Citroën confirms Sordo

As predicted yesterday, the soon-to-be-renamed Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team has confirmed that Dani Sordo will join its squad in 2013, returning to the French brand with which he made his full-time debut in 2006 and drove with for five seasons until he was pushed out in favour of Sébastien Ogier at the end of 2010.

A lot of cobblers is now being talked about Sordo being the best man for the job. He isn’t. The Spaniard is a splendid fellow but he is an asphalt specialist in a series which, in 2013, has very few asphalt events scheduled.

The confusing thing is that Sébastien Loeb is also expected to be in the squad for the asphalt events on the calendar… and he is significantly faster than Sordo on paved roads. The only comfort must be that one or other driver will score valuable manufacturers’ points in Germany, France, Spain and Monte Carlo when the de facto team leader and loose surface specialist Mikko Hirvonen will struggle.

Nevertheless, in Mexico and Argentina it is sure that Citroën, Total and Abu Dhabi will reap a huge PR reward from having a driver in the squad who can speak in the native tongue. Spain might not have any money in its economy but Latin America does, so you can be sure that Sordo will be working hard.

It’s hard to put a value on these things, but if you want to know the value of the Citroën seat to a driver who can go fast on both gravel and asphalt, just ask Kris Meeke or Mads Østberg…

Citroën gets its ducks in a row

The shape of next year’s Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team is expected to be announced in Paris tomorrow, with the Cantabrian press jumping the gun to suggest that, after weeks of feverish negotiation, Dani Sordo will rejoin the Citroën squad with whom he has spent the majority of his top flight career.

Sordo rose through the ranks in Citroën machinery, and joined the marque’s ‘privateer’ entry in the 2006 WRC alongside Sébastien Loeb, when Citroën Sport farmed out its title-winning Xsaras to the Kronos team in order to develop the incoming C4 WRC model. The young Spaniard remained as part of the Citroën setup until the end of 2010, when he was pushed out in favour of the team’s French prodigy, Sébastien Ogier.

Sordo claimed an IRC victory in Corsica with MINI S2000

Since then Sordo has been the de facto leader of Prodrive’s MINI WRC programme. A frustrating two years have ensued for the Cantabrian, who was known to be pushing for a campaign of at least 11 of next year’s 13 events as a prerequisite of signing any new contract after spending a good deal of time watching from the sidelines with MINI.

Earlier this year, Sordo deputised for the injured Jari-Matti Latvala in the works Ford squad and contested the Rally Argentina. Prodrive stated that it was keen to build its 2013 plans around him, while Volkswagen has also said that it was keen to bring Sordo in alongside Ogier and Latvala in a megabucks ‘superteam’.

It is expected that the new-look Citroën team for 2013, with funding from Abu Dhabi, will now feature both this year’s WRC runner-up Mikko Hirvonen and Sordo at all rounds of the 2013 WRC season. Its third car will be shared by nine-time WRC champion Loeb and former Ford WRC driver Khalid Al Qassimi, who is also chairman of the team’s new investor, Abu Dhabi Racing.

Abu Dhabi and Al Qassimi move to Citroën in 2013

The partnership of Hirvonen and Sordo would give Citroën strength in depth. Hirvonen is a strong performer on gravel, where he has won all of his 14 WRC events so far. Sordo has yet to take a victory at the top level of the sport, but when the series hits paved roads in 2013 he will never have enjoyed a better chance.

This combination is likely to prove string in the manufacturers’ battle for 2013, as Volkswagen is relying upon the gravel rally pace of its lead pairing of Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala has spent considerable time and resource on getting up towards the asphalt rally speed of drivers born and raised in continental Europe, and battles between him and Sordo could well become a clincher in the 2013 manufacturers’ standings.

All this means that Britain’s former IRC champion, Kris Meeke, appears to be out of the running despite his impressive test for the team. It also means that Norwegian ace Mads Østberg, who is rumoured to have been chasing the Citroën berth with his not-inconsiderable budget, is likely to remain at the wheel of a Ford next season – whether with his own Adapta team or on the books of the Qatar-funded M-Sport effort.

