The title chase is settled, but the competition continues. The outcome of the 2004 FIA World Championship may well have been settled in Corsica, but the battle at the sharp end promises to be as fierce as ever as the season heads to its final...
The title chase is settled, but the competition continues.
The outcome of the 2004 FIA World Championship may well have been settled in Corsica, but the battle at the sharp end promises to be as fierce as ever as the season heads to its final two rounds. With no alternative agenda or pressure riding on their shoulders, the freshly-crowned champions Citroën- Michelin and Sébastien Loeb will have a free rein to tackle the Rallies of Catalonia and Australia as they see fit. Even so, they are sure to come up against some very stiff opposition, including Corsica winners Ford-Michelin who have every intention of concluding the year on a high note. Meanwhile, the men from Michelin have lost nothing of their determination to add to their run of nine wins - over all the types of terrain visited by the series - since the start of the season. The domination of their tyres over the dry, damp and occasionally streaming French stages effectively bides well for Catalonia, the third and final 'clear' asphalt encounter of the 2004 campaign.
There we are, the championship chase is over. Citroën and Sébastien Loeb are World Champions and Michelin's score has risen to 19 Manufacturers' and 17 Drivers' titles since 1973. A record. by far!
With this resounding double now safely in its pocket, and with no more need to accrue points at all costs, the French carmaker has announced its intention to give its crews a free rein for the year's final two rounds in Catalonia and Australia (November 12th-14th).
For the first of these encounters, competitors will trade the Corsican asphalt for that of the region of Barcelona. Here, in the north of Spain, the twisty, abrasive mountain roads of the Mediterranean island will make way for noticeably smoother, faster stages that call for a driving style closer to that of circuit racing.
In spite of the chilly weather and rain that marked the 2003 Rally de España, there is every betting that the Spanish spectators will once again be out in force. For not only will they not want to miss what promises to be yet another memorable clash of giants, but they will also, and perhaps above all, want to pay tribute to their champion Carlos Sainz who recently announced his decision to retire at the end of the season. Needless to say, everyone at Michelin joins them in wishing all the very best to the Spaniard who has stood out as a perfect ambassador for the sport. Although he never took the title as a Michelin driver, he has defended Bibendum's colours in style ever since his WRC debut back in 1987 and is certainly qualified to continue contributing to rallying in the future should he so wish.
That said, he has sufficient experience to know that none of his rivals have any intention of offering him a leaving present by making life easy for him on the last two appearances of his career, whether on home soil this weekend or in the southern hemisphere a fortnight later.
In addition to his freshly-crowned team-mate, Sébastien Loeb, his opponents will include a Ford-Michelin squad that has the wind very much in its sails following its recent emphatic success in Corsica. Indeed, a further win for the British team in Spain would bring it the nine points it needs to make sure of finishing 2nd in the Manufacturers' championship, while Markko Märtin can still claim 2nd place in the Drivers' classification.
Their bid to do just that is sure to add extra spice to the final phase of the season, as will Peugeot-Michelin's desire to secure its first asphalt win with the 307 WRC, while Skoda-Michelin and Mitsubishi-Michelin will both be looking to get their respective build-ups to the 2005 championship off to a flying start!
Meanwhile, having won in Catalonia every year since 1997, with five different drivers (Mäkinen, Auriol, Bugalski, McRae and Panizzi) and as many different manufacturer-partners (Mitsubishi, Toyota, Citroën, Ford and Peugeot), Michelin has prepared for the Spanish round* with its customary thoroughness with a view to boosting its outstanding record on 'clear' asphalt which, following the Tour of Corsica, today extends to 19 wins from 20 outings since the launch of its 'FP' generation asphalt range in October 1998!
(*) For Spain, Michelin's partners have chosen the Michelin N "FP" (dry weather) and the Michelin TA (damp/wet) which will be available in a choice of compounds and which can also be re-cut. The individual driver quota is 80 tyres, of which 40 may be used.