappy, he finished with a solid five points in the championship. Maybe it’s luck, but maybe David Richards was able to whip the Subaru WRT into shape enough to squeeze some decent reliability in the ol’ S12B. Like him or not, DR is a rare character along the lines of Bernie Ecclestone who can produce results from simple tenacity and force.

Marcus Gronholm-tutored Andreas Mikkelsen has proven to be a good investment of time by the former world champ. Perhaps it was a fifth place benefited from many retirements and problems for his competitors, but hey. Andreas set some great times. The important thing is that he has potential and he’s young. Plenty of time to learn.

Dani Sordo finished in a fine sixth place, despite the five-minute time penalty incurred as a result of an engine change after Monte. And, as it’s been pointed out, he would have been on the podium if you subtracted those five minutes from his time. But what I find most impressive is the vast improvement from the torrid time he’s had on snow rallies before. I’d almost given up hope for him on snow, but I have no problem being proven wrong here.

Toni Gardemeister, or should I say the Suzuki SX4, ended up in seventh. Kinda good. Kinda not, considering he’s the last WRC car in the standings before you count the PWRC and the WRC drivers with severe problems. Ten minutes behind the leader isn’t where one would normally like to be (just ask Toni), but this is where the seasoned 32 year-old needs to show his patience and wisdom and plod through the developmental phase of the SX4.

Others who didn’t finish so well:
Henning Solberg was doing so well, until he crashed and banged up poor Cato Menkerud’s shoulder. Next time…
Seb Loeb still isn’t able to stop the unsettling trend of making mistakes. Or maybe it’s not so much a trend as it is normalcy. I came into rallying in the Mr. Perfect season of 2005, so I’ve never even witnessed Seb rolling his car.
Atko really needs to step up his game. With two of his fellow “young guns” already notching up victories, he’s got to do something spectacular to avoid being labeled as a “could’ve been.”

Also deserving of an honor: Malcolm Wilson. He’s the smartest team principal in the service park. He has gathered all of the most entertaining drivers of the WRC under the Ford wing–Mikko, Henning, Jari-Matti, and now Gigi. Lucky for him, they all happen to be great drivers capable of as much speed as they are character. His management is definitely praiseworthy. But really, maybe he just has a brain. Any WRC fan would’ve signed these drivers ages ago!

On a final note, I’ve been doing more to save energy and recycle. Because when global warming raises sea levels, kills polar bears, AND melts the Swedish Rally, then we’ve really got a problem.

*On Rally Radio, which again did a marvelous job covering every stage, unleashing James upon an unsuspecting Sweden. Much love!

February 18, 2008. Ford, Motorsport, Rally Reports, Rallying, WRC. Leave a comment.

Thoughts: 2008 Rallye Monte Carlo

Sorry, folks. I was an airplane during day one of the rally and couldn’t get over the 16-hour jet lag to listen to the other two days on Rally Radio. Still, I got to see the TV coverage and catch up on press articles. From the looks of things, it was a fresh start to a new season. There were plenty of changes (no-mousse Pirelli tyres, seeded running order, etc.), but the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course, Sebastien Loeb won. He’s won five times now–seven, if you count the rallies nearly won in 2002 (time penalty) and 2006 (black ice). They could just go ahead and name the rally after him now. Anyway, everything seemed smooth as usual for Loeb. Yes, this is good tidings for his fifth world title. But having two specialist rallies at the start of the year–Monte and Sweden–we really won’t get a clearer idea of how the season will progress until the gravel rallies hit.

Therefore, we still don’t know if second-place finisher Mikko Hirvonen has risen to the top level. Marcus Gronholm couldn’t have fared better than Mikko did here. And while Mikko may win the Swedish Rally, that doesn’t prove his speed overall. It’s kinda frustrating as a fan: the season has begun, but it really hasn’t begun.

Would-be second-place finisher Dani Sordo was again plagued by bad luck. Even his usually calm demeanor was undone. He’s put in a lot of work, traveling, doing two days of recce and competing on eleven stages in good faith–all that to waste. But for heaven’s sake, don’t leave poor Marc Marti behind! Everyone, take a moment and appreciate the thankless job of being a codriver. Despite putting in all the hard work keeping timecards, making pacenotes, and making the driver happy, he still gets left alone while the driver is whisked away to a cozy trailer by a helicopter.

Of all people, a beach-loving Aussie on the podium! Chris Atkinson’s making it a tradition to do battle on the Monaco harbour super special. Which is good–it was the only real nail-biter all weekend. I wonder if he does so well because he drives the stage on the way to buy groceries…

Francois Duval did himself a favor by finishing in fourth. In his only secured drive for the season, I hope he impressed Malcolm Wilson enough to get a callback. If he does, that’d be a sweet deal!