Thierry Neuville may have to step back to Peugeot

Citroën has also had young Belgian driver Thierry Neuville on its books as a junior in 2011-12. At this moment in time his position remains unclear, although with strong backing from Citroën’s PSA sister Peugeot, he might be mollified with leading the charge for WRC2 glory in its new 208 R5.

Full analysis will follow tomorrow’s announcement…

Meeke in Baja 1000 – on a bike!

Well there’s one way to get yourself out of the pressure cooker that is the Silly Season – Kris Meeke’s going to ride a motorbike in Mexico at next weekend’s Baja 1000.

Former WRC driver Armin Schwarz will also be taking part, albeit on four wheels with a sizeable rollcage around him. Meeke will, however, be on a 250cc bike.

Au revoir, IRC

This weekend in Cyprus brought the end of the Intercontinental Rally Championship, with its catchphrase of ‘New Rally – New Generation’ biting the dust after just seven years.

So, was it a success or a failure?

Since it was founded before the 2006 season, the IRC has lived and breathed as an expression of how rally people themselves wanted a major international series to be run. Although sanctioned by the FIA, it all-but removed itself from the governing body’s influence, and was allowed to grow in a way that quickly showed how much appetite there is for the sport around the world.

The IRC has been hugely popular with teams and fans

International rallying was in decline by 2005 but, in South Africa, Toyota and Volkswagen had been the first to explore the potential of Super 2000 regulations – the accepted standard for touring car racing – for building cost-effective and spectacular rally cars. These early experiments showed that the formula worked.

S2000 also caught the eye of Eurosport, which had endured a long and frustrating relationship with the WRC. It had the resources and gathered the expertise needed to put on a made-for-TV rally series, cherry-picking an outstanding calendar of events to televise across its global platforms and it put the whole show under the ringmaster’s whip of Italian promoter Marcello Lotti, with the FIA’s blessing.

Lotti, who also looked after the FIA-approved World Touring Car Championship, made sure that the events themselves felt the love of this ‘new rally – new generation’ known as the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Eurosport Events meanwhile ensured that the competitors felt the love too – bringing in such experienced hands as former driver and team principal Jean-Pierre Nicolas to nurture the competitive side of the series.

Fiat opened the S2000 floodgates in Europe with IRC success

The IRC was open to production-spec 4WD and 2WD cars, but it was the S2000 machinery which delivered the thrills – and they came en masse. In 2006 Fiat stole a march on the rest of the European competition to produce the Grande Punto S2000 as a means of bringing back the fabled Abarth name, claiming the inaugural IRC title with home-grown hero Giandomenico Basso.

Soon the cost-effective S2000 platform was pulling in the numbers as Peugeot, Skoda, Proton, MG, MINI, Volkswagen and Opel delivering cars that were soon vying for honours in the series. What worked for the manufacturers was that there was very little onus on them to do very much. Producing an S2000 car and stumping up the championship registration fee was a cheap and easy way to get major promotion from the Eurosport organisation.

Variety came courtesy of affordable formula

With the WRC losing teams like leaves in autumn, the IRC swiftly became the only viable place for emerging talent at the wheel, bringing real recognition to the likes of Nicolas Vouilloz, Anton Alén, Jan Kopeçky, Kris Meeke, Juho Hänninen and Andreas Mikkelsen. It also provided a relaxed yet completely professional forum for events of such quality as Madeira, the Safari and Monte Carlo.

That was, perhaps, the IRC’s greatest masterstroke. Under the FIA’s ‘rotation system’ it was proposed that events should alternate years on the WRC calendar with years hosting the IRC. When the biggest event of them all, the Rallye Monte Carlo, was forced off the WRC calendar in 2009 to make way for the Rally Ireland, it found that the young pretender was actually a very decent series to do business with – and flat refused to host the WRC again until this year!

Monte Carlo Rally clung to IRC status in 2009-11

Yes, there were issues – not the least being that IRC events were often twinned with those of the European championship and national series in the host nations. This meant that cars like Subaru Impreza Group N cars could be running strongly on the road, but not feature in the official results – causing no little friction in the editorial offices at Autosport magazine in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

But these were little issues. The fact remains that the IRC brought the spotlight to rallies, teams and drivers of impeccable quality who would have stood no chance of achieving such recognition without the series’ made-for-TV appeal. It also proved, in the depths of the WRC’s despair, that there was an appetite for top-class rallying not only among the competitors and organisers, but also among motor manufacturers and fans.

