Wilson out to overtake one-man bandwagon

British driver determined to break Loeb's supremacy as Rally GB gets under way
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The Independent Online

The World Rally Championship could be forgiven an envious glance in the direction of Formula One: suspense to the tantalising end of its season, a recession-defying image of wealth and glamour, and huge global exposure.

In painfully stark contrast, the WRC pitches up for its finale at Rally GB tomorrow with Sébastien Loeb already crowned champion for the fifth consecutive year; teams, drivers and officials relentlessly debating a strategy to revitalise the sport; and the public at large apparently lukewarm at best or even oblivious to the existence of the event.

It was, of course, all very different for rallying in this country when Colin McRae was thrashing a spectacular trail through the forests and then had company and competition from the more measured Richard Burns. But the void left by Britain's late champions seems also to reflect a general malaise and disenchantment with the WRC.

While the guardians of the championship continue their discussions to reduce costs, attract more manufacturers and agree future schedules, one salient factor keeps coming back and slapping them in the face: it's a no contest – Loeb is simply too good. The Frenchman, at the wheel of a Citroën, has won a record 46 world rallies in the past seven seasons and you would get short odds on his racking up an unprecedented sixth title next year.

Britain's only full-time WRC competitor, Matthew Wilson, 10th in the standings, acknowledges the pre-eminence of Loeb yet maintains that the rest of the drivers should be grateful to him for raising the bar and must now respond to the challenge. "Seb is the best there's been, you can't deny that," the 21-year-old Stobart Ford driver said. "He's set the standards for years, just as Michael Schumacher did in Formula One, and his record speaks for itself. On tarmac especially he's just amazing. But there's no point in any of us whingeing about it. All the other drivers have to accept it's up to us to get our acts together and try and beat him. And I believe he can be beaten. He hasn't had it as easy as some might have thought this year and I am sure he will find it more difficult next year.

"I know we need the championship to be more competitive and I honestly feel it is going that way, with some really good young drivers coming through. It's not all doom and gloom for the WRC."

It was Wilson's father, Malcolm, principal of the Ford works team, who predicted that Loeb would become the "Schumacher of rallying" and he is not alone in having harboured thoughts of enticing the little genius away from Citroën.

Yet Wilson Snr is now content that he has, in the Finnish pair, Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, drivers capable of breaking Loeb's hold and resuscitating the championship.

Wilson Snr said: "Loeb is very special and he's had just as much success as I thought he would. I still can't see anybody beating him on tarmac in years to come. He's taken all 40 points from this season's tarmac events. But next year we'll have only two tarmac rallies and that change could prove decisive.

"We've got two of the best young drivers going forward and they are very strong on gravel. They are maturing and getting better all the time. It will still be difficult to beat Loeb, but I'm confident we'll give him a run for his money next year. There's no doubt that will be good for us and also for rallying.

"I can understand that people looking in from the outside may think the WRC is predictable, that there aren't the number of stars there used to be. But Schumacher was eventually beaten and I genuinely believe our sport has a healthy future."

Wilson's immediate concern as the cars assemble for this evening's ceremonial start of Rally GB in Cardiff, is his team's defence of the manufacturers' championship, which Ford have won for the past two years. Even a one-two finish for Hirvonen and Latvala on Sunday might not be enough to deny Citroën, who have an 11-point lead.

Citroën's quest for a title double could compromise Loeb's ambition to claim a maiden British victory. He and Dani Sordo may be under instructions to play safe and do no more than is required.

Wilson said: "Our boys are very strong on these Welsh gravel stages, as they proved last year. They've got to go for a one-two and hope that one of the Citroëns has problems." A top-10 finish is the declared objective of the MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi, making his second appearance in Rally GB. The Italian, who came to grief on the first leg of his British debut, will drive a Ford Focus. "My first target is to finish," he said. "I was 11th in New Zealand [in 2006] so I will try to improve a little on that. I had a good feeling from my test in the car, but it is a long time since I have driven in mud."

'Competing in the same rally as the best drivers in the world is amazing'

*A finish in any position would delight Wales' Tom Cave (left), at 17 years and 18 days the youngest-ever competitor in Rally GB. He secured his piece of history by passing his driving test only last week. Cave, co-driven by Gemma Price in his Ford Fiesta, said: "I still can't quite believe all this is happening.

"The thought of competing in the same rally as the best drivers in the world is just amazing. When I was eight and nine I used to go out on to the stages to watch Colin McRae and Richard Burns. They were inspirational. I knew that was what I wanted to do. I'd like to think that one day I could be driving for a World Championship team and going for the title, just as they did.

British rallying has been a bit flat in recent years, but hopefully I and other young drivers in this country will get the chance to show what we can do. The important thing for me now is to concentrate on this rally and try not to make any silly mistakes. Our aim is to get to the finish and if we can do that it will be absolutely brilliant."