Fifth place for Petter Solberg is usually a disappointment. But in Monte Carlo, that’s great news! His best finish here before was sixth all the way back in 2002. Honestly, I think he’d count himself lucky if he finishes the Monte at all. Remember my psychic ability to predict Petter’s results? Well, I’ve got the feeling that he’s finally turned the corner and gotten over his horrendous luck. I hope I’m right, cuz I’d really like to be psychic!

With great pleasure do I write this sentence: Gigi Galli finished in sixth place in his ’07 Focus! All I have to say is that I’m happy. With Gigi and Toni Gardemeister in works cars, all is right with the world again. 🙂

Also, good job to Jean-Marie Cuoq and PG Andersson, keeping Peugeot’s and Suzuki’s names in the game. The prize for most eventful rally goes to Jari-Matti Latvala, proving the pitfalls of no-mousse tyres. Good thing the boy has training in the PWRC in changing tyres on the fly! I hope the other drivers have practiced their tyre-changing skills, because they’re gonna need ’em!

PS: Note to all Monegasque policemen–hurry it up a bit when crossing the road in front of the world’s fastest rally driver.

January 31, 2008. Auto Racing, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Reports, WRC. 3 comments.

Rally Report: Wales Rally GB 2007

I still don’t believe it. How could that have been the end of the season already? How could that have been Marcus Gronholm’s last rally? Writing a report is really tough when you’re still in a state of denial.

I guess Sebastien and Marcus left me wanting more. We’d all expected an out-and-out showdown, with the two of them pushing each other to the limit like they’ve done so many times this year. However, stage one started with a stage win for…Mikko?! I love them both immensely, but I guess you’ve got to miss the spirit of rallying that came with larger-than-life heroes like Colin McRae who never drove less than flat out. Seb and Marcus went steadily. Marcus waited for Seb to slip up, and Seb waited for the rally to be over. And in the meantime, they let Jari-Matti Latvala steal the show.

Jari-Matti is so hot right now. He come out of nowhere, winning all nine proper stages on days two and three! Never mind that he was running second on the road. Even when he claimed he was slowing down to stay safe, he still came out fastest. Does this mean he’s stepped up to the top level? The Jari-Matti Theatre marquee should read: “Speed! Experience! Personality!” And then Malcolm Wilson will buy out all the tickets. Well, he’d be daft not to.
And while I’m wondering if Jari-Matti is stepping up to the top level, I’m a bit more secure in saying Mikko has. If he hasn’t, then next year will be less of a thrill and more of a monotone. Anyway, I’m sure Mikko wanted to prove that he could win a rally fair and square against Seb and Marcus on a really classic rally. This was his last chance, but neither Seb nor Marcus were driving at maximum attack. I don’t think it was an even comparison. That’s got to be annoying. Nonetheless, Mikko must be quite pleased to have four first place trophies to call his own.

But how amazing must it be to have four world championships to your name? Sebastien Loeb would know. Despite an unexciting drive that bored him to tears, Seb was genuinely elated to have cinched the title again. There is absolutely no doubt to how immense his talent is or whether the title was deserved. Seb was there scoring points when Marcus crashed out in Ireland. That’s it.

If we fans were to name the world rally champion, then it’d be handed to Marcus by a unanimous vote. He stuck it out for years in a gremlin-cursed Peugeot 307. Then in 2006, he finally got behind the wheel of a truly amazing car–catch is, it had some kinks to work out. Then 2007 was looking good until Rally Ireland. It was new and horrendously difficult. And it was tarmac. Wet tarmac. And that was the final nail in the coffin for Marcus’ title hopes. Such a shame. But we will always, always love him wish that he were still rallying.

The rest of my thoughts:

Petter actually made it through without a major catastrophe, finishing fourth. At least he doesn’t have to start his vacation with any anguish. He’ll be working obsessively with the team to improve the car, I’m sure.

Dani Sordo finished a fine fifth place amidst the worst Welsh weather any of the drivers had ever seen. And the best Dani Sordo moment? Hearing him speak French!

Matthew Wilson is getting more consistent, even when the weather throws a torrential rainstorm at him. Speed? Not so much. But I definitely do not mean any ill will towards him. He is perfectly welcome to prove us all wrong in a year by setting scratch times. Sixth place, coming off of a fourth in Japan, ends the year on a high note for the young Brit.

Chris Atkinson is not a happy chap. Being seventh place in the rally and in the championship isn’t horrible, but Atko seemed to take it very hard. He obviously thinks he has enough talent to challenge for victory, but his machinery fails him. He and Petter might be a bit masochistic to renew their contracts with Subaru, because who knows when the car’s going to improve.

Manfred Stohl finished in eighth. And although he says he’s still looking for a drive next year, it somehow seems like it’s the end of Manfred’s WRC career. I hope I’m wrong.

I was going to write about Xevi Pons, but I can’t remember what happened to him in this rally except that it didn’t go well. That’s how it’s been for him lately, I’m afraid.

