x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Latvala and Ogier all set to take over

Rallying may be defined by the showdown between Loeb and Hirvonen but their understudies are on the rise.

Jari-Matti Latvala, right, the Finn driver, has handled pressure remarkably well for his age.
Jari-Matti Latvala, right, the Finn driver, has handled pressure remarkably well for his age.

You could be forgiven for thinking it is the same old story when you look at the World Rally Championship drivers' table. Sebastien Loeb out on his own at the top of the standings in his all-conquering Citroen, well on course to win a seventh successive championship, is no surprise.

But if you peer a little deeper you will see the seeds are beginning to be sown for a changing of the guard in the sport. The 2009 season was dominated by Loeb and Mikko Hirvonen, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver, as they won 11 of the 12 rallies and it was expected to be more of the same this year, especially when the pair dominated the opening round of the season in Sweden in February, with Hirvonen winning. But since then, while Loeb has continued to impress, winning four rallies, it has been Sebastien Ogier, his newly-promoted Citroen teammate, and the second Ford car of Jari-Matti Latvala that have shared the winner's circle opportunities, not Hirvonen, who has failed to finish in the top two in an event since the opening round. The young duo, aged 26 and 25 respectively, have both impressed this season and have driven like future world champions.

Latvala, who had already won in New Zealand in May, picked up the fourth victory of his career on Saturday as he won Rally Finland. Already the youngest winner of a WRC round, the Finn is now also the youngest to conquer his home event, which is a high-speed route in a country described as being the sport's spiritual home. Across the Jyvaskyla service park, Ogier cemented his candidacy as Loeb's long-term successor in the Citroen works team by holding off Loeb himself to cross the line a comfortable second. Officially still a member of Citroen's Junior Team until the end of the season, Ogier's lightning Nordic performance came in the 26-year-old's first senior drive for the French manufacturer. He has two more first-team appearances, on gravel, before the end of the calendar. Pressure, it appears, does not faze either youngster. "It was a stunning drive from Jari-Matti," said Malcolm Wilson, the Ford team director, said. "There was a lot of pressure on his young shoulders, but he handled it superbly and displayed great maturity in a difficult situation."

Oliver Quesnel, Wilson's Citroen counterpart, believes it is only a matter of time before Ogier ascends to Loeb's throne. "He's looking to become world champion," Quesnel told maxrally.com. "That is what is in his mind and for a long time now I know he can do this." An increasing panache to grind out results on gravel has underlined asphalt-favouring Loeb's continued dominance and, with tarmac rallies falling in two of the next three rounds, the champion could wrap up a seventh world crown with two rounds to spare. So while neither Ogier nor Latvala, second and third respectively in the drivers' standings, are likely to end the season as champion, their form is a timely reminder that there will be no clear favourite for next year's title. Slower, largely experimental cars - part of fresh regulation changes that are designed to entice more manufacturers back to the sport - will raise next year's stakes even further. For Ogier and Latvala, building reputations as fearless speedsters in the present, full-specification WRC cars, piloting the new Super2000 machines will put them on an even keel with the experienced Loeb and Hirvonen for the first time in their careers. Altering the make-up of the series could yet hasten rally's next generation of stars coming to the fore. The final five rounds of the season should shed some light on how long it will take for the new generation to replace the established one. Email:emegson@thenational.ae