2008 WRC Season Commentary

2008 WRC Summary by Chris Biewer :

New for 2008 was that reverse starting order was reversed to starting order in order of classification. You see, there have been so many strange rule changes that in the previous season write ups I forgot to mention a good one. Since the very first car on the road has sometimes an advantage and more often a big disadvantage, while cars further down the field find a more equal situation to one another, it was a good new idea to reverse the running order from 2006 onwards. As well remember proceedings in Australia 2000, when Grönholm was fooled into running 1st. Australia 2000 was in fact a magic event. Mäkinen took a 10s jump start penalty on purpose, Burns faked a tyre change on “safety grounds” and Sainz got disqualified for stopping in the wrong spot. In years to come there was on nearly every gravel event a sport spoiling game when nobody wanted to lead the rally at the end of the leg to not having to start 1st on the road the next day. How stupid must new audience have felt following a whole day a split second battle for the lead to develop, only for the leader to then slow down on the last stage? What’s the point of following the rally all day, than? Utter waste of time! That’s why for 2006 the top15 reverse starting order was introduced. OK, now you could say this penalises the low budget privateer driver, but the driver in 15th place would never fight for the lead anyway, while as first car on the road his sponsors got extra value. At the same time the fight for the lead was far more honest, because drivers in 14th and 15th position on the road find far more equal and fairer conditions than there are between 1st and 2nd.

What shall I say, the new rule with top15 reverse worked perfect. That is why for 2008 this rule was U-turned again! Not to mention that next the FIA was totally surprised that we had those silly end of day tactical games again! Just care anyone explain to me how a major organisor on world championship level reverses a rule, without even looking for a single moment why this rule was introduced in the first place? I just don’t get it how badly this championship is being run!

Well, rant over, because next big news for 2008 was the introduction of a control tyre. The control tyre contract went to Pirelli, with Michelin, serving most teams by far so far, being in agony and disbeleave that they weren’t given the contract. This was another rule that asked for lots of discussions. But while it is difficult to tell the effects of this control tyre rule without trying it first, there clearly are assets to try it. Let alone how Petter Solberg all the sudden dominated Corsica 2003 when it started to rain, beating absolutely everyone by 40secs stage after stage, and therefore winning the title. These are gaps that have nothing to do any more with car ability and driver talent, and the control tyre would prevent such situation, as every team is now on equal footing.

Leaves the changes in the calendar. Like in a rotation system the new for 2007 events Norway, Portugal & Ireland are replaced by the old events Australia and Turkey. Only instead of a return of Cyprus, we have Jordan as a completely new event. However Australia has to move to Eastern Australia and don’t get this event off the ground on time, so the calendar is down to 15. And Jordan could be another of the much criticised events. It is logistically expensive in a politically not very stable area and with a landscape not much different to most of the rough gravel events, in fact with even less landmarks.

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On the sporting side, yet more records for Sébastien Loeb. He won 11 (out of 15!) rallies this season – a record, and became 5 times World Champion – a record, 5 titles in a row that is – also a record. Citroën for the makes – of course.

Well, one of the news for 2008 was that Marcus Grönholm retired from active competition, leaving Ford to move Mikko Hirvonen into the team leader role and Jari-Matti Latvala as a new young team mate. Ford actually collected a record too: Already in Sweden Latvala won and became the youngest WRC event winner since Henri Toivonen in 1980! However Hirvonen, although a consistent and reliable points scorer on any surface, did not seem to have the team leader qualities of a Marcus Grönholm, while Loeb just kept going from victory to victory to victory. In the circumstances Ford themselves still have done well, being only 18points down on Citroën in the end.

The most interesting bits may have come from further down the field, much further down. Subaru at long last launched a new model Impreza. Actually the previous model was only around since 2003 – 5 years, but already seemed old and tired, so much so, that, against original plans, Prodrive moved the debut of the new Impreza forward to mid season. On paper the new Impreza was big news, because for the first time ever Subaru was going to rally a hatchback model rather than a salon! But once the new Impreza was shown to the public, there was disappointment and fear all round. The car not only lacked character compared to previous Subaru models. In this particular case hatchback did not mean chopping off the boot, but extending the cabin! Somehow it did not look like an estate, but in size and nimbleness it came close.

