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Who's the Best?

Written by: David Phillips Paris, France – 12/7/2004

Michael Schumacher in a buggy? Only at the Race of Champions... (LAT photo)

Who�s the world�s best driver? Seven-time Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher? 2004 World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb? Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon? 2004 Indy Racing League champion Tony Kanaan? 2004 Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais?

Not. For one night, at least, the world�s best driver was a young driver by the name of Heikki Kovalainen.

This year�s World Series by Nissan champion, Kovalainen flew into Paris under the radar last weekend for a Race of Champions boasting Schumacher, Loeb, Gordon, Kanaan, Bourdais and a host of other A-list drivers from former WRC champions Colin McRae and Marcus Gronholm to now twice Nextel Cup bridesmaid Jimmie Johnson and Formula 1 stars past and present David Coulthard, Felipe Massa and Jean Alesi.

Established in 1988, the RoC pits the 16 of the world�s best drivers against one another, two at a time, on a parallel track, rather like the stadium stages of the WRC. Initially conceived as a tribute to fallen rally champion Henri Toivonen, the RoC bounced around Europe from the Montlhery circuit near Paris to the Nurburgring and Barcelona before finding a semi-permanent home in the Canary Islands. Since �99 the competition has been two-pronged, featuring a Champion of Champions division as well as a Nations Cup in which the drivers are paired by nationality and discipline (racing and rally driver).

This year the RoC returned to its roots, when organizers put together an audacious plan to build a tarmac circuit inside the Stade de France, the 85,000 seat stadium on the outskirts of Paris that hosted the World Cup soccer finals in 1998. A twisting figure-eight like circuit was built in less than a fortnight; Citroen and Peugeot WRC cars, Ferrari 360 Modenas and the dune buggy-like RoC cars were assembled and that stellar collection of drivers was turned loose for a day�s worth of practice on Friday before playing to a packed house on Saturday evening.

Although Gordon was a no-show -- having spent some sheet time in the days leading up to the event -- that in no way diminished the fact that Kovalainen kicked ass. High-priced, high-talented ass.

In the first round of the single-elimination �Champion of Champions� bracket, he dusted Coulthard in an RoC car. In Round Two he saw off Alesi in a Ferrari, and then defeated Schumacher, no less, in the semi final, again in a Modena . . . think the Schu has any seat time in one of them?

Kovalainen, here leading Alesi in a Ferrari, shined in all of the various car types. (LAT photo)

In the other bracket, meanwhile, Loeb advanced past Kanaan (more on that in a moment), Armin Schwartz and Gronholm, much to the delight of the adoring and predominantly French crowd.

The final was a best-two-out-of-three in first a Peugeot, then a Ferrari and, if necessary, an RoC car. Given Loeb�s rallying credentials, one would have expected him to have the upper hand in the Peugeot. Nope. The Finn came home nearly a second clear of the Corsican. And while Alesi subsequently got the better of Kovalainen in the Ferrari, he incurred a 10-second penalty for clipping a wall, handing the title to the Finn . . . and triggering a chorus of jeers from the spectators.

The 10-sec penalty for any contact with the walls was to be a bone of contention much of the evening. Remember Kanaan? Under the RoC rules, the one-time Champ Car, now IndyCar star, was entered as Brazil�s designated rally driver (Massa being the designated racing driver). Now, about the only off-road experience Kanaan has involves getting wide on the exits of road racing corners . . . something he has done precious little of of late in the IRL. Not surprisingly, his jokester humor came out on Friday when he learned he had drawn no less than Loeb in his first round.

�Well, see you in the Nation�s Cup,� he laughed.

At least the officials gave Kanaan a fighting chance by pitting he and Loeb against one another in Peugeots, rather than the Citroen Xsara with which the WRC champion intimately acquainted. Incredibly, Kanaan not only gave Loeb a run for his money, he crossed the finish line more than a second ahead of the Frenchman. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop at the Stadt de France . . . until it was announced that Kanaan had brushed the wall on his first lap and thus incurred a 10-second penalty.

