WRC: Top Gear’s highlights of the 2013 season
Two names dominated world rallying in 2013: Sébastien Ogier and Volkswagen picked up where Sébastien Loeb and Citroen left off. With one round still to run at the time of writing – in Wales in the UK – Volkswagen are WRC Manufacturers Champions and Ogier the driver’s champion, bringing a nine year — nine year — run of championships by Loeb to a close. There must be something in the name.
And it’s not as if Loeb was absent in 2013. This was his transition year, and he chose to go rallying where he wanted and whenever his programme — racing a McLaren 12C in GTs, a 911 in the Porsche Supercup and testing Citroen’s World Touring Car for 2014 — allowed. And when he did turn up, he more than made his point: a win in Monte Carlo, a close second in Sweden, a win in Argentina and finally, at home on the Rallye de France, a win-it-or-bin-it effort on the first stage of the last day of his rallying career that ended in a ditch.
Would Ogier have triumphed had Loeb not elected to go part-time? Possibly not. Two wins, a second place and what would have been at least fourth suggested that Loeb and Citroen were indeed every bit as competitive in this their last year on the WRC as they were in their first, almost a decade ago. And there’s no overlooking the fact that Loeb has had a lot tougher competition over the last ten years than Ogier had in 2013. This season saw just two proper factory teams, from Citroen and from Volkswagen. There were no works Fords nor works Minis this year, though both cars did compete, with the Fiesta RS especially proving its metal.
But the VW Polo R WRC made a deeply impressive debut, especially in the hands of Ogier. Fast from the very first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally, the Polo R’s immediate pace and reliability suggests VW could well prove to be in rallying the crushing force blood-brother Audi has already proven to be in sports prototype racing.
Of the 12 rallies so far completed, Ogier has won eight of them. And he’s on a run of three heading to Wales, with wins in Australia, France and Spain in the last two months. Teammate Jari-Matti Latvala took victory in Greece when Ogier slipped up on stage one. Dani Sordo, who kept Loeb’s seat warm for him in the Citroen works team, is the only other driver (the VW pair and Loeb apart) to win this year. That came in Germany, suggesting just how much Citroen is missing and will continue to miss Loeb. Its best placed driver in the championship is Mikko Hirvonen, with less than half the points of Ogier.
And credit where it’s due to Belgian Thierry Neuville in the non-works Qatar World Rally team Ford Fiesta RS WRC. Heading to Wales he’s currently lying second to Ogier in the Driver’s Championship. Just 25 years old, and in only his second season in proper team, he’s already scored four second places and two thirds. Indeed it fell to Neuville to keep Ogier from the title in Germany – only when he failed to win the opening power stage was Ogier crowned. It’s likely he will switch to Hyundai’s works team when it makes its WRC debut next year. Like Ogier, Citroen could well come to regret letting Neuville slip through their fingers.
So who will be Citroen’s new Loeb? Still on the mend from the February 2011 crash that almost certainly ended his winning F1 career, Robert Kubica has been sensational on the WRC2 — for Group R, Group N and S2000 cars — winning five of the seven events he’s entered. He’s been spectacular to watch, seemingly hurling his Citroen DS3 into every available hedge or ditch, but there’s no denying the Pole’s pace. The last win, in Spain, was good enough to win the title and for the final round he’ll step up from the WRC2 to rally a semi-works Citroen DS3 WRC for the Abu Dhabi team. Citroen have already said Kubica is in its shortlist for 2014.
Citroen will run fewer cars across its two teams next year as it splits its efforts between the DS3 in WRC and the C-Elysee with Loeb (and possibly reigning champion Yvan Muller) in WTCC. Hyundai, meanwhile, are coming towards the end of an intensive development year with the i20 WRC. But there will be no Loeb at all next year, so Ogier at least will have the chance to win a title, free of any ‘what-ifs’? Volkswagen clearly have a potent car in the Polo R. This was, after all, its debut season. Are we at the start of another run of championships by a man called Sébastien? Whether you spell it with an ‘e’ or an ‘a’, it seems to be the name to have in motorsport in 2013…