A profuse bout of gushery regarding the 2003 World Rally Championship
Ever motorsport fan spends hours day dreaming about the sport they love. Such frequent eulogisation tends to result in the compilation of several 'All time favourite' lists that are typically centred around our favourite cars, teams, drivers and, of course, seasons. Having been obsessed with rallying since the age of four, I am no exception. My favourite season in history of the WRC is 2003. Now, I can be accused of biased as this season saw my boyhood hero be crowned world champion, I refer of course to Petter Solberg. That said, even if one were to take step back and view the season objectively. There's very little to contradict the notion that 2003 was an absolute thriller.
Think about it. Three different winners in the first three rallies, six winners over the course of the season and enough memorable moments to satisfy ver the most ardent sceptic. We had Solberg and Loeb going hammer and tongs for the win in Australia, Markko Martin making history by becoming by becoming only the third non - Scandanavian to win in Finland, Carlos Sainz taking a record-equalling 25th career victory in Turkey, reigning champion Gronholm bouncing back from a smashed suspension unit to take an emphatic win in Argentina and then of course there was Corsica. Petter Solberg, in the thick of the title fight, smashes his Subaru during shakedown. His mechanics work through the night to get the shattered shell of an Impreza back into contention. Solberg starts the rally only to suffer a gearbox problem, cue more misery for his exhausted crew. Come day 2, the rain begins to fall and through some inspired tire choices, some crushing pace and incredible driving, Solberg only goes and wins the rally.
The 2003 season had no shortage of memorable moments. However it can be argued that one of the seasons most compelling features was the fight for the title. A fight that was, for much of the season, a four way bout between Carlos Sainz, Richard Burns, Sebastien Loeb and Petter Solberg. Any four way title fight in any form of motorsport is bound to be incredible, but what made '03 so fascinating was that is was, in more ways than one, a meeting of the past and the future. In Sainz and Burns we had two seasoned veterans who predicated their championship challenges on staying out of trouble and remaining a consistent fixture in the points. In Solberg and Loeb we had two hungry, driven young talents with immense speed and unquestionable talent who were routinely. It was a question of raw speed against consistent improvement. These approaches, although completely different were nonetheless equally successful, Solberg and Loeb may have taken seven victories between them while Sainz only notched up a single win in Turkey and Burns had none. Despite this all four men in contention for much of the season. However, it was Sainz and Burns who spent most of the year at the top of the table. A testament to their impeccable consistency.
As the season reached its climax, the field began to narrow. Burns was struck down with an illness that saw a distinct drop in form in San Remo, Corsica and Catalunya as well as outright withdrawal from Rally GB. A the WRC circus descended upon Great Britain with the stage set for a three way duel for the crown with Sainz, Solberg and Loeb in contention. The two Citroen drivers were tied on 63 points with Solberg a solitary point behinds on 62. That said, the championship was soon to turn into a two horse race. Sainz's title aspirations ended in the trees on day 1 with a crash, leaving young guns Sebastien Loeb and Petter Solberg to battle it out for the world title. Loeb spent much of the event in hot pursuit but Solberg had the pace and began to edge away from the Frenchman. With Sainz out of the running, Citroen eventually asked Loeb to call time on his pursuit of Solberg and secure the manufacturer's title for Citroen. This meant we never got to see a knock down drag out brawl to the very end, that said both Solberg and Loeb had a tumultuous season, they both made mistakes and they both showed remarkable pace. It just so happened that Solberg had fewer DNF's to his name, beat Loeb on certain key occasions and was in a prime position to challenge for the title. That's not luck, that's pace. In the end, Solberg took the rally win and with it, the 2003 World Driver's Crown. The 28 year old became the first and only Norwegian to become World Champion and the jubilant celebrations at Margam Park that immediately followed his victory remain some of the most iconic scenes in the sport's history.
So that was the 2003 season. No matter how you look at it, it was a season that had everything. Drama, intrigue, suspense, a meeting of the old and the new and a thrilling title fight that went right down to the wire. It exuded everything we love about this sport and you've got to love it for that.