From Chris Biewer [ 27/09/2004 ].
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It could basically be a foregone conclusion with 4 rounds to go that the 2004 WRC titles belong to Sébastien Loeb and Citroen. Both would be worthy champions. Last year the title was such a close call with luck involved, i.e. Petter Solberg’s huge tyre advantage on Corsica, that you could ask questions. Not so this year. Without the slightest doubt Sébastien Loeb turned into the biggest new talent there is, if not even the biggest talent the WRC has ever seen. In 2004 Séb became the first non-Nordic man ever to win the Rally Sweden, he became a convincing force on gravel and in the first 12 events 2004 he scored 11 points finishes, 9 podiums and 5 victories. And the FIA ensured we have a points system that makes it impossible to catch up.
But before we go into championship calculations, I personally always like to talk about the manufacturer championship battles, but this year this story simply is the story of Sébastien Loeb. Anything else would be ill justice! Be prepared for a few surprises.
Sébastien Loeb is born on 26th February 1974 in a village called Oberhofen, near Hagenau, where he lives to the day. Séb is not only from the Alsace region (north of Strassbourg), but as the place names indicate, he lives in a German influenced area in walking disctance from the border. It’s kind of an international region as Sébastien lives closer to Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland than i.e. to Paris! Geographically there are at least some Germans that could claim him, rather than Armin Schwarz, to be their local WRC hero and Sébastien Loeb himself claims the Rallye Deutschland, and not Monte Carlo or Corsica, to be his home rally! Monte Carlo would however be the local event to his navigator Daniel Elena, the only WRC star of recent time with original Monte Carlo passport.
Interesting in this as well is, that Séb Loeb is 9 month older than Petter Solberg (18th November 1974) and 21 month older than Markko Märtin (10th November 1975). These three drivers are very much considered to be not only the new breed, but the current super stars of World rallying. However Sébastien Loeb got into rallying pretty late. He was into gymnastics, actually a champion in that discipline. He bought his first rally car, a Peugeot 106, aged 21 - at this age Francois Duval was already a WRC works driver or a Jari-Matti Latvala is 3 years younger than that today! And even then Séb was not regularly rallying until he joined the Citroen Saxo Cup a few years later. 4 years after Sébastien Loeb purchased the Peugeot 106, he gave his WRC debut in a Citroen Saxo Kit Car in Catalunya 1999. Only one more year further on he started in two WRC events (Corsica and San Remo) with a Grifone Toyota Corolla WRC and finished in the top10 on both occasions! And 2001 was his big break through. By now under a firm Citroen contract he won the French Rally Championship in a Citroen Xsara, he won every single JWRC event he started, the JWRC title to go with it and he was given a try in the works Xsara T4 in San Remo, where he finished 2nd! And by Rallye Deutschland 2002 he had his first WRC outright victory under his belt.
All this means in comparison to his two main rivals as current WRC super stars, Sébastien Loeb stands out. This seems a surprising claim, as Markko Märtin and Petter Solberg are certainly not hanging around. Still, looking at how late he started and how quick he got where he is, the Loeb story indeed does stand out far more than the Solberg and the Märtin story. Let’s compare (valid after Rally GB 04):
Loeb 41 = 82% of his starts
Solberg 49 = 68.1 % of his starts
Märtin 45 = 66.1% of his starts
(Grönholm = 57.1%!)
You note, the three of them indeed appear to be on similar levels, but one can’t ignore that Loeb’s career started later, he has reached this results and points level in a much shorter time than his opponents! I.e. in number of wins and career points Loeb and Solberg are virtually identical, but to reach these numbers Solberg needed nearly 50% more starts!!!! This maybe becomes even more impressive if you consider that Solberg and Märtin had all their starts in A8 and WRCars while of Loeb's account of 50 starts we can take off 12 starts in S1600 and lesser machinery! Therefore if we go into percentages, Sébastien Loeb is the outstanding one of the outstanding ones!
