1. Sebastien Loeb
Championship position: 1st
Sensational through the first 5/12ths of the season. He then went from being able to do nothing wrong, to being able to do nothing right.
Whether the tyre coming off the rim in Sardinia was his fault was debatable - dropping from third to fourth because Daniel Elena undid his seatbelts while the car was still moving was certainly the fault of his co-driver. Loeb is similarly unwilling to accept blame for his Citroen's frailties over a tree root in Poland or the legality of said machine in Australia.
One thing Loeb will admit to is his monster shunt on the Acropolis Rally. Quite who was to blame for the above is really rather irrelevant. Fact is, Citroen and Loeb got it all back together when they needed it most - on the final two rounds of the championship. In Spain as in Wales, they looked like peerless professionals collecting a sixth title together.
2. Mikko Hirvonen
Championship position: 2nd
It's hard not to feel sympathy for Hirvonen. He finished on the podium on every rally except for one event in Argentina, when the Ford motor in front of him let him down in the only genuine mechanical retirement of the season for the top two.
Hirvonen lost this title in the early part of the year, when he didn't come out and get up into Loeb's face early enough. He looked like a man playing the percentage game early on. By Argentina, that had bitten him hard and he was 20 points adrift and staring down the barrel of a very long second half of the year (as we all were), but then his world (and ours) came to life.
The highlight for Hirvonen was his win in Finland, where Loeb couldn't find the pace to beat him. Unfortunately for him, he couldn't recreate that speed when the trees he was tearing between were Welsh rather than Finnish.
3. Petter Solberg
Championship position: 5th
Starting a team to compete in the World Rally Championship is no easy task - but to do it in a matter of weeks and then come out fighting in a five-year old car was an exceptional effort from the Norwegian. And thank goodness he did.
Solberg had been a regular in the World Rally Championship since 1999 and at round one in Ireland this year, the service park was a strange place without him.
He put his tired old Citroen Xsara WRC on its doorhandles on his second event of 2009 (Cyprus) and left it there for three days to secure the bottom step of the podium. Anybody would have thought he'd won - it was a tremendous display of effort and emotion.
Solberg's a complex character, of that there's no doubt, but right now the WRC needs him. His switch to a C4 WRC gave the final two rounds of the series a further lift, but in all honesty, he never looked like troubling the top two - maybe that comes next year.
4. Jari-Matti Latvala
Championship position: 4th
To call Latvala's year an emotional rollercoaster would be understatement in the extreme. It's been an unbelievable season for the Finn. He started 2009 23 years old and ended it 123 years old - along with the upper echelons of Ford's WRC management.
There were mistakes aplenty through the early rounds, but nobody will ever forget his Rally of Portugal shunt in April, when he rolled his Ford 17 times down a mountainside. The latest rollicking awaiting him from team director Malcolm Wilson took a backseat during that accident - his main consideration being that he was about to die. But, against many people's predictions, Wilson stuck with him.
After the low came the lights to flag win in Italy. And after the high came the low, when he dropped the Focus on just about the last corner of any significance on the final superspecial in Poland. Along with the front corner of his Ford, eight points went down the toilet in Mikolajki.
Latvala recovered through the final third of the season, finishing all of the events and maturing considerably. He still has blinding speed, but it's only now that he's coming to terms with the fact that not many bulls get invited back to the china shop.
5. Dani Sordo
Championship position: 3rd
Good, yes. Great, maybe. Could and should have been better? Definitely.
Sordo's completely betwixt and between. He's got to be in there doing a job for the team, but at the same time, he's got to stand on his own two feet and win a rally. This year was much better than 2008, this year he was a genuine number two driver at Citroen. This year there were hardly any calls for his head on a plate from certain members of the Citroen management. In fact, there was nothing but praise from the likes of Olivier Quesnel, but it was the same sort of praise the Ferrari hierarchy meted out to Rubens Barichello after the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002.
As usual, Sordo was at his best on asphalt - and never better than when he was at home in Catalunya. He led the event and appeared comfortable at the front. But, when Loeb knew his inevitable P1 moment was coming, it was always hard to judge just how hard the Frenchman was pushing his fellow Citroen driver. It was always unlikely that Sordo was going to be allowed to beat Loeb this year, but the Spaniard could have done more to make sure he was in a rally-winning position when his team-mate unexpectedly faltered.