Rally of Scotland brought classic stages back to life

The curtain has now fallen upon the IRC, but its place in the sport’s history is secure. For the team behind this remarkable series, the future remains bright in the shape of the FIA European Rally Championship – a series which we shall be watching closely in 2013, along with the IRC’s many fans around the world.

Merci, boys and girls of the IRC. Merci mille fois.


Four seats left in musical chairs

With Volkswagen’s WRC squad now fully-booked and Ford no longer putting its name to any cars, the identity of the drivers who will take the remaining positions in the current game of musical chairs hangs in the balance.

In all likelihood, the remaining positions will hinge on the works Citroën squad, where Mikko Hirvonen is set for all 13 rounds but there remains the opportunity for two drivers to share the team’s other two cars with Sébastien Loeb and Khalid Al Qassimi respectively.

Former Citroën number 2 Dani Sordo appears out of the running at his old team because of his insistence upon missing a maximum of two events – while 2009 IRC champion and former MINI WRC driver Kris Meeke has tested impressively for the French squad. It is likely that the team will retain young Belgian ace Thierry Neuville to partner Al Qassimi in the third car.

Mads Østberg will be looking for top-flight equipment in 2012

Ford privateer Mads Østberg, who won his first WRC event in Portugal, has also been mentioned in connection with the Citroën drive, but he appears more likely to remain in a Fiesta, with suggestions that his Adapta team will be placed on an equal footing with the former works Fiestas of M-Sport in terms of development parts.

With Ford believed to be paying a heavy price for breaking its contract with M-Sport a year early, Malcolm Wilson’s team is unlikely to run short of funds in 2013. Nevertheless, it needs to deliver results both to ensure that its customer cars continue to sell around the world and, longer term, to win new manufacturer backing.

Sordo made a one-off appearance with Ford in 2012

Ford’s severance cash would make it possible to draft in Sordo – who deputised for Jari-Matti Latvala on this year’s Rally Argentina – as team leader. If Østberg could be guaranteed equal equipment for his Adapta-entered car, M-Sport could retaining the fast and well-funded 22 year-old Russian ace Evgeny Novikov in its second entry.

Such a move would, however, bode ill for the aspirations of 2003 world champion Petter Solberg. The 37-year-old stated in Sardinia that he has three options to consider if he is to remain in the WRC in 2013. One of those may be M-Sport if Sordo finds a better offer, one may be with one of the privateer MINI teams and the other may be to join the neophyte Hyundai squad on a two-year deal.

Solberg is under pressure for 2013 drived

Equally under pressure in the coming weeks will be Estonian hopeful Ott Tänack, who took the second M-Sport seat this year with funding from the FIA. The highly-touted youngster, a protégé of former WRC star and fellow countryman Markko Märtin, suffered a severe slump in form earlier this season, but has bounced back close to the pace of the rest of the Fiesta runners of late.

Meeke-less in 2012? Fear not…

We’ve been feeling Meeke-less all year at WRF. Although 2012 anno domini has given us the Olympic Games, the Diamond Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of the Ferrari 250GTO and the everyday drama of RPatz and KStew it has been noticeably short of  Ulster-born all-surface rally heroes.

Fortunately, Citroën is on the case. Here’s a little look at what went on in Italy a couple of weeks back. It looks sunny and warm and, erm, very committed. Very committed indeed. We are pressing our virtual ‘Like’ button.

Ignore the first 30 seconds and then rock your socks off…

Is Sordo really eyeing Citroën Racing return?

Dani Sordo gave an interview to a Spanish radio station SER yesterday. WRF thinks it must be nice to live in a country where rallying is on the agenda of radio stations, but we digress…

While we and many others believe that Sordo is a shoe-in at Volkswagen, the man himself is reported to have said that he has been in contact with Citroën about filling in for his former team-mate, Sébastien Loeb, whenever the 9-time champion is having one of his weekends off in 2013.

