THE BEST MOTORSPORT DRIVER IN THE WORLD IS ..... WHO?
December 6, 2004 It was billed as the ultimate motorsport showdown, with newly crowned world champion of Formula One, Michael Schumacher, and the new World Rally Champion, Citroën's Sébastien Loeb lining up against each other for the first time in the 2004 Race of Champions. So who won in the mother of all motorsport battles? It wasn't Schumacher. He was knocked out by a little known Finn, who races in the World Series by Nissan, a single car series run around the world that searches for up and coming drivers, Heikki Kovalainen.
And if that series looks for young up and coming drivers, they have certainly found one in this 23 year old Finn. Because after demolishing the greatest F1 driver of all time, he went on to challenge Loeb in the final.
But how did the evening unfold in front of 60,000 spectators in the Stade de France on Saturday night (4 December 2004), when the audience saw the greatest drivers from the world battle in the Citroën Xsara WRC, the Peugeot 307 WRC and the Ferrari 360 Modena Challenge?
After eliminating F1's David Coulthard in is his first match, Heikki Kovalainen went on to dispose of another F1 driver, Jean Alesi. That result saw him qualify process for a place in the "racers' final" against seven-times F1 World Champion Michael Schumacher who he promptly defeated by a little less than 1 second around the 1km all-asphalt figure-of-eight track! Meanwhile, reigning World Rally Championship Sébastien Loeb had successively disposed of Tony Kanaan, Armin Schwarz and 2003 Champion of Champions Marcus Grönholm.
The first of the final's three heats was raced at the wheel of Peugeot 307 WRCs which theoretically gave the advantage to Loeb. Kovalainen only sat inside a WRC car for the first time just minutes before the start as Peugeot engineers took time to talk him through the different controls, including the car's steering-wheel mounted gearshift system. And clearly the lesson worked for the Finn who immediately went out to spring a stunning victory over Loeb by 8/10ths of a second, profiting certainly from an early mistake by the Frenchman.
Switching to Ferrari 360 Modena Challenges for the second heat seemed to tip the advantage back in favour of Loeb who crossed the line first. However, Loeb was deemed to have touched a barrier which earned him a 10s penalty to hand the title to his young opponent.
"I just can't believe it," exclaimed the Finn after the finish, "especially the fact that I beat rallying's World Champion in a WRC car. Amazing! And it's not every day you get a chance to beat Michael Schumacher. That was a big moment. I just tried to attack a little harder, brake a little later. And the atmosphere was great too!"
Sébastien Loeb sportingly recognised that the Finn had driven very well.
"The chicane on the bridge was very narrow with the Ferrari and I just nudged the carrier. But it's been an enjoyable afternoon and I love the atmosphere," he commented. "My main objective now will be to win the RoC Nations Cup for France."
So the final challenge of evening: Could Loeb and team mate Jean Alesi stop the evening being a Finnish white wash?
Race of Champions winner Kovalainen secured victory in his first two matches with Jean Alesi, but Sébastien Loeb thwarted Marcus Grönholm to make it two victories each, leaving Alesi to face Kovalainen once last time the decisive shootout.
The 62,333 spectators were on their feet, most of them to cheer on the French, but the duel unfortunately turned short when the Finnish driver was suddenly slowed by a mechanical problem on his Ferrari 360 Modena Challenge.
"In the end, it was a rather lucky win," recognised Alesi after the finish. "But it's really been something exceptional to be able to race in a stadium like this. So thanks to the organisers for making that possible. Fredrik (Johnsson) and Michèle (Mouton) have brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people today."
Sébastien Loeb: "OK, there was an element of luck to our success tonight, but that's a part of motor sport. I really hope the event takes place again next year. The atmosphere has been fantastic and we had so many supporters."
"My battery lost all its power for the final race," lamented defeated finalist Kovaleinen, "but it was the only problem of the day, so 'bravo' to the technical team."
Marcus Grönholm was understandably disappointed not to have succeeded in adding a second Finnish win in the RoC Nations Cup after his country's win in the inaugural event in 1999. "It was actually more challenging here in the Stade de France than in the Canary Islands where the event has traditionally been held. But it's a great competition and the idea of coming here was very good."
The French side reached the final after eliminating their countrymen representing the PlayStation French team and Brazil, while Finland defeated neighbours Sweden and the United Kingdom pair on their way to the last round.
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