WORDS BY ROB HANSFORD | IMAGES BY M-SPORT / TOYOTA
It’s nearly time for round two. Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier going head-to-head once again in the World Rally Championship, this time in Portugal.
Their battle on the WRC’s opening round of the season in Monte Carlo captured the imagination of rallying fans around the world. Two of the most successful rally drivers in history going up against each other in an all-out, full throttle fight to see who is fastest. What’s not to love?
It’s not surprising that the storyline completely took over the Monte Carlo coverage, especially since they were the fastest pair through the stages, but this time it’s slightly different.
At Monte Carlo, everything was new for everyone. Nobody had driven the all-new Rally1 hybrid cars in anger before, and so Loeb and Ogier’s experience came to the fore, allowing them to extract more out of their cars than anyone else.
There’s no denying they still possess the raw pace required to tackle WRC’s stages, and that was no clearer than on Monte when they wiped the floor with the rest of the field for the majority of the event, with Loeb emerging victorious to give M-Sport their first rally win since 2018.
Everyone was on an equal footing, with the same level of experience, but now, going to Portugal, that’s not going to be the case.
Loeb and Ogier haven’t featured since that opening round, while the rest of the WRC field have had two events to understand their cars in more detail. They now understand how to make the most out of the hybrid systems in a better way than they would have on Monte Carlo, and they have a greater understanding of the nuances of their machines.
The same can’t be said for the two multiple world champions.
They have been competing in other categories, most notably sportscars and so a period of adjustment is no doubt going to be required.
Of course, being the first gravel event of the season, their road order will help to an extent, especially for Ogier, but Loeb will be hampered given the fact he’s still fourth in the drivers’ standings.
The battle between the pair will be a major talking point all the way through the rally. How could it not be?
Everyone will be keen to see how they get on and which one will be fastest, but I’d be surprised if we were having similar conversations to Monte Carlo.
It’s unlikely that they will be fighting for the outright victory. There’s no way that their lack of seat time cannot hold them back to some degree.
And depending where they end up in the pecking order, it poses two potential issues for WRC.
If they are midfield, struggling to make any impact, will people actually care about their fight? Will it draw in the headlines in the same vein that it did on Monte Carlo? Probably not. There’s not many people that get excited about a fight for a midfield position.
But if by some miracle the pair do end up battling for the overall rally victory again, then what does it say about the championship’s current crop of drivers?
That wasn’t an issue on the season opener, given everyone’s lack of experience, but the same can’t be said now. So if Loeb and Ogier are topping the timesheet on every stage, does that devalue the championship in its entirety?
There’s no denying that everyone is looking forward to the pair mixing it up together on various stages throughout the season, but while it’s an exciting prospect, there’s also the stark reality that it could pose a real risk to WRC’s reputation.
And that’s something that will need to be seriously considered if the two world champions dominate on the Portuguese gravel.
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