Who will take the 2004 WRC title?

Who will take the 2004 WRC title?

The 2004 World Rally Championship is ready to get underway on January 23rd in Monte Carlo with the running of the 72nd Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo. The teams have announced the driver lineups for the event and, while most will remain the same,...

The 2004 World Rally Championship is ready to get underway on January 23rd in Monte Carlo with the running of the 72nd Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo. The teams have announced the driver lineups for the event and, while most will remain the same, some may change.

S?bastien Loeb and Petter Solberg.
Photo by WRC McKlein.
Is there a favorite for the 2004 World Rally Championship Drivers' title or will it be as close as 2003? The new point system in effect for last season had the expected outcome, competition that went down to the wire at the Rally of Great Britain with three drivers still eligible for the title.

In the end, Subaru's Petter Solberg edged out Citroen's Sebastien Loeb by just one point to take the 2003 drivers' championship crown with victory in the season finale. 2002 champion Marcus Gronholm (Peugeot), easily won the crown under the old point system with a 40-point lead over second-place finisher Solberg.

Solberg returns with co-driver Phil Mills in a Subaru Impreza, and a second team car will be piloted by Mikko Hirvonen. Hirvonen's co-driver, Jarmo Lehtinen moves to Subaru with him, this duo filling the seat first vacated by Tommi Makinen who retired and then by the 2001 champion, Richard Burns, who will sit out this season due to a brain tumor discovered late last year.

"Well, I start the year as World Champion," Solberg commented. "But in terms of driving it makes no difference to me at all. Some people have asked if I can afford to take it easy now, but I know there are areas that I can improve on and there's still a lot of hard work to do. Monte Carlo has not been the best rally for me in the past and I've yet to prove myself in the first few events of the season."

Petter Solberg and co-driver Phil Mills celebrate WRC title with the Subaru World Rally Team.
Photo by Subaru World Rally Team.

Hirvonen has one full season in the WRC under his belt, finishing 16th in the drivers' championship with a best of sixth at the Acropolis Rally. The young Finn is excited about his opportunity with Subaru. "This is such a fantastic opportunity for me. I'm delighted to be driving for Subaru."

Known for their driver development program Subaru Team Principal David Lapworth commented, "He's [Hirvonen] a very talented young driver and we feel we can provide him with the best car and team to help him to develop his full potential."

With the world champion and a talented young driver on the team, will Subaru have a chance to win the Manufacturers' Championship? The team took third last year behind the champion Citroen and the three-consecutive champion team of Peugeot, who won in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

As both of Citroen's top drivers are returning, the odds appear to be in their corner - not just for the Manufacturers title - but either Loeb or Carlos Sainz, who finished third last year could take the Drivers' title.

What is amazing is that 2003 was the first full WRC season for the fairly young Citroen team, and the question on many minds is whether they can repeat their performance.

Team Principal Guy Friquelin has slowly brought the Citroen Xsara squad to the top and plans to stay there. The team will not debut their new car until after March; the first time the C2 will be competing might be Rally New Zealand in April.

Loeb, with co-driver Daniel Elena and teammate Sainz, with his co-driver Marc Marti, return to the team with confidence.

One cannot rule out Peugeot or Gronholm. The two-time WRC Drivers' champion can still taste his 2000 and 2002 titles and after a disappointing 2003 season, he and co-driver Tim Rautiainen are ready to take on the challenge.

Marcus Gronholm tests the new Peugeot 307WRC in the south of France.
Photo by DPPI/Marlboro Peugeot Total.
Peugeot's 307 WRC has had an extensive test program for the past year on both gravel and asphalt. The team is ready to debut the new car in Monte Carlo.

"However happy we may be with the way testing went over the winter, we are conscious that the 307 WRC is only at the beginning of its career and nothing can replace actual competition," stated Peugot's Technical Director Michelin Nandan.

"That doesn't mean we will be in Monte Carlo just to make up the numbers though," Nandan insisted. "Peugeot has its sights set on the world title at the end of the year and our drivers will be out to give it everything they've got."

Freddy Loix and co-driver Sven Smeets move to Peugeot for 2004, filling the seat that Burns held for the past two years. Burns signed with Subaru before his illness was diagnosed. Loix led the underdog Hyundai team last year, finishing 14th in the driver standings.

Loix ran for Peugeot in the 2003 season finale in the UK. "The Monte will be the 307 WRC's competition debut, so it will be important to go the whole distance," Loix commented. "Monte Carlo will be a very good test of reliability."

Then there is the Ford Focus team: they sparkle; they fade. The team finished a disappointing fourth in the manufacturers competition even though driver Markko Martin finished fifth in the Drivers' championship.

Ford had high hopes for the 2003 season. However, with many of their drivers moving to other teams over the past several years, it seems their hopes were misplaced. Top that off with management changes and one wonders if they have now settled into the role of viably pursuing the titles.

In November, Ford announced their intention to remain in the WRC. "I'm delighted to confirm that the famous Blue Oval will be competing in the WRC next season," Jost Capito, director of Ford Team RS stated. "We displayed to everyone this past season the competitiveness of both the Focus RS and our young drivers. I'm sure we are a strong contender for the WRC title."

The podium: Markko Martin and co-driver Michael Park celebrate victory.
Photo by Ford Motor Company.
Martin and co-driver Michael Park return in 2004. Martin did display the talent and the drive to win by scoring four podium finishes this past season, two of them victories - at the Acropolis Rally and the Rally of Finland. Teammate Francois Duval, partnering with Stephane Prevot, also scored two podiums in 2003.

And Mitsubishi returns. The manufacturer sat out the 2003 season due to reorganization of its motor sports activities. At the end of the 2002 season, Mitsubishi appointed Mario Fornaris as Technical Director at Ralliart Europe, home of the WRC team. The team's disappointment at their 2002 season was a catalyst for taking one year off.

They have announced their 2004 driver lineup in the Lancer WRC04 as Gilles Panizzi (with co-driver Herve Panizzi) and Gigi Galli (co-driver Guido d'Amore).

In 2001, Mitsubishi finished third in the manufacturers standings. Panizzi has experience the team needs, and the former Peugeot driver is ready to take on the challenge of placing Mitsubishi on the podium.

Studio shoot of the new Mitsubishi Lancer WRC04.
Photo by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.
The Lancer WRC04 has a completely new design from Mitsubishi's past entry with a more aerodynamic look, "The car is quite different from our previous World Rally Car. We have made something like 6,000 new parts," Fornaris revealed.

"We have taken advantage of the freedom permitted by the World Rally Car regulations," he explained, "but my philosophy is to do very simple things [well] and to have a good understanding of the car before we introduce more advanced systems."

Add to the mix the expanded schedule that now includes 16 WRC events; including the debuts of the Rally Mexico and Rally Japan. The rally in Italy is no longer in Sanremo, it is now located in Sardinia.

The 2004 WRC will make for an interesting year.

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team