Luis Perez Companc went off the road on day three. Maybe it’s a conspiracy. They didn’t want Matt Wilson to look so bad, so they went and found the perfect diversion–a guy who is even slower, even more prone to crashing, and with all the money in the world to pay for his drive. Sounds mean, but honestly, Toni Gardemeister deserves a drive more than Luis does.

Last note: props to Travis Pastrana. He is the two-time Rally America champion, but can still admit to being schooled on the world scene. Pwned, even. I really really really hope he makes it out to as many PWRC events as possible next year. Great guy.

So that’s it then, in a rather large nutshell. My rally notes contain many more juicy tidbits, but I don’t know if I want to be liable for posting them. But keep coming back throughout the break. I’ll be posting odds and ends as often as I can. Hasta luego.

The last we’ll see them together… Rally winner Mikko Hirvonen

Jari-Matti’s stage-winning streak The rolling car of Andreas Mikkelsen

December 5, 2007. Auto Racing, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Sports, WRC. 3 comments.

The Dog Box: Almost to the End…

In anticipation of the final round of the WRC where our world champion will be crowned, Bruce McKinnon of The Dog Box rate how all the drivers have done this season. And who’s that goofy-sounding guest star? Why, it’s me!

So go check out the podcast already.

The Dog Box: WRC Season Round-up

This is also the penultimate edition, as Bruce is retiring from doing the WRC podcasts. He does such a wonderful job, it’ll be a shame to see it come to an end. But he’ll be going out on top, much like the great Marcus Gronholm.

November 27, 2007. Auto Racing, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Solberg, Subaru, WRC. Leave a comment.

Thoughts: 2007 Rally Ireland

Ah, Thanksgiving…I’m tired and pumped full of tryptophan, but I finally have a moment to wax philosophical about Rally Ireland.

There has been so much anticipation coming into Rally Ireland. The top two teams sent their drivers out to Irish Tarmac Championship events to prep for the big show, while awestruck local fans were out to rally support for their sport (see the pun there?). We’ve had new events that were buzz-worthy, but the level of enthusiasm from the hearts of Irish rally fans made this event extra special for me. But I knew, I knew that it would be mayhem. The roads were narrow, bumpy, wet, and muddy–and there was no way that even the top drivers would come out unscathed.

First, Marcus Gronholm. His long-time lead in the points would have become a championship title if he had finished here in second, and had won Wales GB (which he could have easily done). But a bad crash ended his advantage, and become even more disconcerting when Marcus fainted and began to lose his memory of it. It fills me with genuine worry when one of our superheroes is in any way hurt. Best of wishes to Marcus.

Victory, then, went to Sebastien Loeb. It was never too assured, though. Sardinia and Japan have shown us that the number one car is not as infallible as before. Broken rear suspension on Friday’s first loop opened the door for others, with Dani Sordo taking the lead for a short time. But having two Irish events under him already, Seb managed to stay steady on the road and ahead of everyone else. And if he has a reasonable finish in GB, then the title is again his.

Dani Sordo, the second-place finisher, did well to prove his star hasn’t faded after the string of disappointing finishes this year. The “wonderboy” status may have worn off, but he cannot be discounted yet. The kid’s now got 11 podiums to his credit.

Jari-Matti Latvala! This kid gets me excited thinking of his future. At the tender age of 22, he’s already had five years of world rallying behind him and he’s poised to truly become a podium contender. While Matthew Wilson is still on a “five year plan” to develop his skills, Jari-Matti is about to graduate. His first-ever podium is well-deserved, even amidst the attrition in this rally.

Mikko Hirvonen is an ambitious man. When he’s not on the podium, he sounds rather glum. But his efforts have secured Ford’s second consecutive manufacturer’s championship, though I’d give more credit to Malcolm Wilson’s managerial superpowers. Ford really hasn’t erred this year, even when the normally perfectly-polished Citroen team has seen a string of mechanical failures.

Speaking of beleaguered manufacturers, Petter brought in his Subaru Impreza in to fifth place. It’s got to be depressing for them, when even a catastrophe-free weekend only netted a fifth-best in a field already pared down by crashes. The changes being made by David Richard’s iron fist has got to address this. For Petter’s sake.

Side note: Henning Solberg’s unexpected meeting with a tree at the end of day one meant he finished well out of the points. But the poor guy was without his trusty codriver Cato Menkerud, who was at home with his family and newborn baby. However, he emailed Rally Radio to say hi and to request a song to show his affection for Henning: “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” by Elton John. Oh, my.

Wales GB is but a week away, so we will see a new champion in a few days. It is by no means already decided. Seb has never won GB, and wasn’t competing there in 2006, so it could all go awry for him. So one more rally to go before the season’s over and we can all take a bit of a break. Good! If I had to do both all-night rallies and Christmas, I would collapse.

