x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A sizzling start for Loeb

As form goes, 93 points from a possible 100 highlights the early season dominance of Sebastien Loeb, the six-time world champion.

Sebastien Loeb, the championship leader, on his way to victory in the Rally Jordan.
Sebastien Loeb, the championship leader, on his way to victory in the Rally Jordan.

As form goes, 93 points from a possible 100 highlights the early season dominance of Sebastien Loeb, the six-time world champion. Loeb, the runaway championship leader, will embark on today's opening leg of Rally New Zealand - round five in the 13-event World Rally Championship season - as the first car on the road. It will be the Frenchman's fourth "sweeping" experience of the campaign.

But for once, Loeb is expected to struggle. An absence of rain has left the fast, flowing gravel stages drier and duster than normal. Loeb will need to be cautious as he clears debris and sets the driving lines for the pursuing field. The world champion will, however, almost certainly recover tomorrow, buoyed by a better starting position. The extent of that recovery will depend on the pace of Loeb's principal challenger, Mikko Hirvonen, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver, as it has so often in recent seasons.

Since winning the year's opening test in Sweden, the Finn has been distinctly off the pace. New Zealand, where Hirvonen has never won, is pivotal to his title push. With a favoured starting position of third on the road, the Ford No 1 is confident. "Even if it rains the road will dry really quickly and be clean," said Hirvonen yesterday. "Running behind Sebastien, he will clean it for me, but for the guys behind like [Sebastien] Ogier and Dani Sordo [the Citroen drivers] it's going to be really clean. They'll be right up there tomorrow night, I'm sure of that.

"I was first on the road on the second day here two years ago. I think I had a 40-second lead, but Sebastien still caught me in one day - the loose gravel can be really bad." Despite the intrinsic difficulties of the revised rally route - which features just under 400km of competitive distance, making it the longest round of the WRC for almost six years - Hirvonen believes he is in his element in New Zealand. "I'm excited to be back again," confessed Hirvonen, who has amassed 15 points to Loeb's 50 in the last two rounds.

"When I get out on the stages, I remember just why it's alongside Finland as my favourite rally in the championship. It's fast, smooth, fun and there's a big emphasis on endurance. But it's good to have a longer rally." With eight full stages lying in wait today, Jari-Matti Latvala, Hirvonen's teammate, went quickest during yesterday's shakedown testing session. The Auckland park venue is also the site of an asphalt-based super special stage tonight.

But as the vast majority of the rally is based on gravel roads, the sealed-surface trial run was of limited value as a set-up exercise. It did, however, grant drivers an unusual opportunity to recce a rally stage at competitive speed. "I was determined to set the fastest time because in the past on this surface I've lost out to the pace of the Citroens," said Latvala, whose fastest time came on his sixth run.

"We struggled on the asphalt in Australia last year, but now I think we've found a set-up which gives us an edge." Set-up, strategy, planning, will all be for nought if the Ford duo fail to execute an effective race. As Scottish poet Robert Burns once wrote: "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." The only plan Hirvonen will have is stopping Loeb, the victor here in 2005 and 2008. Because if the Citroen legend claims a fourth win of the season this weekend, the championship looks all but sealed.

* Compiled by Euan Megson