One of the fiercest and closest-fought seasons ever seen in world class rallying has ended today with victory in Rally GB for new champion Petter Solberg (Subaru). The young Norwegian, 28, clinched the 2003 Drivers' titles ahead of French rival Sébastien Loeb whose 2nd place gives Citroën- Michelin the Manufacturers' crown at the French firm's first full-scale attempt. Retiring Tommi Mäkinen (3rd), the man who collected four world titles himself during the late nineties with Mitsubishi-Michelin, concludes his glorious career with a podium finish ahead of best-placed Brit, Colin McRae (4th, Citroën-Michelin). The weekend concludes another successful campaign for Michelin whose partners collected ten wins from a possible fourteen in 2003, with Citroën securing the tyre firm's tenth title (six Manufacturers, four drivers) from a possible twelve in six years.
The eagerly awaited finale to what has been the most exciting World Rally Championship in years has concluded with the 2003 Manufacturers' and Drivers' titles going to Citroën-Michelin and Petter Solberg respectively.
Rally GB week started with as many as four drivers (Sébastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz, Petter Solberg, Richard Burns) and two manufacturers (Citroën- Michelin, Peugeot-Michelin) all in contention for the two competitions. However, even before the event kicked off on Thursday evening (Nov 6th), the entry of Burns was withdrawn for health reasons.
With the list of title contenders finally down to three men (all grouped within just one point at the top of the table!), the rally kicked off in battling style when Sébastien Loeb edged clear after the first visit to the awesome forests of South Wales which, already, had claimed such top names as Marcus Grönholm (accident, Peugeot-Michelin) and Markko Märtin (engine, Ford-Michelin). But even as the Frenchman was making his mark on the event, a freak incident occurred that would influence not only the outcome of the British round but also that of the championship itself.
A faulty on-board TV camera fitted to the Xsara WRC of joint series leader Carlos Sainz (Citroën-Michelin) sparked off a chain reaction that would take much of the fire out of the party. His concentration unsettled after taking time to repair the offending electronic apparatus on the start line of SS3, the Spaniard misheard a pace-note some 2km into the stage and crashed out of the rally at speed. That reduced the number of drivers in the running for 2003 Drivers' honours to just two and at the same time opened up a potential breach in Citroën's defences, barely before Rally GB had even started.
Soon afterwards, at the following service halt, news emerged that Loeb had been requested by his team to adjust his pace with a view to giving the French make the best chance of ensuring sufficient points to secure the Manufacturers' crown ahead of Peugeot-Michelin.
Accordingly, by the very next stage, Solberg was in front. Barring an accident or a mechanical problem and despite the fact that Loeb never let the Norwegian get too far ahead, last year's Rally GB winner looked set to collect a second consecutive win in Wales and, in that case, the 2003 Drivers' title.
And that's exactly how it stayed until Sunday afternoon. Visibly over the moon, the Subaru driver crossed the line of the final stage to take both laurels, while 2nd and 4th places for Sébastien Loeb and Colin McRae in the final standings were more than enough to ensure that Citroën-Michelin's first full WRC campaign was rewarded with the first Manufacturers' crown of its history, ending the three-year domination in this category of its sister company, Peugeot.
Finally, Subaru's Tommi Mäkinen (3rd) celebrated his final WRC outing with a podium in Great Britain, ending a career that saw the Finn collect no fewer than four Drivers' championships with Mitsubishi-Michelin between 1996 and 1999, as well as 24 outright wins, of which 23 were on Michelin tyres.
Michelin collects its 10th WRC world title in six years.
The 2003 season. Frédéric Henry-Biabaud, Deputy Director of Michelin Competition: "With a score of 10 wins from 14 rounds, over all the types of terrain that make up the calendar and with three different partners, Michelin's 2003 WRC campaign concludes with victory in the Manufacturers' championship with Citroën, our tenth title from a possible twelve in the past six years. Unfortunately, the Drivers' trophy narrowly escaped us this time round, but Michelin's overall record for the season is still very satisfying."
Looking ahead to 2004. "The fierceness of the competition we have seen this year has not only enabled us to make significant technical progress, but it has also been an ideal way to prepare for the 2004 season which promises to be just as open and exciting," continues Frédéric Henry- Biabaud.
"Next year sees the addition of two new events in Mexico and Japan, a restriction in the number of tyres drivers can use, the organisation of significantly longer stages and the introduction of remote servicing, and we are very much looking forward to this new challenge. More than ever, Michelin is committed to rallying, a sport that generates extremely valuable feedback for us, both technically and in communications terms, and these are two very important driving forces for the company."
A reminder of Michelin's 2003 statistics.
34. The number of world titles (18 'Manufacturers', 16 'Drivers') won by Michelin since the creation of the World Rally Championship in 1973 (Drivers' championship created in 1979). This is an outright record.
10 from 14. The number of victories scored by Michelin's partners in 2003.
6. The number of all-Michelin podiums in 2003: Monte Carlo (top11 finishers on Michelin tyres), Turkey (top-7), Argentina (top-4), Germany (top-7), Sanremo (top-9), Catalonia (top-4). Michelin also recorded one-two finishes in New Zealand and Greece.
5. The number of drivers who have won at least one WRC round on Michelin tyres in 2003 (Loeb 3, Grönholm 3, Märtin 2, Panizzi 1, Sainz 1).
3. The number of manufacturers that have won at least one WRC round on Michelin tyres in 2003 (Citroën 4, Peugeot 4, Ford 2).
202. The number of WRC victories won by by Michelin since the reation of the World Rally Championship in 1973. An outright record. by far. The 200th win was secured by Markko Märtin (Ford) in Finland in August.