Jari-Matti covered in mud Dani Sordo - Ireland 2007
Seb Loeb - Ireland 2007 Malcolm Wilson doused in champagne

November 23, 2007. Ford, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Solberg, Subaru, WRC. Leave a comment.

Rally Report: Rally Japan 2007

I’m excited that I’m excited. After two less-than-thrilling rallies, I’m happy to be sitting here typing away about the weekend’s action. Here are my thoughts, random as they may be:

Oh, Marcus. We all knew a four-point lead in the championship meant the season was going to be dramatic. But I don’t think anyone expected drama like this. Marcus Gronholm and Sebastien Loeb, both undisputed masters, both crash out on the same rally! (Understandable, especially with fog and icy mud on the stages. Seriously!) The points gap remains at four points then, with two rallies left. If Seb wins both of them, and Marcus finishes 2nd on both, then Seb will win the title (though they’d be tied, Seb had more victories). But they’re also two of the trickiest rallies in the calendar, so there really is no way of knowing who will be champion. The sentimental favorite to win is Marcus, but either way the WRC wins with an amazing battle up to the season’s end.

Loeb had an unbelievable rally. It started well enough with Daniel Elena’s birthday. No one expected Seb to be lagging behind the leader with understeer, even before the most shocking part of the rally: Daniel Elena made a mistake. A wrongly read pacenote–yes, you’re not reading this wrong–was the cause of Seb’s retirement from day two. If Seb were rallying’s Mr. Perfect, then Dany would be God that granted Seb his perfection. Aside from the bonnet pin incident in Sweden 2006, the man has a spotless record of professionalism. Ah, no need to worry. Out of the millions of pacenotes he’s read in his lifetime, I guess it’s no stretch to believe one of them could be read incorrectly. Still stranger, though, was seeing Seb retire with mechanical failure on day three.

Mikko has proven he can win oddball rallies, but even with all his progress I doubt that he can win against Seb and Marcus on run-of-the-mill gravel. But if he really has stepped up into the upper echelons of driving talent, more power to him! In fact, it would be nice if he did, so Seb could have some competition next year and prevent a season-long –gently put– period of tranquility.

Dani Sordo was blessed with a bit of luck, finally. He finished the rally in 2nd, without technical troubles or big moments. While he hasn’t developed fully as a gravel ace yet, his six stage wins are definitely encouraging. And he’s such a nice lad!

Henning Solberg’s Rally Japan was just what the doctor ordered. After two humbling tarmac rallies, he’s rewarded for his patience with a lovely podium finish on his preferred surface. He’s even sounding like his old, chipper self!

OK, just facing facts, you know it’s been a high-attrition rally when Matt Wilson and Luis Perez Companc finish 4th and 5th, respectively. Matt did do a great job fighting his way up to 4th place, to his credit. And you know what? Staying on the road was something even the resident world champs couldn’t do. They weren’t going nearly as fast as the big boys, but hey.

One youngster, who really isn’t young when you consider his 50 WRC starts, is Jari-Matti Latvala. Homeboy can drive! He led the whole shebang from the first two stages and was still in third until he crashed out on unlucky stage 13. I’m abuzz about his potential, but he needs to learn how to concentrate. Jari-Matti’s a bit hyperactive. But he’ll have to learn how to drive amidst the mayhem, because falling window linings and crashed competitors are always going to be around on a rally.

Speaking of crashing, Chris Atkinson did his car in. They say the roll cage was broken in seven places. Atko and Stephane Prevot, however, were not broken.

Still a favorite is Petter Solberg, who kept driving and winning stages in order to entertain the faithful Norwegian flag-waving fans. I watched the breathtaking onboards of Ouninpohja, and reminded myself why I adore him. Though he’s far away from the win (to no fault of his own), we can’t let him get too far away from our hearts. Corniness not intended.

Also, a big thanks to World Rally Radio, who informs and entertains like no other. Where else can I hear Denis Giraudet tell a story about a bear running across a stage?

Fog Mud Trees
Fog, mud, and trees–oh my!

October 28, 2007. Motorsport, Rally, Rally Radio, Rally Reports, Rallying, Solberg, Subaru, WRC. 1 comment.

Thoughts: Rally Catalunya and the Tour de Corse

I’m really sorry for not posting in a while! You can direct all complaints to Sam. His cell phone number is…just kidding.

But honestly, it was difficult to write a report about a rally like Catalunya. To no one’s fault, it was rather uneventful. Besides the shuffles on leg one, there were no position changes or major incidents the rest of the weekend. The only item of note was the four points Sebastien Loeb gained on Marcus Gronholm, thanks to Dani Sordo’s second place finish.

