Loeb in a league of his own, says Wilson

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The Independent Online

Consternation and the wringing of hands tends to be the general reaction within Formula One when Michael Schumacher reiterates his determination to carry on. Rallying should be warned, therefore, that it confronts the prospect of similar domination by one man.

Sebastien Loeb, of Citroen, has yet to secure his first World Rally Championship, let alone match Schumacher's seven titles, but according to one good judge, the comparison is as unavoidable as it is ominous. Malcolm Wilson, team principal of Ford, had hoped his own senior driver, Markko Martin, of Estonia, would be taking a step closer to the championship at Rally GB, which starts in Cardiff this evening. Instead, he acknowledges that Loeb, 30 points clear with five events remaining, is virtually unstoppable - and has the talent and temperament to vault clear of all comers in the WRC for years to come.

"He's the Michael Schumacher of rallying,'' Wilson said of the former gymnast. "Simply better than the rest. He's got everything. He's extremely quick, yet rarely makes a mistake. He's also learned how to win a championship. If he can't win a rally he makes sure he gets the best possible finish.

"He looks the part out of the car as well as in it. He presents himself well, says the right things, and never rocks the boat.''

That is a trick Schumacher perfected long ago. Loeb had the chance to go for the drivers' title at Rally GB last year, the final round. However, he was told by his team to avoid risks because the manufacturers' title had to take priority. He settled for runner-up behind Subaru's Petter Solberg, while Citroen achieved their objective.

Citroen assured him that loyalty would be returned, and his car this year has enabled him to maintain a consistent course towards the title. Solberg, Martin and Peugeot's Marcus Gronholm have lacked either the reliability or surefootedness to keep pace.

"All those other drivers you would expect to be contesting the championship are very good and highly competitive, but I believe Loeb is now on another level,'' Wilson said. "In reality, he's got the title already, because he needs only modest places for the rest of the season.''

That might not be quite the spiel the organisers and publicists of Rally GB had in mind, especially when no home driver is involved in the quest for outright victory. Post Colin McRae and Richard Burns, British interest will be concentrated on the lower classes.

McRae, three times a winner, may not be featuring, but family honour will be upheld by his 60-year-old father, Jimmy, competing for the 18th time, and younger brother Alister, pursuing the production class title. Kris Meeke and Guy Wilks will endeavour to show their potential in the Junior WRC category.

Apart from running the Ford factory cars of Martin and Carlos Sainz, Wilson's M-Sport operation also provides a focus for a 17-year-old Cumbrian already distinguishing himself on the domestic scene: Wilson's son, Matthew, combines schoolwork with British Championship rallying and next year plans to fit a few more World Championship rounds between his studies.