DS3 RRC for Valais debut

The new Citroën DS3 Regional Rally Car (RRC) will make its competitive debut this weekend on the Rallye International du Valais in Switzerland, with eight-time Belgian Rally Champion Pieter Tsjoen at the wheel.

Under the FIA’s technical rules, RRC cars are low-tech, low-cost variants of their WRC siblings whose power from the 1.6-litre turbo engine is moderated by a smaller restrictor (30mm instead of 34mm)r, together with a standardised flywheel and a more basic aero kit in line with that of Super 2000.

Tsjoen’s progress will doubtless be eagerly watched, particularly as he will face stiff competition from no fewer than 12 Peugeot 207 S2000s and three Škoda Fabia S2000s.

Citroën Racing is about to launch a range of customer cars as it attempts to make up for a potential budgetary shortfall in 2013. Following a difficult year for parent group PSA and the expected closure of several factories within the Peugeot-Citroën empire, the team has been forced to find significantly greater external funding, and a profitable customer car business is a must.

This in turn will pitch Citroën’s racing department into a heated sales battle between M-Sport (Ford), Peugeot Sport and Škoda Motorsport among others.

Toyota 2014 round-up

A little over three years ago, the then-president of the FIA, Max Mosley, took one of his decidedly rare appearances at a WRC event to announce his plans for a single 1.6-litre ‘world engine’ to power everything from Formula One to foundation-level rallycross under the FIA’s governance. If manufacturers wanted to support motor sport, they could brand this lump and any leaps in performance would be attained through their various hybrid/KERS/greentech programmes.

As ever, in Max’s reign, the opening gambit was aimed at stretching the point so that in the bartering process among the sport’s stakeholders – commercial and sporting – would end up at an acceptable compromise… namely swapping to small capacity turbo motors.

Five 1.6-litre engines have been built so far for WRC use

So far we have seen Ford, Citroën and Volkswagen produce contemporary WRC powerplants. With the original unit being shared by BMW and Peugeot-Citroën models, the MINI and the DS3 have effectively the same powerplant, while a restricted version is due to go into sister company Peugeot’s new 208 R5 and Citroën DS3 RRC. VW is meanwhile reportedly lending its motor to the proposed Škoda Fabia R5. Hyundai will now be busily preparing its own unit when it opens for business, while in Cologne a sixth 1600cc turbo is in development at Toyota Motorsports GmbH (TMG).

A foundation-level Yaris R1A appeared at this year’s Rallye Deutschland as the ‘double zero’ course car as a precursor to a one-make series as part of the new WRC3 in 2013. R1A regulations that permit only limited performance modifications to production vehicles with engines up to 1.4-litres, but it has – and continues to tantalise with the possibility of a full return.

Speaking before the Yaris appeared, back in August, TMG President Yoshiaki Kinoshita, said:

“It is a great thrill for TMG to return to rallying, a discipline in which we enjoyed a great deal of success in the past…  I hope this is the start of a new rally dynasty at TMG.”

Yaris R1A drew plenty of attention on Rallye Deutschland

Toyota has had an enormous purpose-built motor sport facility sitting idly by since it quit the Formula One circus in 2009. While often mooted as a venue for hire to aspiring F1 teams, the facility has instead been pointed squarely back towards the Japanese giant’s old stomping ground of the WRC, with confirmation that a 1.6-litre engine was on the bench.

“Of course the final target is the WRC programme but to get back in WRC program we need several steps,” Mr. Kinoshita said. “Because we stopped rally programme in 1999 after that most of the people are gone, there is no knowhow inside the company… we hope we are ready in 2014, but of course we need official approval from TMC (Toyota Motor Corporation)”.

A full return to the WRC from Toyota would bring huge fan appeal

Following Mr. Kinoshita’s early enthusiasm, an unnamed Toyota source spoke further to wrc.com, saying: “We’re leaning towards an S2000-style of car which would be available for customers first. This is a development project, but it’s very early days – the engine only fired up for the first time a few weeks ago – at the very earliest, a car won’t be available until next year.

“Obviously, this being a Global Race Engine, it could go in any car, but the Yaris seems to make sense.”

Max Mosley is doubtless thrilled…

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.

Look out, ladies – Mikkelsen ahoy!

Volkswagen boss Jost Capito has given the clearest signal yet about the €100 million superteam’s plan for running a third car in the WRC, alongside the entries for Sébastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala, according to wrc.com. Step forward Norway’s bright young star, Andreas Mikkelsen.

“The plan is run a third car when the WRC comes back to Europe so from Portugal basically,” said Capito. “It depends on how well the season goes and if there are dramas we won’t have a third car. But the plan is to have a third car and we’re preparing for that. And the guy with the best chance is Andreas.”