The way I see it, we should analyze the Spanish and French rounds together to develop a larger picture of what’s happening. Actual rally: not so exciting. Championship implications: very exciting.
Petter Solberg is no longer having miserable rallies, only mediocre ones. I guess that’s progress. Chris Atkinson failed to deliver on his very promising fourth place finish from Rallye Deutschland, so the reports of his tarmac mastery have been a bit exaggerated. Xevi Pons is becoming the bad-luck magnet of the Subaru World Rally Team (much to Petter’s relief, I’d guess).

Henning Solberg continued his “the only way out is through” approach to learning to drive on tarmac. Jari-Matti Latvala is making a strong case to be Mikko Hirvonen’s teammate next year (fingers crossed!).

But he could be in a state of limbo if Marcus decides to guest-star in selected rallies next year (ie: anything but tarmac). Classic Marcus quote: “I hate tarmac rallies.”

Mikko, though he retired, actually reminded me of how consistent he is (his last retirement due to driver error was clear back in December last year in Wales Rally GB).

Though he looked poised to be a star this time last year, Dani Sordo never regained the momentum he lost mid-2006 around the time of Finland and Cyprus. But that was only natural because of his many mechanical failures and his decision to go steady and finish, rather than go fast and crash.

Sebastien Loeb must be quite optimistic for the championship. With only 4 points between him and Marcus, with another upcoming tarmac rally, it’s a virtual tie. Though Seb is my favorite driver, I’ve got to say Marcus is everyone’s sentimental favorite. The fact that Marcus hasn’t won a world title since 2002 is deceptive. He’s still jaw-droppingly quick, and still every bit the champion at the ripe old age of 39.

Last note: mostly due to WRC non-finishes, the Peugeot 207 S2000 driven by Dani Sola finished in tenth overall. I really hate the idea of replacing world rally cars with the S2000. Can you imagine the entire championship field as slow as the Peugeot here? It finished ten minutes back from the leader!

October 15, 2007. Funny Quotes, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Thoughts, WRC. 1 comment.

Rally Report: New Zealand 2007

It’s taken me a while to calm down from the most exciting and stressful rally I think I’ve ever seen. What can I say about Seb and Marcus’ battle? The closest ever finish in WRC history: 0.3 seconds. It was good, hair-pulling fun watching them swap leads and pushing each other so, so hard. Why would Marcus want to retire after a thrill like this? He and Seb are at the very top of their game, so evenly matched for speed on gravel, even with their different driving styles. Seb didn’t end up winning, but with a mere 0.3 seconds separating them, who could even say which was the better driver? After three days and 350-odd km, that’s just ridiculous! Congrats to Marcus. This victory must be ecstasy for him, to win a fight with such a worthy rival.

Mikko’s stuck in third again, and I think he’s frustrated that he was outshadowed by the monumental battle at the top. His steady and quick drive is due some respect.

Chris Atkinson finished in a fine fourth place. Jari-Matti Latvala has been looking like the hottest young talent in the championship lately, so I think it must be a sort of vindication for Atko to best him in an out-and-out battle. Luckily, the car didn’t choke and he didn’t crash, so he now has a result to show for his speed. But you can tell Jari-Matti is analyzing every detail of his rally, so he can learn every possible lesson to take with him in his career.

Dani Sordo finished in sixth, keeping ahead of Petter Solberg, whose Impreza held up steadily enough to finish the rally. Nothing spectacular from Dani, but Petter, I think, got enough to sustain him a while more. His recent column in Autosport shows just how emotionally difficult these past two years have been. He has the very intense desire, but no luck. Anyone else with Petter’s problems would have quit the sport or jumped off a bridge already. But Petter’s hanging in there, with faith in his own talent. The tough part is keeping his faith in the team, especially now that the 2008 Impreza’s first event has been pushed to Finland rather than the expected Monte Carlo debut. That’s a half season longer spent in an absolute dog of a car. I wish him all the best…

Also, I hope all the members of the world rallying community get over the nasty flu going around. Cato Menkerud, Henning’s codriver, had it the worst. With the scratchiest voice you’ve ever heard, he had to call out three day’s worth of pacenotes through the pain. Even Rally Radio’s Becs Williams got it. Kudos to them for being real troopers.

On a final note, Henning damaged another bumper. And I saw a herd of cows (I think they were) checking out the stage from behind a fence. They didn’t cause any crashes this time.

One of the sweetest victories of Marcus’ life  Yep! You only needed 0.4s more!

September 2, 2007. Auto Racing, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Solberg, The Adventures of Henning Solberg, WRC. Leave a comment.

Thoughts: Rallye Deutschland Days 2 & 3

What a great weekend of rallying! I don’t want to ramble on too long, so here are the final results and some thoughts:

1 – Sebastien Loeb
2 – Francois Duval   +20.3
3 – Mikko Hirvonen   +1:19.1
4 – Marcus Gronholm   +1:36.5
5 – Jan Kopecky  +3:07.1
6 – Petter Solberg   +3:14.7
7 – Toni Gardemeister  +3:37.5
8 – Jari-Matti Latvala   +5:29.3

Francois Duval really surprised me this weekend. In his recent appearances, he’s retired quite quickly, usually due to his own error. Not only has he finished the rally, he’s won all of the stages on leg 3 and finished within 20 seconds of the undisputed master of German tarmac, Seb Loeb.

