Loeb the quick learner has chance to leave world in his wake

The World Rally Championship begins not so much a new season as a new era in Monte Carlo tomorrow evening. Champions of the past have given way to a vanguard of younger, hungrier drivers capable of dominating for the foreseeable future.

Finland's Tommi Makinen, the four times winner of the title, has retired, the Scot Colin McRae, the champion in 1995, has been unable to find a drive and England's Richard Burns, the 2001 champion, has had to pull out because of a brain tumour. It means Britain will be without a contender in the senior category for the first time in a decade.

But then the impending accession of the next generation had become apparent by the middle of last season, and this year is expected merely to confirm Petter Solberg, Sébastien Loeb and Markko Martin as rally's ruling class.

Solberg, the ebullient Norwegian, muscled past Loeb in a deciding Rally GB to win the 2003 championship and will be confident of remaining No 1 in his Subaru. Many in the business, including Burns's co-driver, Robert Reid, favour Ford's unflappable Estonian, Martin, to have the edge this time.

McRae, however, goes for Loeb, the Frenchman he was able to study and appreciate at close quarters last season. McRae and Spain's Carlos Sainz were hired by Citroën to give the team experience and proven ability. Loeb, the junior partner, was meant to learn from the old masters. Yet soon it became evident that the student was ready to graduate.

Loeb, in his first full WRC season, led his illustrious team-mates to a Citroën clean sweep at Monte Carlo 12 months ago and consistently out-performed them through the rest of the championship. He was denied the opportunity to fight Solberg for the title in the final event by his team, who openly stated their priority was the manufacturers' title. He was ordered to take no risks and bring the car home.

Citroën achieved their objective at the cost of widespread condemnation. Media criticism in France was particularly severe. It was deemed a public relations blunder and the team responded by promising every effort would be made to support Loeb's quest for the drivers' championship this time.

Loeb, who retained his familiar, composed countenance throughout the controversy, now says: "The team wanted to win the manufacturers' championship and at the time it was difficult to accept their decision. But when I saw Petter going away I realised it would have been difficult to catch him, even without the instructions to make sure I finished. I don't think we lost the driver's championship in Britain, we lost it at other rallies. We made some stupid mistakes."

Loeb's rapid ascent in rallying should inspire all late starters in sport. Although he is considered one of the WRC's younger drivers, he will in fact be 30 next month. But unlike most of his peers, he began rallying at the age of 22. He sought his early competitive satisfaction in gymnastics, and was 10th in the French Championship.

As he reached his mid-teens he developed a fascination for speed on wheels rather than vaults over gym apparatus and eventually, thanks to generous intervention, had his opportunity to go rallying.

Loeb said: "I was not as good at gymnastics as I am at rallying. I gave up gymnastics when I was 15 or 16. I liked to go fast on anything and then I was lucky that two people helped me start in rallying. They got me the car and the backing I needed."

His success in 1997 earned him the award of "Best Young Hope" from a magazine and the patronage of Citroën, who have facilitated his cause ever since. Loeb won the world junior title in 1999, the French Championship in 2001 and now carries the expectations of his country in the World Championship.

"I couldn't have hoped to do as well as I did last season," Loeb said. "I thought I could beat Colin and Carlos on tarmac but not so often on gravel. A lot has changed in rallying since two years ago. Tommi, Colin, Carlos, and Marcus [Grönholm] were the top guys then. But you could see in the middle of last year that the younger drivers were taking over. Petter, Markko and I were winning the rallies."

Loeb will be able to tap into Sainz's knowledge, but new regulations have restricted teams to two drivers this year and McRae, the lowest of the Citroën trio in the championship standings last season, had to be the odd man out.

"I am sorry Colin cannot be with us this year," Loeb said. "He is a good guy and I think it is not very nice for rallying or the fans that he has to stop because of the regulations.''

With or without McRae, Loeb believes Citroën will maintain their progress, although he says the team have given him no direct pledge of commitment or preferential treatment this year. "They have not told me anything like that. We had no team orders last season, except in the last rally, when I was told not to push too hard," Loeb said.