Kanaan took the setback in stride. �I didn�t feel it (he contact) but if they say I hit the wall, then I hit the wall,� he said. �It is a little unfair, the 10-second penalty, but hey, a rule is a rule. I didn�t gain any advantage from it . . . and I know who crossed the finish line first.

�It was amazing. At the start there were flash bulbs popping all over the stadium. Not at the finish.�

So there was a bit of ironic justice in the fact that Loeb lost the final under similar circumstances. And to his credit, his comments echoed those of Kanaan.

�I didn�t feel the touch,� he said, �but these are the rules and you have to accept the consequences.�

Loeb -- and the crowd -- would have the last laugh in the Nation�s Cup. There he and Alesi defeated the �other� French team (as host nation France got two teams in the competition, although the draw ensured both could not make it to the final) of Bourdais and Subaru rally driver Stephane Sarrazin to advance to the semi final against Brazil. There Alesi beat Massa and Loeb -- in a Citroen this time -- squared off against Kanaan. But Kanaan flubbed the start, stalling, as Loeb roared away to a four-second victory.

�So much for the revenge match,� smiled Kanaan ruefully.

Meanwhile, Finland -- in the form of Kovalainen and Gronholm -- dispatched Sweden (Kenny Brack and Mattias Ekstrom) and the United Kingdom (McRae and Coulthard) to reach the final. (Team UK had beaten Team USA earlier, but not before Casey Mears -- in lieu of Gordon -- handily defeated Coulthard in a Ferrari. Johnson spun and stalled a Citroen in losing to McRae before Coulthard edged Mears in the rubber match in an RoC car).

In Round One of the five-round final, Kovalainen beat Alesi in an RoC car. Loeb beat Gronholm in a Citroen in round two, then Kovalainen beat Alesi in a Ferrari in round three. Loeb kept France�s hopes alive in impressive fashion, beating Gronholm -- Peugeot's lead WRC driver -- in a Peugeot 307 to set up a climactic battle between Kovalainen and Alesi in Ferrari Modenas.

It looked like it was all over for France. After all, Kovalainen had beaten Alesi by nearly two seconds in the Champion of Champions competition -- in a Ferrari. He�d beaten Schumacher in a Ferrari. He�d beaten Loeb in a Peugeot and a Ferrari in the Champion of Champions finale. In the Nations Cup he�d beaten Brack in a Ferrari and Coulthard in a RoC. In the first two rounds of the finale, he�d beaten Alesi twice already in an RoC car and a Ferrari.

But the finale was over even before the green lights flashed. The battery in the Finn�s Ferrari had gone down and it was all he could do to pull away from the start and trundle around at 1/3 speed, even as Alesi roared to an easy win.

Well, almost. After lapping Kovalainen�s crippled car, Alesi did his best imitation of Nigel Mansell by stopping in front of the crowd on the last turn, hopping out and waving to the wildly cheering fans. Meanwhile, Kovalainen was grinding around, the public address announcer was screaming �JEAN!!!! JEAN!!! Ce n�est pas finis!!!!!� and officials were frantically waving for Alesi to get back in his car.

He did, of course, and roared away to take the checkered flag to a thunderous cheer from the crowd, nearly all of which had sat through a very chilly evening in the hopes of just such an outcome.

Alesi (left) and Loeb made a winning team for France in the Nations Cup. (LAT photo)

Throughout the competition, drivers repeatedly spoke of its enjoyable atmosphere and a certain lack of pressure. After all, it was pure racing for racing�s sake. No points to worry about, no strategy other than �attack, attack, attack,� as Kovalainen eloquently -- and susinctly -- put it. And nobody�s job was on the line, there were no engineering debriefs, none -- or at least little -- of the aggravation that is part and parcel of big-time racing in the 21st century.

On the other hand, there was probably more internal pressure on the drivers than ever. After all, here were 16 of the world�s biggest, more competitive egos in the world facing off against one another. And on this night, an unheralded kid from Finland showed them all the way. Maybe nobody�s job was on the line, but take it for granted, that one Heikki Kovalainen did his young career a power of good by his performance in the Stadt to de France on Saturday night.

Catch the Race of Champions this Sunday on SPEED (click here for air times).

David Phillips is a Senior Writer for RACER magazine.