The new car actually debuted with 2nd place for Petter Solberg in Greece, but a 3rd place for Chris Atkinson in Finland aside, no further podium finishes were added, while the car seemed to be at least as unreliable as its predecessor. As well both drivers permanently complained about handling problems. Disappointed by this all, Subaru packed in for good after only half a year rallying the new car.

Funnier even was Suzuki. They were brand new to the WRC. In fact already in 2007 they had two test events with interesting drivers: Tour de Corse with Nicolas Bernardi and Rally GB with Basti Lindholm. The results were – believe it or not – 31st (Corsica) and 27th (GB) overall! What is worse, several insiders, me included, were not surprised. It is rare to know already things will never work by just looking at a car, before it ever turned a wheel. In fact I may admit to having been wrong about how well the Mini Countryman should work a few years later. But when Suzuki came with the SX4, you just had to wonder, have there been too many rough gravel events to give public and manufacturers the wrong impression what rallying actually is? WRC should be about performance cars, while the SX4 looked more like a Land Rover competitor!

Maybe what supported the negative vibes was that one (well at least I) could see parallels to the Hyundai disaster from the very moment the project started. Like Hyundai, Suzuki claimed they would be World Champions within 3 years. And like Hyundai, Suzuki based their claim on their successes in a subcategory, successes that only a blind would see as successes. Well, other than Hyundai, who failed to win the F2 World Cup even when they were the only competitor, Suzuki did actually have successes in the JWRC with S1600 cars. But other than the F2 Cup, the JWRC was never designed for a works team, yet a works team in JWRC was exactly what Suzuki was! With a whole army of drivers at that, and most of the years the only privateer in a Renault Clio or Citroen C2 would beat all those works Suzukis. So how does this make a manufacturer like Hyundai or Suzuki believe they have what it takes to take on Citroën and Ford for the overall title?

Maybe I shouldn’t spent so many lines on single team failures. But you see there is no news at the front since years and these bits here are extraordinary.

Because for sure no team wants to come last in a main championship and therefore it is always difficult to have many manufacturers and especially keeping them. But at least with Hyundai and Suzuki and to some degree Subaru with the new Impreza van, even in much bigger entry fields you are really hard pushed to find a failure as big and as predictable, when at the same time the manufacturer was so convinced they had a good product.

Maybe I have a problem with blatant arrogance. But the way Suzuki talked in contrast to their failure was nothing short of spectacular. Not only that they were going to be World Champions within 3 years, for failing to beat privateers in a subcategory. Maybe they thought the poor results of the 2007 test events was the drivers, as for 2008 they signed different drivers, Toni Gardemeister and P-G Andersson. Then they sacked engineer Michel Nandon (who engineered the Corolla WRC & 206 WRC before), then the sport director, then they sacked the next engineer Mario Fornaris (who improved the 206 WRC and the last Lancer WRC before and engineered the Skoda Fabia S2000 after), only then Suzuki started to consider that maybe it was their base car after all and then they quit at the end of season.

Hyundai started in 4 seasons 48 rallies with 2 or 3 WRC works cars and didn’t get a single podium finish. In 2008 only 8 full works cars were there, Suzuki did the complete season with a 2-car team and their best result was 5th. In the championchip even private haulage team Stobart had twice as many points as the Suzuki car manufacturer works team.
 

2008 WRC Factory Team and Driver Line Ups :
 

Citroën Citroën, 2008 - Citroën Sport : 1st on 191 points.
 

 

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Ford Ford, 2008 - BP Ford Abu Dhabi Rallye Team : 2nd on 173 points.
 

 

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Subaru Subaru, 2008 - Subaru World Rally Team : 3rd on 98 points.
 

 

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Ford Ford, 2008 - Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team : 4th on 67 points.
 

 

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Suzuki Suzuki, 2008 - Suzuki World Rally Team : 5th on 34 points.
 

 

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Ford Ford, 2008 - Munchi's Ford World Rally Team : 6th on 22 points.
 

 

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