Rallying: Loeb and Solberg take high road to glory

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The Independent Online

The World Rally Championship has taken a good deal of flak in the recent past, much of it justified, but this embattled fraternity may well be able to offer one of the best duels in sport.

The World Rally Championship has taken a good deal of flak in the recent past, much of it justified, but this embattled fraternity may well be able to offer one of the best duels in sport.

Wade through the infernal squabbling over regulations, brush aside the eternal whingeing about schedules, tread warily around the pleas of financial constraint, and you find they really do have something to bang on about. All right, it is not yet up there with Ali-Frazier, Coe-Ovett or Prost-Senna, but Sébastien Loeb v Petter Solberg could eventually be counted among the fabled rivalries.

Many in rallying feared for their show, following a champions' exodus a couple of years ago. Tommi Makinen, Colin McRae and Richard Burns have now been joined in exile by Carlos Sainz, the last member of a golden generation.

Those concerns were unfounded. The new guard have been equal to the challenge and there is a growing conviction that in Loeb and Solberg rallying has two drivers capable of surpassing any of the wondrous feats of their predecessors.

Loeb, the clinical Frenchman in the Citroën, took the title from Solberg, the ebullient though magnanimous Norwegian in a Subaru, last season.

Some suggest that Loeb has established a standard of excellence that cannot be matched. Others contend that Solberg will have the motivation and the means to tilt the balance of power again. All, however, are agreed that these two 30-year-olds have blown the cobwebs off rallying and presented an acceptable face of competition that other sports would do well to imitate. And they have also avoided the descent into animosity.

When Loeb secured his championship, Solberg was the first to congratulate him. Nothing fawning, nothing phoney, just an acknowledgment that the better man had won this time - and a warning that he intended to be that man next time.

The next time starts in earnest today, at the Monte Carlo Rally, and six manufacturer teams give the WRC the feel of a heavyweight contest.

Several drivers will believe they can feature in the main event. Finland's Marcus Gronholm, twice world champion, and his new team-mate, the Estonian Markko Martin, are capable of making an impact if Peugeot give them the car they need. Belgium's François Duval has already earned Loeb's respect at Citroën and Toni Gardemeister will have a potent Ford Focus at his disposal.

But the spectre of Loeb and Solberg dominates the WRC landscape and both men have their advocates. Malcolm Wilson, team principal of Ford, goes with the reigning champion. "He's a class act and I can't see anybody beating him. He has everything. He's quick and consistent. He doesn't have accidents."

McRae, the world champion in 1995, counters: "It depends on the commitment of Citroën. They are pulling out at the end of the year, so they may not have the same motivation. Subaru have a new car coming soon, they are looking strong and I know Petter is fired up."

Citroën, who are to be withdrawn along with Peugeot by their parent company, PSA, have consequently scrapped plans to introduce a new car, but Loeb is unperturbed.

"It is difficult to know how it will be, but from what I have seen of the team in testing, I think everyone is as motivated as before," he said. "This car has had all the little problems removed."

Loeb has also ironed out all the little wrinkles from his driving. He had six second places, as well as a record-equalling six wins last season, a level of consistency that has become his stock in trade.

"After I lost the 2003 Championship to Petter by one point, I had all winter to think about it," Loeb said. "I realised I had lost it by dropping points at many places. Last year I concentrated on every point and didn't lose points for stupid things. Sometimes it's OK to finish second."

Not that he is likely to settle for second best at Monte Carlo. Loeb has what he describes as "two and a half wins" from the last three years (he finished first but was demoted to second because of an infringement in 2002) and even Solberg expects it to be three and a half wins at the principality come Sunday afternoon.

However, Solberg is confident that over the course of the season he can turn the championship in his favour. He will have that new car from the third rally in Mexico, and the indications are it is a significant improvement on the old one.

"I definitely want the Championship back," Solberg said. "I'm sure Citroën have improved, but our new car should be a good step forward and we have prepared better for this season than last. We have tested more and have a bigger budget."

Solberg was strong on gravel but let down by his equipment on tarmac last year and the team have addressed that weakness. "I'm sure we will be stronger this season," he said. "But it will not be just Subaru and Citroën. Peugeot could be very good and they have two fast drivers. When Marcus goes for it, he is a crazy guy! It should be a great championship."

Loeb will be available for hire by another team next season and the queue is already forming. One intriguing prospect is the possibility of his joining Subaru - as partner to Solberg.

"I would be happy with that," Solberg said. "If I can't beat him in the same car, I'm not good enough, so it would be up to me. I wouldn't care. As long as we work together and there is no complaining, I have no problem with that."

Sixteen drivers are registered for the senior WRC but, for the second successive year, no Briton will be in the line-up. Guy Wilks (Suzuki) and Kris Meeke (Citroën) will again contest the junior title and hope that, in the absence of personal sponsorship, talent will eventually secure their graduation.