Sordo rose through the junior ranks at the wheel of Citroën’s Saxo and C2 machines, then partnered Loeb in 2006 when the Citroën WRC programme was farmed out to Kronos. He remained part of the squad when Citroën Racing returned to the fray in 2007 and acted as the team Number 2 until the end of the 2010 season.

Most of Sordo’s top-flight career has been spent in Citroëns

Although he has never won an event at the top level, Sordo has a strong record of getting the car home to the finish and, at Citroën, that has resulted in a podium finish more often than not. After he was pushed out of the French squad by its young prodigy Sébastien Ogier in 2011, Sordo moved to Prodrive’s MINI project as de facto team leader – although he was pressed hard by team-mate Kris Meeke.

Citroën Racing is understood to be looking for a reliable points scorer to fill in for Loeb and give assistance to Mikko Hirvonen’s title bid in 2013. Sordo is a known quantity and popular with the team so it would make sense from their perspective – but not neccessarily from Sordo’s.

In his radio interview, Sordo hinted that the main bone of contention is over how many events he might drive if he were to return to the French squad.

Loeb has declared that he will contest five events, leaving eight for whoever’s in the car for the rest of the season. Sordo has stated that he will accept being put on the ‘sub’s bench’ for a maximum of two events only. The maths is pretty easy… if Loeb sticks to his programme of five events, there’s a shortfall of three rallies in what Sordo will accept.

Here at WRF, we believe that Sordo will ultimately choose to join Ogier at Volkswagen – and perhaps introducing the idea of a Citroën drive might help get the small print of his contract written the way he wants it (i.e. without a clause stating that he will automatically defer to the Frenchman).

The Spaniard turns 30 next year and after two years of frustration at MINI will want the chance to contest a full season, thereby leaving the part-time drive at Citroën to his former MINI team-mate Meeke, who tested impressively for the reigning world champions in Italy a couple of weeks ago.

MINI: surprise! Oh no… you’re not surprised!

Well that’s that.

To not very much surprise, Dr. Key Segler, senior vice-president of MINI business coordination and brand management, today called time on BMW’s endorsement of the brand’s WRC programme. Let’s recap:

  • August 2010: BMW and Prodrive confirm that they are building a car based on the 5-door Countryman model
  • April 2011: MINI John Cooper Works WRC revealed
  • 2011 season: Six rallies contested with Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke. Podium finishes for Sordo in Germany and France, Meeke wins ‘Power Stage’ in Catalunya
  • January 2012: BMW withdraws backing from Prodrive team, makes MINI Portugal its ‘works’ effort using Prodrive-built cars
  • 2012 season: Prodrive carries on with a cast of pay-drivers instead of Meeke. Sordo takes second on the Monte. MINI Portugal employs lots of drivers and Chris Atkinson does well in the tail end of the season.
  • October 2012:  BMW drops the whole programme faster than a once-treasured Jim’ll Fix It badge.

Dr. Segler said: “By the end of the season WRC Team MINI Portugal will have competed in every rally in 2012. As such, in accordance with FIA regulations, we will have achieved the WRC homologation for the MINI John Cooper Works. In doing so, we would have achieved the prerequisites to allow those interested to continue to run the car in the WRC on a customer rallying basis.”

Many people have wondered why BMW got involved in the whole enterprise, given that its commitment lasted for a grand total of eight months at a time when, by the standards of most European motor manufacturers, it has prospered. Perhaps anticipating this question, Dr. Segler added:

“In a very difficult commercial environment, MINI has played an active role in ensuring that friends of the MINI brand can continue to participate in motorsport.”

That’s right: they did it for you. They spent all that money for ‘friends of the brand’, and in no way for themselves, you cynical old so-and-so’s. Now that their charitable work is done, these very same BMW execs are now going off to make world a better place in some other way. A bit like Spider-Man.

Meanwhile back on Earth, Prodrive’s business development director Richard Taylor said: “We understand MINI’s decision and in the current challenging economic climate it was not unexpected.”

WRF has no doubt that Prodrive expected the announcement. The clue probably came back in January when the funds were cut off and BMW attempted to prevent the cars competing at all in 2012… although we could be wrong.

