It became a weekend exactly as expected as anyone could fear in Ireland. Loeb first and Sordo second. Hirvonen trying to challenge – but ending up in third and Jari-Matti Latvala failed to finish. One of the few surprises was that Pirellis Sottozero winter-tyres in many situations proved to be better suited to the conditions than the tarmac tyres because of the extremely heavy rain. Once again, tyre choices on tarmac proved crucial – but in the end of the first day everyone had learnt about the Sottozero advantage – and everything was back to normal in the results table.
Before the rally I hoped that Chris Atkinson would show new strength landing in a new car – the Citroen C4 WRC. Partially he did, as he showed some good speed on the second day. However, he also proved that he wants too much by making two off road excursions. One was a really serious high-speed accident on day one where the crew should be really happy to escape uninjured – and one happened on the last day. The later one was really a disappointment, since it happened while Atko was battling Henning Solberg for fourth place. Looking back in Atkinson’s records he has gone off way too many times while battling for places. By now, he really should have learnt to keep high speed while staying exactly within the limit. However, I still hope that Atko can get the finances ready for more rallies to show his speed. Subaru was a really bad car and it’s not easy to get into a new car and deliver immediately – especially not in the Irish conditions this weekend – so he should get a few chances more. Atko himself named Greece and Australia as possible rallies to drive.
Unfortunately, also Urmo Aava proved to be the same old Urmo as ever. He is really fast and for a short while in the beginning he led the rally. I hoped for him to stay on the road, but already on SS6 he ended up somewhere off the stage. He got back into the rally an ended 10th, but that doesn’t mean too much. I don’t know why it happens, but now that Urmo has a fast car to drive for almost a whole season he really needs to switch focus. He should start off slow (many others go embarassingly slow, so why not him?) and then slowly increase the speed until he reaches that limit where he can’t go faster without going off. Everyone in the business knows that he can be fast – but everyone also knows that he rarely stays on the road. I think he could do really good results even if he stayed at 98-99% of his capacity – and then with much lower risk to go off.
Luckily, Rally Ireland also offered some small but still good surprises. Reigning JWRC champion Sebastien Ogier only did his second rally in a WRC car but managed to finish sixth, scoring three championship points. Even though Ogier wasn’t very fast I consider this very promising. If he can manage to score sixth place in his second WRC rally, there should be no problem finding the speed when he has collected some more WRC experience. But by finishing such a difficult rally as Ireland, he shows a mature and serious approach. In two weeks Ogier has scored an IRC win in difficult Monte Carlo and then a sixth place in Ireland – which is a really, really impressive performance.
Second happy surprise was Henning Solberg, finishing the rally just outside the podium. Henning has consistently been a catastrophe on tarmac, but on the gravel-like bumpy tarmac in Ireland he found his pace. With the new, top-spec Ford Focus he managed to do some okay stagetimes and most important he stayed cold in the battle with Chris Atkinson. After seeing Henning do such a decent result on tarmac, you can’t keep from wondering what he will be up to in Norway in two weeks? I’ve seen him on snow a number of times – and even since I don’t consider Henning top notch WRC material I think he can really battle for the win in Norway. I would be really, really surprised if he didn’t beat Petter – at least if he manages to stay on the road with an intact car. We’ll see in two weeks – in a rally that hopefully is a little bit less predictable than Ireland…