I was watching highlights of some classic rallies from the 90’s, when team orders decided the results of a few controversial rallies. So, when Marcus went off on the very last stage of the rally after being distracted by a cow, team orders were my first thought. Would Ford boss Malcolm Wilson order Mikko to incur a time penalty so that Marcus could gain an extra point in the drivers’ standings? All credit due to Malcolm, there were no such orders. Marcus’ error was entirely his own fault (you can’t blame the freedom-loving cow).  On principle, it would have been entirely unfair to Mikko to cede his own hard-fought position. In the press, it would have stirred controversy and left a blemish on the whole rally. I think that was a very gentlemanly thing for Malcolm to do (or not do). Anyway, Mikko gets very cheeky and headstrong, and I’m not sure he would have obeyed had he received them.

Classifieds: Young Czech needs drive for 2008 season. Would prefer competitive car. Can deliver results. Tarmac specialist. Learning quickly on gravel. Please contact Jan Kopecky.

I’d like to close with an *airhorn blast* in honor of Seb’s victory. Woo!

You could see Duval’s overalls from space!  Seb on an awkward hairpin

August 20, 2007. Ford, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Thoughts, WRC. Leave a comment.

Thoughts: Rallye Deutschland Day 1

Holy cow! Francois Duval is in the lead! The good people at the forums tipped him to win, but I honestly thought the idea was a bit optimistic, judging from his performances the past two seasons. The C4 is obviously newer, but the Xsara’s still got a bit of magic left in it. Now if Duval can keep it on the road…

Seb Loeb made a wrong tyre choice? Rare. But the rest of the weekend looks to be dry, so it makes the choice easier. If Seb is on the right tyres, I’m sure he can overtake Duval for the lead. It’ll be a great fight, so I hope no one complains about being bored when Seb wins.

The Citroen mechanics had better be poring over Seb’s car for any mechanical problems, because he’s been lucky to not have the problems that Dani Sordo’s been having. With Dani out, that makes the points gap in the championship that much harder to close.

Subaru. It never takes more than a day for it to all go wrong. This time, driver error is to blame. Chris Atkinson had an off on stage 2 and Petter Solberg broke his steering trying to get around a hairpin. How many times have we said already that despite the (fill in mishap here) their pace was promising…

Henning had to retire from the leg after losing his tyre. I have yet to see the in-car footage, but this looks like it’ll be another entry for “The Adventures of Henning Solberg.” Too bad, because he was sounding very cheerful and doing quite well in his first true tarmac event.

We’ve also got some privateers in very enviable spots on the leaderboard. Good luck to them all. Not too much luck, because I’m still rooting for Seb to win his 6th consecutive Rallye Deutschland.

Overall Standings:

1 – Francois Duval
2 – Sebastien Loeb   +1.3
3 – Marcus Gronholm   +17.4
4 – Mikko Hirvonen   +22.7
5 – Toni Gardemeister   +1:04.2
6 – Jan Kopecky   +1:26.6
7 – Xevi Pons   +1:37.2
8 – Jari-Matti Latvala   +1:40.7
9 – Petter Solberg   +1:50.7
10 – Manfred Stohl   +2:10.3

August 17, 2007. Auto Racing, Citroen, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Solberg, Subaru, Thoughts, WRC. 1 comment.

Rally Report: Finland 2007

For those of you who are just discovering rally, here’s something you should know right off: Finland is home to the greatest of ’em all. Nowhere in the world will you find more talented drivers or more dedicated rally fans. The stages are pure madness. If you thought the jump at the X Games was crazy, wait till you see the Finnish yumps. If you want to see for yourself, sit back and enjoy the world’s scariest rally stage, Ouninpohja:

OK then. For those of you who already know exactly what happened this weekend, here are my random thoughts:

Thank heaven Rally Radio is back! Yippee yahoo hooray!

Dangit. Marcus now has a 13 point lead over Seb, and even with four tarmac rallies left Seb will need Marcus to DNF if he has any chance at winning the title. It’s been eons since Seb has had this sort of pressure on him. If there’s anyone in the world who could catch Marcus, it’s Seb. But maybe that means no one in world can catch him now. Despite Marcus’ age and pending retirement from the WRC, he’s still at the top of his game and is 100% capable of holding onto the championship lead.

