The Tarmac Specialist: An Extinct Species?

WRC Tour de Corse 2004 - 17/10/2004 - Photo : DPPI / CLAUDE SAULNIER

We are now well into the countdown towards ADAC Rally Deutschland, quite possibly the best tarmac rally in the world at the moment. As the first true tarmac round in the WRC season, this one throws up a special challenge with the incredible variety that it offers. It almost seems like Rally Detuschland stole portions from every great sealed surface rally in the world. There are tight hairpins through the Mosul vineyards that resemble the stages in the Monte or San Remo. The narrow, bumpy, and muddy lanes are quite similar to the challenging roads found in Ireland, and the fast sections through the trees resemble some stages on the Barum Rally Zlin. On top of all that, the hinkelstein-lined Panzerplatte stages offer a sting in the tail that isn’t found anywhere else in the world. As we saw through the years, there was one special guy who had what it took to succeed in this rally. It is the variety and challenge of Rally Deutschland that speaks volumes to the unbelievable skill and versatility of its most successful driver: Sebastien Loeb.

While reflecting on the challenges of Rally Deutschland, I began to consider the concept of the “tarmac specialists”. Do you remember those guys? Back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, it seemed like every WRC team had one of them. Peugeot’s Gilles Panizzi was perhaps the most famous of that group, but there were others as well: Jesus Puras, Roman Kresta, Philippe Bugalski, Stephane Sarrazin, and more recently, Francois Duval. While these drivers weren’t involved in the championship battle, they were a real threat to win on the tarmac rallies and often had an influence on the manufacturers championship at the end of the season. Over the years, it seems like there are less and less of these “tarmac specialists” to be found in the WRC. Why is that? I did a little bit of thinking and digging in the history books, and here’s what I came up with.

The Competitiveness of the Modern WRC:
It is often debated whether the WRC in it’s current state is more competitive or more difficult to win than in the past. While it is almost impossible to compare drivers in different eras and cars to each other, the slow decline of the tarmac specialists might give us a bit of a clue. 15 years ago, Gilles Panizzi could come into the tarmac rounds of the WRC without having competed all season and still wipe the floor with the regulars in the championship. The 2002 season was a great example of this when he won Corsica, Catalunya, and Sanremo. However, since that season, there hasn’t been another tarmac specialist to win in the WRC. I think that one reason for this is that the modern WRC requires a well-rounded driver who can win on any surface, not just tarmac. While today’s drivers may have their strengths and weaknesses, the general competition level has risen quite a bit from where it was last decade. Pick any driver from the current group in the WRC at this moment, and I believe that their tarmac skills are equal to those of the specialists a decade ago. A career in rallying can’t be made anymore with a specialty on just one type of surface. Today’s top WRC teams won’t commit to a one-dimensional driver.

Rule Changes:
In 2004, the FIA implemented a rule change in the WRC that was meant to cut costs. After the 2003 season, the factory teams were only allowed to enter 2 cars in the championship. The idea behind the change was to limit spending and allow the smaller teams like Skoda and Hyundai catch up to the giants: Ford, Subaru, Citroen, and Peugeot. While this change was well-meaning, it didn’t really cut the costs, and instead caused a “musical chairs” scramble for seats in the 2004 season. When the music stopped, there were several drivers who were left without a ride… most notably Colin McRae. However, this rule change also eliminated the role of the tarmac specialist drivers who now had to fund their own way if they wanted to compete in the tarmac rallies. The one notable exception was Gilles Panizzi who found a spot with Mitsubishi, but could not replicate the success that he had with Peugeot. While the specialists were still good, they didn’t have a chance against the factory teams due to the rapid development curve of WRC cars at that time. Over the next few seasons, the tarmac specialists began to dwindle out.

Calendar Changes:
If you compare today’s WRC calendar to last decade, tarmac rallies have become a bit less important. In 2004, Rally d’Italia moved from the twisty asphalt of Sanremo to the rough gravel roads of Sardinia where it remains to this day. In addition, over the years, Rally Catalunya has morphed into a mixed surface event splitting time between gravel and tarmac. Next season, it looks likely that Corsica will be replaced by a gravel event. During the heyday of the tarmac specialists, the WRC held on average 15 to 16 rounds depending on the year, and of those rallies there were usually 4-5 tarmac events. Today, the WRC has only 13 rallies. As a result, the teams aren’t willing to commit to a driver who can only excel on one surface.

Sebastien Loeb:
The incredible irony is that despite all these reasons, the greatest driving force behind the extinction of the tarmac specialists in the WRC actually began his rallying career as a tarmac specialist! There is no doubt that Sebastien Loeb has left a permanent mark on the WRC. His rally wins and championships speak for themselves, but he also changed the expectations for the modern rally driver. When he joined Citroen back in 2001, most of Seb’s experience was on tarmac in France. As a result, Citroen used him in the “tarmac specialist” role to put up a fight against Gilles Panizzi on the sealed surface events of the WRC. However, it soon became clear that Loeb was far more than a one dimensional rally driver. Yes, he excelled on tarmac, but he showed that he could handle himself on the loose stuff as well. In 2003, he barely missed the WRC title due to team orders from Citroen on the final rally of the season in Wales. From 2004 on, he showed that he was unbeatable on tarmac, but could also win on gravel and snow as well. As a result, even if the other teams entered a specialist in the tarmac rallies, the incredible combination of Loeb and Citroen was just too much. Because of the standard set by Sebastien Loeb, it was no longer acceptable for a modern rally driver to focus on just one surface. In order to beat Citroen, a driver had to be as well-rounded as Loeb, and better than him at the same time. As we saw, there was no one who could achieve this.

Will we see the tarmac specialists again? At the moment, I find it unlikely. Hyundai even tried it last year by running Bryan Bouffier in one of their “N-team” cars on Rally Deutschland. However, he failed to make a significant impact before crashing out on the Panzerplatte stages on day 2. Because of the current rules and calendar in the modern WRC, and the incredible standards established by Sebastien Loeb, I’m afraid that at the moment, the tarmac specialists have gone extinct.