The new WRC season is up and running and features the brief return of a familar face in a year that promises more of the same from last year.
By the time you read this, the global motorsport calendar would have gotten well and truly under way. The Dakar Rally would have concluded – and been made particularly memorable for India thanks to C S Santosh – and the FIA World Rally Championship’s opening round would be in the books too.
This year’s Monte Carlo Rally would be particularly memorable thanks to the return of the driver who cast a shadow over the WRC for a decade. Nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb returned to the Monte Carlo Rally but purely on a one-off basis.
Loeb had retired following a very limited campaign in 2013, leaving the way clear for countryman Sebastien Ogier who has dominated with the factory Volkswagen Motorsport team and its Polo WRC.
The thought of seeing the French maestro back in action made people excited for the WRC season opener even before a single car completed a stage in anger. And as far as Citroen is concerned, that was the whole point of convincing Loeb to put the pedal to the metal again.
Their DS3 WRC car has been soundly thumped by Volkswagen and none of the existing drivers have proved themselves to be an able replacement for Loeb. In fact, Citroen was not even the ‘best of the rest’ behind Volkswagen last year, either.
That honour went to Mikko Hirvonen in a privately entered Ford Fiesta WRC car. The Finn’s fourth place finish with 126 points in last year’s championship standings was co-incidentally similar to his 2013 campaign with Citroen when he ended the year as the highest placed driver behind the wheel of a DS3.
Last year, Kris Meeke could only manage 7th place with 92 points as the once dominant French manufacturer all but disappeared from the WRC limelight.
Loeb’s participation comes at a time when Citroen have seemingly shifted their focus to the FIA World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) with their factory C-Elysse. The French marque grabbed the top three places in the championship standings as Loeb finished the season as the WTCC’s top ‘rookie’ in third place with two race wins under his belt.
Clearly they can use his mojo on the WRC stage too, which despite not being as high profile in the public consciousness as it used to be, still ranks as the global four-wheel championship that can steal some of the attention from Formula 1 every so often.
The days of Colin McRae, Tommi Makkinen, Richard Burns, Petter Solberg and even Loeb battling it out in more or less evenly matched cars are a distant memory, however. And maybe it is not just Citroen that can use a bit of a boost that a name like Loeb can give it. Perhaps it is the WRC itself, which has been mired in a debate between drivers, team bosses and the FIA over how best to ‘spice up’ the show.
Volkswagen’s dominance has made things a little too predictable at the moment. Many casual motorsport viewers giving WRC the thumbs up over F1 due to the speed of these rally cars over much harsher terrain. However, the championship still loses out to Grand Prix racing due to a distinct lack of drama that it used to possess from the mid nineties to the early noughties. Drama that seems to be very much absent today.