Mikko Hirvonen. He’s all grown up and ready to spread his wings–he’s now a true Flying Finn. He easily kept Seb at bay on all three days to finish 2nd. And (in Finland at least) is almost able to threaten Marcus. But he is really vocal about trying to win. That’s not the wisest thing to say, when your senior teammate is trying to open up the biggest gap possible in the points and chasing a 7th win in Finland that would put him in the record books.

Petter, Petter, Petter. Why does your car fail you? Julian Porter reports seeing Petter unable to even drive in a straight line. He came into the summer holiday with a podium finish in Greece, so he reasonably expected to be able to fight in Finland. When those hopes were dashed after the very first stage, he was in tears. Everyone who saw him was gutted. We all want him to do well. He really does not deserve this sort of heartache. I know the team works hard, but they need leadership and a talented engineer to direct their efforts into actual results.

Chris Atkinson, on the other hand, found a degree of performance out of his Impreza, because he finished very well in fourth. Maybe the codriver switch was just what he needed to refocus himself. Other than a couple stalls, he had a perfect weekend.

Jari-Matti Latvala was, for but a brief time, impressive. He pulled off the same surprise he did in Greece: snatching the lead after the first stage. Then, after the strangest problem (the rubber lining detached from his door) he had two offs, one of which damaged his roll cage. I’ve been somewhat critical of Henning Solberg’s recent lack of pace. But maybe he’s just being smart and doing what Jari-Matti needs to do: calm down, drive steadily, and gain the experience that will enable him in the future to 1) drive quicker and 2) finish rallies. It worked for Henning, who finished well in fifth.

Subaru’s new driver Xevi Pons gave us a pleasant surprise by finishing sixth. He could have easily put the car off the road in Finland in such an unfamiliar and unreliable car (and almost did). But it seems he’s truly conquered his hot temper and gained consistency, which he showed at the end of 2006.

One more mention: Urmo Aava’s finish in 7th is a big hint to everyone that he may be ready to graduate to the WRC’s top tier. We’ll see what happens in his next outing.

The end.

August 7, 2007. Auto Racing, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Solberg, Subaru, WRC. 2 comments.

X Games 13 Rally Super Special: Full Recap

It was supposed to be a few runs through a stadium super special. Then came the insanity.

And practice went so smoothly…

Course Layout

The first run for Ken Block and Andrew Comrie-Picard was incredible. It ended with Ken Block clipping a barrier, dragging a planter (complete with shrubbery) underneath the car, reversing to get rid of it, bumping into another concrete barrier, losing the front right tyre completely and damaging his suspension and turbo! But he still won over ACP, whose ailing engine caused him to land too short on the crossover jump, slamming the back wheels against the ramp and breaking his rear suspension. Absolute mayhem! Kudos to Block’s mechanics, who repaired his car in time for the next battle.

Ken Block - over the hedge

Colin McRae, celebrating his 39th birthday, took it easy on his match against Ramana Lagemann. Lagemann’s engine wouldn’t reach above 4000 rpm, so with no chance to win, he stopped the car.

Next, both the Rock Star Subaru teammates went head to head in a round that looked like someone held up a mirror against the entire track. But it was Tanner Foust’s smooth drifter-style moves that put him ahead of Rally America points leader Andrew Pinker. That is, until Pinker hit a barrier in the asphalt section, came into the stadium jump too sideways and hit the front left into the wall. That second impact threw his trunk door open, which made quite the spectacle as he went on to hit the last few hydrobarriers at the finish. But he did finish!

Pinker - trunk open and into the barriers

In fact, the only routine run was Travis Pastrana against Paul Choiniere. (Travis won.)

The real shocker came when, after a pretty tidy run that put him well in the lead, Colin McRae–rally legend and my favorite to win–ran wide into the hydrobarriers, which tucked under the car to form a ramp. And again, over he went, rolling the car. Except this time, he landed with a corner of the now twice-battered Subaru atop the barrier, with no way of coming down. Colin was so good during practice. With 146 WRC starts, this man has more experience than all of the other drivers put together. But he made the rather silly mistake of accelerating just a bit more, in order to gain speed where he didn’t need any. Sigh. That just means he has to come back to Los Angeles next year to claim the gold medal! Californian rally fans 1, Colin McRae 0.

This is how Colin got stuck

The penultimate match up, and the mayhem still continued unabated. The gap that Travis Pastrana opened up against Tanner Foust was small, but would have guaranteed him victory. But that slow 2 right caught Travis out. He came in too fast, crashed through the barriers into the other course, hitting Foust’s car! He was faster, but had to be disqualified for crossing the finish line in the other lane. Rallying may be nuts, but rules are rules. Travis didn’t mind–he had an absolute blast!

