x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

The final countdown

Three consecutive victories and a pair of one-two finishes for BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala have lit up the title race.

With four races to go, the Frenchman Sebastien Loeb faces a tough test to retain his title.
With four races to go, the Frenchman Sebastien Loeb faces a tough test to retain his title.

Let's rewind to April... five rallies, five wins. The masterful command that the most successful rally driver of all time had over his machine appeared so exemplary the 2009 World Rally Championship - which began without the credit crunched Suzuki and Subaru teams - was seemingly over before it even got started.

Sebastien Loeb entered five rallies and registered effortless victories in all: the season was reduced to a procession, the others drivers and teams were vying for second best, again. The artisan reigned. However, while Loeb was busy sweeping aside all challengers in the handful of rounds which kickstarted this year's series, BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team officials continued beating a familiar sounding drum.

"Wait until we reach the gravel rounds," they said. "Then we'll see the real championship start." Living up to their billing, three consecutive victories and a pair of one-two finishes for BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala have done just that - lit up the title race. BP Ford Abu Dhabi's resurrection has coincided with a rare Loeb wobble. The five-time world champion must be uncomfortable, he has not graced a podium since Argentina - the last in his early-season streak. In Greece he retired and in Poland last weekend, Loeb relied on charity from a junior teammate and an inexplicable error from Latvala to gain any points at all.

However, the former gymnast's sublime artistry at the Citroen wheel is not in doubt. Every athlete endures lean and prosperous spells, it is the nature of sport and competition. As Loeb well knows, world titles are not won by being top of the standings at the start, or even the middle, of a season. It is the finish that counts and he will not be worrying now. As the WRC field prepare for the 2009 season's final furlong, Loeb's pursuit of a sixth world title looks anything but secure considering three of the remaining four rounds fall on gravel - the delicacy of the Fords. Loeb will take solace from his ever-improving - excluding the last three rounds - progress on the looser surfaces.

After the first two gravel rounds of the season, in Cyprus and Argentina, he was on top of the podium both times. He can never be counted out. His superior win count could be vital, but it currently means nothing as Hirvonen's consistent finishes - rapidly becoming the hallmark of his annual title challenge - have seen him overhaul his rival and top the leaderboard, by a point, with four rounds to go.

Hirvonen will know his best chance of a world title thus far is as much down to his own form as Loeb's derisory return of only seven points in three rounds, but he will not be worrying either. He is the form driver and will be looking to capitalise on partisan home support as the series heads to Finland at the end of July. With gravel rounds in Australia and Great Britain either side of a tarmac event in Spain, the title momentum is arguably back with the Flying Finn and BP Ford Abu Dhabi.

One thing is certain though, Loeb will not relinquish his title stranglehold without a fight. He won in Finland last year and has an excellent record in Spain. However, with Hirvonen sitting pretty on top of the standings, Loeb will need more than two wins if the Finnish driver wins one and finishes the other three on the podium. It remains true that while titles are not won until the finale of the season, they can be lost. Loeb will be hoping his recent blip is over when he heads to Finland.

The Scandinavian country is the spiritual "home" of the sport and quite possibly its next world champion; if Hirvonen does triumph, he'll have ended the five-year rule of the greatest of them all. emegson@thenational.ae