The agonising thing for Ford on Wales Rally GB was not just that it was the first factory win for 217 days, but also that it came frustratingly close to being a perfect one-two: a result that has eluded the works squad since Rally Australia one year ago.
Tue 18.09.12, 10:10AM
In the end, Petter Solberg finished less than a second behind Citroen’s Sebastien Loeb, but what did that matter: there were still two Fords on the podium after what team principal Malcolm Wilson described as the “most nervous time” he’s had on a rally for the last 15 years or so.
Finally, there was joy and relief at Ford following a season that has given them very little to cheer about so far. The catalogue of misfortunes has included errant rocks, broken shoulders and damaged tyres - with the result that Loeb racked up five wins on the trot in the mid part of the season.
It’s now a mathematical certainty that either he or his team-mate Mikko Hirvonen will become world champion at the end of this year, so for Ford the campaign is now all about getting a flying start for 2013. It’s not going to be easy because next year Volkswagen arrives too, and if some rumours are to be believed, they’re taking Latvala with them.
But as Wilson points out, there’s nothing like a win to galvanise any team, so now Latvala and Solberg head to France with a load of momentum behind them. Beating Citroen on their home territory will be a big ask but it’s by no means impossible: Ford has had the speed to challenge its French rivals all season. There should have been many more results like this one, and while Loeb has certainly been exceptionally good this year, he’s also been very lucky to see the title challenge from his key rivals fall apart so comprehensively.
If Ford keeps the pressure on for the rest of the year, there’s a chance that Loeb could head into next year slightly on the back foot, in the knowledge that his main rivals could have a slightly faster car than his. And who knows what might happen then?
This theory is borne out by the performance of the privateer Fords in Britain and on other recent rounds: while unkind people have suggested that Citroen is effectively a one-car team there is no doubt that all the Fords have pulled their weight equally, including the privateers. On stage seven of Rally GB, for instance, all the fastest split times were set by Fiestas - but none of them were factory cars. And in Germany, three Fords set fastest times - but only one Citroen. So had things worked out only slightly differently, it would have been easy to envisage the titles heading to Cockermouth rather than Paris, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Much has been made of the suspension adjustments that Ford brought to Wales, but in reality this was not a major change: the biggest difference came from Latvala’s improved confidence. The Finn is one of the most intelligent, well-spoken and articulate drivers out there, but the downside to his increased cerebral capacity is that he sometimes thinks too much - and as such his confidence can be more affected than most if things don’t go his way. Latvala feels pain and blame acutely on occasions: to the extent that in the past he has even thought about offering his resignation.
A lot was also made about the date change for Rally GB this year, as it moved to September for the first time since 2005. In the end, this did not make massive amount of difference: there were still many places that were wet and slippery, although we didn’t experience the glacial outdoor temperatures that we’ve had in the past. British spectators are a hardy bunch though, and the warmer temperatures didn’t necessarily attract more people to the side of the stages. It seems that they prefer getting cold and wet.
One thing that was definitely unmissable though was the sight of a two-tonne Bentley being hustled through the Sweet Lamb stage by MINI driver Kris Meeke on Friday. Yes, you read that correctly. While most Bentleys waft to and from stately homes at an equally stately pace, this amazing stunt was the result of a collaboration between Meeke and BBC’s Top Gear show, with presenter James May joining the illustrious list of world championship co-drivers.
To be accurate, they weren’t taking part in the event, merely filming a TV clip, but the result was still highly entertaining: a bit like watching a hippopotamus trying to dance Swan Lake. Actually, what most people don’t realise is that Bentley has quite an illustrious history in rallying, winning its class on the 1938 RAC Rally for example, and also currently holding the world land speed record on ice with Juha Kankkunen, established last year on a frozen section of the Baltic Sea.
It goes to show what we all know already: the extreme conditions and unparalleled landscapes in rallying provide manufacturers with an unprecedented marketing opportunity to showcase the go-anywhere capabilities of their cars. Citroen is dominating the modern era of the sport, but it was among the first to see the promotional opportunities in the 1950s and 1960s, contesting prestigious events such as Monte Carlo as well as a number of the African endurance epics.
So it deserves the success again now, on the verge of clinching a staggering ninth drivers’ title for Loeb and an eighth manufacturers’ title for the team. By the end of the month we should know what the next move is for Loeb and Citroen, with team principal Yves Matton confirming that it’s in the final stage of confirming what its biggest star will do next year.
Only one thing is certain: Loeb will be staying with Citroen next year and for a long time into the future. But whether that is as a rally driver, brand ambassador, or even a racing driver remains to be seen - and once that story breaks, it’s set to be the biggest news of the year.