6. Sebastien Ogier
Championship position: 8th
He arrived at the opening round of this year's World Rally Championship having just won the Monte Carlo Rally (the opening round of the IRC this season) and with the crown of reigning Junior World Rally Champion. He also arrived with the keys to a semi-works Citroen C4 WRC. Much was expected of the Frenchman.
For the first half of the year at least, he disappointed with a handful of mistakes. Maybe disappointed is a little bit strong. It's easy to forget this was his first season in a World Rally Car, but that was the level of expectancy from this fella. And, he was inevitably judged alongside his namesake: Loeb (who came within an ace of winning his first official Citroen outing and only his third outing in a World Rally Car at the highest level).
Ogier's finest hour was second in Greece, an event where he drove with common sense and speed beyond his years. He also showed well in Australia, where he was fifth - and will be best remembered for his six undefeated runs through the town centre stage in Kyogle.
7. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Championship position: 6th
Since winning his maiden Production Car World Rally Championship in 2006, few have felt the teething troubles of Subaru's new Impreza WRX quite as acutely as Nasser Al-Attiyah. The Qatar driver has suffered a torrid time while the flat-four finds its fire power - but that came this year. Finally, the Impreza was a force to be reckoned with again - and never more so than in Al-Attiyah's hands.
He was at his absolute best in Sardinia. He went into the final day seconds apart from Patrik Sandell's superior (on those stages) Skoda Super 2000 car. The Swede was confidently predicting another win for himself wouldn't be a problem, when Al-Attiyah put it all on the line with a breath-taking run through the final stage to beat his rival by a second and a half. Both Al-Attiyah and his co-driver Giovanni Bernarchini looked visibly shaken by what they'd just seen when they arrived back in service. Sandell looked similarly perplexed.
Al-Attiyah's P-WRC effort lost momentum with the FIA's odd decision to penalise him for a crankshaft indiscretion in Greece. The International Court of Appeal ruled the part had been modified, but then the ruling still allowed him to be classified in the Acropolis Rally results. No matter, he still drove a blinder this season.
8. Matthew Wilson
Championship position: 7th
Found both consistency and speed this season. Granted, Matthew Wilson's not right at the sharp end and pushing the likes of Hirvonen and Loeb, but he's getting there - and he got a whole lot closer in 2009. He only finished out of the points twice this season and had he not rolled out of Portugal or suffered a loss of oil pressure in Greece, who knows, he might even have beaten his more illustrious Stobart team-mate Henning Solberg across the stretch of the season.
The best thing to come out of Wilson this year was the hike in self-belief. A couple of times this year, there was a problem or two late on Friday afternoon which, it was feared would slaughter his confidence come Saturday morning. Not a bit of it. Sharpening the ability to see through the metaphorical fog of indecision and drive around any mechanical glitches was what this year was about for Wilson.
9. Henning Solberg
Championship position: 6th
A surprisingly subdued season from the Norwegian. He collected podiums in Poland and Argentina, but other than that his year was one of fading brakes and a lack of feeling from the Ford. This is not to deride the equipment the Stobart team provided him with, it's more a reflection on Solberg's inability to find the pin-perfect set-up which he needs to fight with.
Some drivers have the ability to get the car into the ball park and make the best of it - like Colin McRae - but other drivers, like Solberg and Didier Auriol appear bereft of this trait. What was worse for Solberg was that his brother's fourth place - one ahead of him - on the final round in Wales sealed fifth place for Petter, and sixth for Henning.
10. Evgeny Novikov
Championship position: 13th
At the start of the season, everything appeared to be in place for the 18-year-old Russian. He was what the WRC had been waiting for: a massively talented young driver from an emerging market.
But the fit wasn't quite the dream everybody might have hoped for. All Novikov wanted to do was to drive rally cars. He didn't want to talk about it, he didn't want to wait around airports before and after he did it, he just wanted to drive. When he did the driving, his talent shone through with some blistering stage times. And it wasn't just the timesheets where he left his mark, there was more than the odd rock or boulder which was left with a dash of bright yellow Citroen paint through the course of the year.
His biggest moment, metaphorically and actually, came in Finland, where he launched his C4 WRC - despite any number of warnings from co-driver Dale Moscatt - over the biggest of the big jumps in Jyvaskyla. Luckily, they landed (and crashed further down the road).
Moscatt walked and now Novikov's taken a year off. We won't miss the expansive chats, but we will miss the action.
|The 2009 WRC season review|
|Why the WRC is growing in strength again|