Prodrive remains committed to running its MINIs in 2013 (or ‘focussed’ [sic] according to its website), aiming for a two-car squad with top drivers rather than a pay-as-you-go customers. We at WRF are committed to playing strip poker with the Brazilian women’s beach volleyball team in 2013 and are, frankly, getting better odds.

MINI Portugal is also understood to be entering two cars in 2013 for Australia’s Chris Atkinson and former IRC, ERC and SWRC champion Juho Hänninen.

Chris Atkinson looks set to stay a MINI driver in 2013

Seven seats on the merry-go-round

While the action on the stages of France takes priority, in the service area it’s clear that the ‘silly season’ of driver signings is well under way. With the FIA having moved to allow three-car teams that gives potentially nine cars capable of taking rally wins but at the moment only two drives are inked into place: Mikko Hirvonen will lead Citroën and Sébastien Ogier will lead Volkswagen.

Ask anyone in the teams what their feelings are and they will quiet rightly suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere. Well, almost anyone…

“I would take Latvala and Sordo,” Volkswagen’s technical chief, Francois-Xavier Demaison, said recently when asked about his current vacancies. In other words, the only other men who are currently felt capable of leading a WRC team. That would make tremendous sense to Volkswagen, but is highly unlikely.

Dani Sordo is virtually certain to be a Volkswagen driver. While Prodrive has stated that it wants to retain his services at the head of a team of MINIs in 2013, there is no evidence yet of the kind of backing required for the team to contest a full season – still less develop the car to the same extent as the well-funded, works-backed Fords, Citroëns and Volkswagens.

Latvala has tested Ford’s patience but remains No.1

Jari-Matti Latvala has gone on the record to say that there is also a concrete offer on the table from Volkswagen. This is giving the amiable Finn some sleepless nights, but it is impossible to see that the move could work out well for him.

Jari-Matti is a sensitive soul and prone to making mistakes under pressure. Ogier is going to be strident in his defence of the Number 1 status that he holds, while Sordo has a prominent mentor within the team structure in the form of Carlos Sainz. In those two drivers it has a super-fast gravel specialist in Ogier and a proven asphalt talent in Sordo – an all-rounder like Latvala would therefore be a threat to both men.

Dani Sordo and Carlos Sainz – a longtime fan

It seems that Jari-Matti’s main concern is whether Ford is going to be sticking around in the WRC beyond the end of its current deal with M-Sport in 2013. That is fair enough, but he would be walking away from the support of a team that has weathered many crises of confidence and repair bills in seven seasons that have yet to deliver consistent form.

If Latvala were to remain at Ford, it would make a good deal of sense for Ford to retain Petter Solberg in the second car. Yes, he has been as guilty as his young team-mate of dropping points this year, but he has been the more consistent podium finisher. Furthermore the WRC needs genuine star quality, and Solberg delivers that in spades – going out and selling his sport to the public and sponsors with his ebullient enthusiasm and often zany antics.

Solberg’s enthusiasm knows few bounds

The third Ford should by rights go to Solberg’s fellow countryman, Mads Østberg. Two men from Norway might seem a bit odd to Ford Europe’s marketing types, but at this stage in the game they need the kind of talent and pace that can take points away from rival teams and keep up with Latvala if he falters. Østberg is that man.

That leaves us with the third seat at Volkswagen and the two shared drives at Citroën.

For Volkswagen the obvious answer lies in Norway once again: the defending IRC champion, Andreas Mikkelsen. He’s grown in confidence with every stage in his WRC appearances with Ogier this year in their squad of Škoda Fabia S2000s. He has also got a lot of experience of winning at an international level, bringing confidence and the knowledge that he’s not going to be fazed by the pressure of running in a tussle for the podium places.

Mikkelsen’s earned a place with VW in 2013

That leaves us with the two shared drives at Citroën, with both Sébastien Loeb and Khalid Al Qassimi picking a shortened calendar of events. In all likelihood Thierry Neuville has done enough to retain one of the coveted DS3 drives, the bespectacled Belgian not in the breathtaking mould but developing well.