Travis’ illegal lane change

So the final consisted of Tanner Foust and Ken Block, who might still have been in a state of disbelief at advancing the round against Colin. Tanner Foust, though, was a bit worried about the handbrake that had snapped off in his hand. But whatever advantage Ken Block gained midstage, Foust had somehow recouped the time by the finish. The two cars were neck in neck, but both of them came into the finish, again, too fast. As luck would have it, Block’s car served as a snow bank for Tanner to bounce off of. And there you have it. Tanner Foust, stunt driver and drifter extraordinaire, is also now the gold medalist at the X Games Rally Car event. Whew!

Block bounces Foust to the win

By the end, my jaw was tired from dropping so often and my head was buzzing from the excitement. I don’t even think we see this much carnage on the Acropolis! But, all this chaos just goes to show the American public what rallying is all about. Yes, they keep going even on three wheels. Yes, they drive even when their brakes are out. Yes, they roll the car and keep on driving. And yes, when you think you’re in trouble, you hit the accelerator. Anything can happen in rallying, and whatever happens, it’s always spectacular!

August 7, 2007. Auto Racing, Motorsport, News, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Subaru. Leave a comment.

Thoughts: 2007 Acropolis Rally and Procrastination

It’s Thursday now, for most of the world, and I am now posting my thoughts on a rally that ended Sunday. I could ramble on about procrastination and my excuses, but this is a blog about rally, not a blog about feelings. But we do have a two month (*involuntary shudder*) break, so there’s plenty of time to stew over the Acropolis Rally and the first half of the season.

First off, day one was crazy awesome! The competition all weekend was amazing. Petter taking a position from Seb? Atko took Gronholm’s lead?! That says it all.

That’s the first podium with all three of the Big Three since Argentina 2005. I hope Marcus is happy. Happy enough to stay around for 2008. I think a points deficit during the summer break would have tipped the scales toward retirement. Now, he’s got a nine point lead. That’s even more than he’d been planning for. He needs a big buffer zone to hold off Loeb in the four upcoming tarmac events.

Seb wasn’t fastest. I have to take a moment to let that compute. He wasn’t a match for Marcus all weekend. He’s got a lot to do if he wants to catch up and win his fourth consecutive world title. I hope all the ad campaigns and photo shoots aren’t affecting his concentration.

This will sound odd, but my gut is pretty much 100% correct in predicting Petter Solberg’s rally. In last year’s Rally Australia, I literally knew from day one that Petter would have a great result. From Monte to Sardinia, I could feel that Petter would have bad luck or make mistakes. On Friday, I made a prediction to myself: Petter would have problems, but they’d be non-terminal and he’d have a decent finish near the top. I’m psychic! But only in Petter-related matters.

That’s also only the 2nd rally this year that Mikko hasn’t finished in the top three (counting Rear Windowgate). Mikko recovered well from Saturday’s scary off. He looked a bit rattled after it, but has driven the rest of the rally without any problems or wariness. I think they call that maturity. 🙂

I think Jari-Matti is the Wonderboy of the season, like Dani was last year. He’s new, fresh-faced, quick and exciting. His poor results nearly matches Matthew Wilson’s, but he’s got talent that nearly matches the top drivers. At least when he crashes out, he does it while going very fast.

Subaru finishes with two cars in the top six. That’s a big step for them. Henning kind of wasted his momentum; he’d done well in Sardinia and does score a 5th place here, but his drive has been rather uninspiring and forgettable. Dani, if he’d had a working gearbox, would’ve done great. He’s been setting good, if not excellent, times. Jan Kopecky in his little Skoda finishes in a fine 7th place. That’s ahead of the Citroen Xsara of Manfred Stohl. Not bad. Poor Manfred though. He must have expected a much faster car when he signed with Kronos.

So the first half of the season ends and the two month break begins, with many questions raised and left unanswered. Is this the beginning of Seb’s decline? Has this win inspired Marcus enough to keep him driving for another year? Is the Impreza really going to be quick and reliable from here on out? Is Jari-Matti going to keep wowing the judges? Will Henning or Atko ever string two good rallies together? Has Dani found his groove and gotten to grips with gravel? How will anyone survive this rally without mousse inserts next year? Will Petter keep his goatee? Does anyone in the world know the answers? Nope! Bring on the angst.

Phil’s super happy too! Henning’s Focus plays in the dirt

June 6, 2007. Citroen, Ford, Rally, Rally Reports, Rallying, Solberg, Subaru, Thoughts, WRC. Leave a comment.

Rally Report: Rally d’Italia Sardegna

When I follow a rally live throughout the night, I don’t just stare at the screen. I actually write out my own take on each stage. Usually, I do it with pen and paper, but without the extra energy I get from Rally Radio, I find it easier to do it on MS Word. So if you’re somehow curious, this is what’s running through my mind in the middle of the night. Beware.

Download the file, with screenshots of splits and stage times, here. (You need to set it to the web page view.) It’s a full recap, so no need to put it in a separate post.

May 20, 2007. Auto Racing, Motorsport, Rally, Rally Radio, Rally Reports, Rallying, WRC. Leave a comment.

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