x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

It is momentum versus experience

The events in Jyvaskyla at the weekend have thrown open the world championship and we now genuinely have a thrilling duel that is almost certainly going to go down to the wire.

The events in Jyvaskyla at the weekend have thrown open the world championship and we now genuinely have a thrilling duel that is almost certainly going to go down to the wire. In the red corner is the five time champion Sebastien Loeb. The Frenchman is looking for a sixth successive title with Citroen. In the blue corner is BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver Mikko Hirvonen, who was runner-up to Loeb last year and is looking to turn the tables this season.

It has really been a year of two halves. The first part belonged to Loeb who won the first five rallies in a row to open up a 20-point lead in the championship. But a mixture of brilliant driving from Hirvonen, mixed with mistakes from Loeb has changed the landscape of the battle completely, as the Finn has taken 38 points from the last four events to Loeb's 15 to take a three-point lead in the championship.

Picking a winner is tough. While Loeb has the experience, Hirvonen is driving at the peak of his powers and has the momentum with him. There are three events left this season. Australia is going to be tough to call as it is being run in a new location. The uncharted territory of New South Wales is going to be different for everyone. Hirvonen has admitted he will be at a disadvantage there going first as he will be cleaning up the dusty gravel tracks. He was at a similar disadvantage in Finland but he coped well with that in his home conditions.

Spain should be a Loeb victory, the Frenchman being dominant on tarmac. Critical to the championship is that Hirvonen will need to alleviate the damage by finishing second ideally, a tough task given that Dani Sordo, in the second Citroen, is no slouch on the smoother surface. Rally Great Britain concludes the season at the end of October and while Loeb can take heart from winning there last year, he was under no pressure as title number five had already been wrapped up - something that is unlikely to be the case this time.

Hirvonen, is on a high at the moment, and arguably the most important thing to come out of Finland was that he defeated Loeb in a straight fight for the first time this season. Loeb has made mistakes at the recent rounds, gifting Hirvonen points, but in Finland the Citroen driver was on top of his game. Yet Hirvonen matched and beat it. Agreed, Loeb was slowed by a puncture on the Saturday, but before then Hirvonen had demonstrated he had the measure of him.

He had been under enormous pressure on the second leg on Saturday, leading by only 3.3 seconds, but had been fastest on the first five stages to put some distance between himself and the Citroen man. Hirvonen now knows he can beat Loeb without needing his rival to fly off the road and that has got to give him confidence for his bid to be the first Finn to win the championship since Marcus Gronholm back in 2002.

That is why it is hard to make a prediction on who will come out on top of this captivating season. Hirvonen has never driven better and has been excellent after a slow start, while Loeb is not the defending champion for nothing. Loeb, however, will have to show great resilience if he is to fend off his opponent's fierce challenge. I think Loeb's experience is vast enough and may raise his level well enough to just edge this, but Hirvonen has a cracking chance to end the Frenchman's reign and it will be fascinating over the next three months to see if he can do it.

@Email:gcaygill@thenational.ae