Winning ratio (wins xx% of his starts)
(reference Grönholm 16.3%)
Average points scored per WRC start
(reference Grönholm 3.12)
Incredible stuff! Definitely World Champion material. So how close is Sébastien Loeb to clinching the WRC title? It could be within a week! With 4 rounds left to go there are only 3 drivers that can stop him – and it must be said, with the current points system the chances are just mathematical.
Petter Solberg’s case: He is 28 points down on Loeb. After the Rally Italy there are 3 rounds and maximum 30 points left. This means Sébastien actually has to beat Petter Solberg, if he wants to close the case this weekend. If Séb gets 2 points more, Solberg would have to win all the remaining events with Loeb not scoring anything. Then we would have a tie and for Solberg winning all the remaining events, the tie would actually be decided in Solberg’s favour! However unlikely this may be, what we want to know is how can the title be decided this weekend. Therefore Séb has to beat Petter by at least 3 points in Sardinia. If Séb wins and Petter is 3rd, or if Séb is 2nd and Petter 4th or Séb is 3rd or below with Petter 3 places behind, Petter will have no mathematical chance on the 2004 drivers title. However Séb still has to finish at least 6th if Petter stays without any points this weekend.
Markko Märtin’s case: Markko is clearly in a worse position than Petter. The gap currently is 33 points. With 30 points left to go after Italy, this means Markko actually has to beat Séb Loeb to retain even a mathematical chance. Worse even, Markko will under any circumstances lose a tie break against Séb, meaning Markko has to gain at least 4 points over Séb or the door is firmly shut! This means even if Loeb should retire, Märtin needs at least 5th place. Should Markko Märtin win and Loeb comes 2nd, Märtin’s case is over as well. In between we have all variations. Märtin 2nd means Loeb must be placed 5th or lower, Märtin 3rd he needs Loeb 7th or lower, otherwise the battle is over.
Carlos Sainz’s case: Like Markko, Carlos has to gain points over Séb Loeb. The gap is currently 37 points, a tie break would definitely be in Loeb’s favour. This makes this an easy case. Carlos has to make up 8 points in Italy. This means if Loeb stays with no points, Sainz has to come at least 2nd on the event. If Sainz wins the rally and Loeb comes 6th or higher, Sainz can no longer win the 2004 title.
And now the makes battle seems to be slightly closer, although here as well it is tempting to say ‘come on, just hand the award to Citroen’. Citroen currently leads the title race by 38 points over Ford, 59 points over Subaru and 74 points over Peugeot. A manufacturer’s 1-2 result would pay 18 points, times 4 events makes 72 – such Peugeot misses out on the mathematical barrier by 2 points.
After Italy there are still 54 makes points to be taken. However this does not make Subaru’s case any more promising than Peugeot’s already mathematically lost case. Subaru has to gain 5 points over Citroen in Italy to keep their mathematical chance. However even then Subaru would have to rely on finishing 1-2 on the remaining events without Citroen scoring a single point! Let us recall that Citroen is the French word for reliability: In the past two seasons so far, counting cars nominated for makes points, Citroen counts 66 starts and 3 retirements for mechanical problems. With the current nomination and points system, a finish automatically means points. There is no way Citroen will enter 6 cars and have 6 retirements in the last events. Bye, bye 2004 title for Subaru!
Ford however is a far more difficult case. The gap to Citroen is 38 points. After Italy there are still maximum 54 points to be taken. Basically Citroen needs to come at least 1st & 3rd with no Ford in the points at all in Italy to lift the manufacturer’s title this weekend. This means if only for Ford, the manufacturer’s title 2004 is extremely unlikely to be decided in Italy. Ford would need to gain an average of 10 points over Citroen in the remaining rallies of the year – unlikely, but I would say at this point certainly not impossible.
Flash: We are hearing that Andy D locked the Rally-Info trainspotter in the loft for missing to report Séb Loeb's 50th WRC start before the according event - and for adequate punishment he looks unlikely to be released in time to report from Rally Italy!