The other DS3 should be given to Kris Meeke as often as possible. Yes there are younger men – Ott Tanak and Evgeny Novikov spring to mind – but neither is proven. Meeke, like Mikkelsen, won the hard-fought IRC through an ability to win on all surfaces in fierce competition. Yes, he does interface with the scenery on occasion, but not enough to deny him the chance of ably stepping in to Loeb’s seat whenever it becomes available.

Meeke went fast everywhere to win ’09 IRC – and shone for MINI

So there we are then: that’s the silly season sorted…

Abu Dhabi Racing for December launch

Former Ford WRC driver Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi (pictured above) has spoken for the first time since the announcement that Abu Dhabi – and he – will be returning to front-line duty in the World Rally Championship, as partners to Citroën Racing.

A new venture, entitled Abu Dhabi Racing, will be launched in December and takes responsibility for the emirate’s activities in and around the WRC trail. Abu Dhabi Racing will bring together the collective of motor sport stakeholders from Abu Dhabi, including Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, Yas Marina Circuit and the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), with the view to use the sport to promote local and regional talent worldwide.

For those who remember Abu Dhabi’s previous partnership with Ford, this is all familiar territory. In 2009-10 Abu Dhabi not only funded the sponsorship of the works Ford squad, including Al Qassimi’s drive, but also a squad of between three and five crews competing in the Fiesta Sporting Trophy International class for 2WD cars supporting several European events.

Abu Dhabi’s junior team, 2009 Vodafone Rally de Portugal

As with the Ford sponsorship, the soon-to-be-renamed Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team will be in the vanguard of the plan, with a three-car team participating in all rounds of the WRC. Mikko Hirvonen will step up to the team leader role, contesting the entire series, with Sébastien Loeb returning for his hand-picked calendar in a second car and Sheikh Khalid returning to drive a third car in his own programme of selected WRC rounds.

“I will not do the full season, it is not possible,” Sheikh Khalid told Sport360 this week. “There will be much more to do once ADR is formally launched in December and I would like to be actively involved in the company’s development from day one. So, while I will do some rounds of the WRC, another factory driver will do rounds that I skip.”

This leaves two of the top seats in the WRC free for a percentage of the season. It is unlikely that an Emirati driver is going to be seen in a works DS3 WRC, however, with the likelihood being that Citroën will seek to retain the very obvious talents of Belgian youngster Thierry Neuville in one car, with several drivers, including Britain’s former IRC champion and MINI WRC refugee Kris Meeke, also in the mix to share the other.

Al Qassimi will share his Citroën drive in 2013

Although the Citroën Racing squad intends to develop the DS3 as an R5 competitor for the new WRC2 class, with its 2-wheel-drive DS3 R3 also likely to be seen in WRC3, it is unlikely that a costly WRC-based ‘junior squad’ from Abu Dhabi is on the agenda. Abu Dhabi Racing is understood to be preparing to enter the most promising young Emirati drivers in national and regional events around the Gulf in the first phase of development as a precursor to international competition.

The board of Abu Dhabi Racing sees Sheikh Khalid as Chairman, with His Excellency Khaled Bin Shaiban, a senior member of the Crown Prince’s Court in Abu Dhabi and board member of Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, as vice-chair. It is completed by His Excellency Khalid Al Qubaisi, a major figure in Mubadalla, the Abu Dhabi government’s investment arm, who is also an accomplished driver in sports car racing.

Khalid Al Qubaisi celebrates victory in the 2012 Dubai 24 Hours

Al Qubaisi himself will be responsible for developing the UAE’s talent pool in circuit racing alongside the plans to discover future rally stars. It is highly encouraging to see that the extensive karting facilities in Abu Dhabi are being involved at a boardroom level through Bin Shaiban, indicating that this may well deliver a genuine national programme for young talent in the next few years.

Ultimately it sounds like the various strands of interest and investment in motor sport throughout the UAE is finally being brought into a concerted unit within Abu Dhabi Racing. While on the surface of the announcement so far it seems like business as usual for Sheikh Khalid and Abu Dhabi’s ongoing motor sport sponsorship, the fostering of a genuine motor sport culture in the UAE that justifies the expenditure so far on developments like the Dubai Autodrome and MotorCity, the Yas Marina Circuit, Ferrari World theme park and the returning WRC presence.

Perhaps now they can update their media information, too?