WRC season review

Sebastien Loeb is not known for extravagant gestures. There's never been any Petter Solberg-style celebrations when the Frenchman has won a rally. Corsica this year was different. He celebrated his first world title with a somersault on the ramp. Had score cards been handy they would have read 'six' all round. That goes for his season behind the wheel as wheel as his gymnastic expertise

WRC season review

Loeb and his Citroen Xsara WRC were a dominant force in world rallying in 2004. The abilities of the machinery had been demonstrated with a manufacturers' title 12 months earlier, but having only won on asphalt, Loeb could hardly be described as an all-rounder. Until February 8, when he became the first non-Scandinavian to win the Swedish Rally.

The odd spin here and there aside, Loeb never put a foot wrong. He played to his strengths, won where he could, but never looked like he was pushing himself or the car over the limit.

It might seem a touch incongruous to talk of Loeb's dominance in a year when Solberg won five rallies - including back-to-back successes in Britain, Japan and Italy - but by then Loeb knew what he had to do. The gap between himself and the Subaru driver was such that second place was going to be more than enough to maintain his grip on the top spot. In reality, the silverware was heading Loeb's way from the middle of the year.

Just as Citroen demonstrated mechanical genius at every turn - save for New Zealand, where the ultra-fast North Island roads have still got the better of the Xsara - Subaru struggled with the front of the Impreza WRC2004. The radiator ingested dust and choked the engine in Cyprus, while watersplashes in Turkey and Argentina demolished the underbonnet aero package and Solberg's chances of successive drivers' titles.

Like Subaru, Ford was another manufacturer with designs on trophies this year. The Cockermouth-based team had come out of a troubled winter with a one-year programme for 2004 and - led by Malcolm Wilson - they intended to make the best of it. Markko Martin led handsomely in Sweden, only to hit a rock and take a rear wheel off. Victory on the next round in Mexico put them back on course and left Martin at the top of the table. He would be the only driver other than Loeb to lead the drivers' standings and his tenancy of that position was short-lived.

The pinnacle of Martin's tricky season came in Argentina, when he and co-driver Michael Park were lucky to walk away from a terrifying 100mph crash. The blurred vision Martin suffered remained with him into the next round in Finland. Considering that he was flying his Focus over the legendary jumps with only his right eye doing what it should, second was a fine result. A better indication of the Martin/Focus potential was the two asphalt wins in October, but by then it was too little too late.

Martin's chances of repeating his 2003 Finland win were spoiled by Marcus Gronholm. After being the dominant WRC force since 2000, Peugeot and Gronholm hit on hard times this season. The 307 WRC was troublesome from the outset and only by the last couple of rallies of the year could the Finn have anything like the confidence in his car he'd enjoyed in the 206.

Where one French firm faltered, however, another was there top step up. For Peugeot in 2000-2002, read Citroen for 2003 and '04. The Versailles team's victory wouldn't have been possible without Carlos Sainz.

The Spaniard went about this season with his trademark professionalism, becoming the most successful driver ever when he won in Argentina. Nobody has served the world championship better in the last 17 years, but his decision to retire at the end of this season has left some pretty big shoes to be filled.

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