"I hope I can win without any team orders. I have more experience now and more confidence," he added. "We have improved the car since last season and I think we have a good chance this year."

McRae concurs. Reinvigorated by his eventful debut on the Dakar Rally and no longer pining for the Subaru drive that got away, he is content to assess the WRC from a safe distance.

"I think it's going to be between Petter, Markko and Sébastien," McRae said. "Petter will certainly be very strong. He's a massive character and popular with rallying fans everywhere, including the British fans. That's probably the saving grace for WRC in the UK. He'll have lots of confidence after winning the championship but that could be a disadvantage.

"Markko could go very close. He's got the ability and I think Ford will be very good, even though they have had their financial problems and uncertainties. The team will make sure that doesn't affect them. They'll be very determined.

"But I know what has been happening at Citroën and they could be even better this year. Sébastien's speed was very impressive last year and I would probably put him ahead of Markko and Petter to win the Championship."

A driver who has been virtually overlooked in the pre-season speculation is Peugeot's Grönholm. Twice the world champion, the Finn and his French team slithered spectacularly from grace last year. This week they introduce a new car, the 307, but have a lot of ground to make up very quickly if they are to muster a genuine challenge for the championship.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE

Tomorrow-Sunday: Monte Carlo
6-8 February: Sweden
12-14 March: Mexico
30 April-2 May: Argentina
14-16 May: Cyprus
28-30 May: Acropolis
25-27 June: Turkey
16-18 July: New Zealand
6-8 August: Finland
20-22 August: Germany
3-5 September: Japan
16-19 September: Great Britain
1-3 October: Italy
15-17 October: Corsica
29-31 October: Catalunya
11-14 November: Australia

CONTENDERS FOR THE WORLD TITLE

CITROEN

Car: Xsara WRC Wins: 8.
Championships: 1
No 1 driver: Sébastien Loeb (Fr)
Championships: 0
Co-driver: Daniel Elena (Monaco)
No 2 driver: Carlos Sainz (Sp)
Championships: 2
Co-driver: Mark Marti (Sp)

Citroen achieved their objective of winning the manufacturers' championship last season, but were widely criticised for shackling Loeb in the final rally. Should be capable of repaying their French driver this time with a car that was always formidable on tarmac and has been improved significantly on gravel. Sainz is rallying's "safe hands''.

PEUGEOT

Car: 307 WRC Wins: 45
Championships: 5
No 1 driver: Marcus Grönholm (Fin)
Championships: 2
Co-driver: Timo Rautiainen (Fin)
No 2 driver: Freddy Loix (Bel)
Championships: 0
Co-driver: Sven Smeets (Bel)

The former champions lost their momentum through last season and Grönholm was unable to mount a sustained challenge for the drivers' title. The French team have responded with the bold decision to start the season with their new car, although they probably felt they had nothing to lose. The choice of Loix appears less ambitious.

SUBARU

Car: Impreza WRC
Wins: 38
Championships: 3
No 1 driver: Petter Solberg (Nor)
Championships: 1
Co-driver: Phil Mills (GB)
No 2 driver: Mikko Hirvonen (Fin)
Championships: 0
Co-driver: Jarmo Lehtinen (Fin)

The British-based team have a knack of confounding better-funded rivals and their expertise gave Solberg the opportunity to win his first title in 2003. The laughing cavalier of rallying should again be especially strong on gravel and figure in the championship contest. Hirvonen, rather than Colin McRae, gets the car that had been intended for Richard Burns.

FORD

Car: Focus RS WRC
Wins: 45
Championships: 1
No 1 driver: Markko Martin (Est)
Championships: 0
Co-driver: Michael Park (GB)
No 2 driver: François Duval (Bel)
Championships: 0
Co-driver: Stéphane Prévot (Bel)

Ford's continuing financial problems cast doubts over the team's participation this year but M-Sport, who run the WRC operation from their Cumbrian HQ, pressed on regardless and were eventually given the go-ahead. Despite the uncertainties and budget cuts, they expect to ensure that Martin is a genuine challenger.

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