Mikkelsen has an impressive CV with the 2011 Intercontinental Rally Challenge title at the top of it. In 2012 the Norwegian has reached the cusp of becoming the only driver to win the series twice at the helm of his Škoda UK-funded works Fabia S2000, twinning his IRC campaign with seven rounds of the SWRC alongside Ogier in a Volkswagen Motorsport-prepared Fabias.

Mikkelsen has done some serious mileage testing the new Polo WRC

“Andreas has done a great job and is a great guy,” said Capito. “He has developed very well and I believe he will have the best chance to be consistent in the WRC if he is not in and out. He is the guy lined up for the third car.”

Certainly the new WRC promoter, Red Bull Media House, won’t grumble. Mikkelsen’s matinée idol looks will be as much of a boon to selling the sport as his all-round pace on all surfaces will be of benefit to Volkswagen’s title aspirations.

The race for Rally(e) d’Italia 2013

The WRC has Italy on the schedule for June 2013 but it is not, at present, confirmed as the Rally Italia-Sardegna. This is causing plenty of excitement, with the Rallye Sanremo having disappeared from the provisional calendar of the new Eurosport-run FIA European Rally Championship schedule… so, could a return to the hallowed ground of Sanremo be on the cards?

The WRC has been going to Sardinia for its Italian round since 2004 – much to the consternation of the manufacturers and sponsors who remained aboard the series throughout those years. In terms of national impact in Italy it’s the equivalent of holding the Rally GB on the Isle of Wight – albeit a much longer boat trip to get there.

Sardinia is fine for tourists but it’s far away from the mainland, the movers and shakers and the car-buying public.

Sardinia is a long way off the beaten track for the WRC

Although the Sardinian stages themselves have won fans around the world for their fast, narrow and rugged nature, they also tend to claim a large number of casualties due to rock damage and other incidents. This year saw a potentially enthralling battle for the lead between Mikko Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb finish early on the first full day when Loeb crashed, then Hirvonen really only had to cruise to the finish while the works Fords of Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg crashed out.

In contrast, Sanremo is an icon in motor sport. The first “Rallye Internazionale di Sanremo” was held in 1928 (using the French spelling of ‘rally’ in deference to its near neighbour Monte Carlo), and was part of the WRC from its first year in 1973 until the circus departed for Sardinia. Up until 1997, Sanremo was a mixed-surface event running on both gravel and asphalt, but became an all-asphalt event in 1997 when the format of WRC events was simplified.

Since the founding of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge in 2006, Sanremo has been a landmark event on its schedule, taking place each autumn as one of the most significant title-deciding events. The IRC brought with it extremely effective logistical support and a far better TV and promotional package than the WRC could offer, but with the series now consigned to history and its organisers and promoters taking over the European Rally Championship, it may provide the Sanremo team under Sergio Maiga with the incentive they need to restore their event to the world championship.

Sanremo has thrived under Eurosport-owned IRC

The provisional calendar for the 2013 FIA European Rally Championship features just one Italian event – the Rally San Marino. This leaves several great events in the Italian rally calendar – including the 1000 Miglia in Brescia, the Rally Targa Florio in Sicily and the Rally del Friuli e delle Alpi Orientali in Udine – out of the international spotlight, while the provisional WRC calendar features only four asphalt events compared to eight gravel rallies.

In the past decade, Sardinia is known to have brought a financial bonus to the WRC in the form of a €1 million bursary from the Sardinian tourist board to organise the event, plus a further €200,000 sweetener from the town council in Olbia. New promoter Red Bull doesn’t need the cash, but instead needs to ensure that the very best events available are on the world championship calendar.

There are three conspicuous problems with Sanremo returning to the WRC in 2013.

At a logistical level it is currently a two day event, as opposed to the three days plus an opening night of a WRC rally, meaning that stages must be recommissioned and enough stewards, marshals and safety workers must be available to staff it. Secondly the move to a provisional June date might well prove an obstacle for a rally that is traditionally held in late September or early October.

Sanremo is an enchanting step back in time, not a modern venue

Finally, Sanremo is a small town whose faded grandeur suits rallying particularly well, but whose endearingly shambolic Rally HQ (in a disused railway station) and single five-star hotel might just make Red Bull and its corporate investors blanch.

Clearly there is much at stake for rallying in Italy, but ensuring that it has the best possible showcase on the world championship calendar must be paramount. At WRF we believe that Sardinia will get a stay of execution but with better forward planning for 2014 perhaps Sanremo can reappear as a mixed-surface event.

One thing is for sure: it looks like there is plenty of action going to be taking place before the final 2013 WRC schedule is announced.

Over to you, rally bosses!

Hirvonen cruises to victory

After the crash-fest of the opening day on Friday, the Rallye Italia-Sardegna lapsed into a virtual coma, from which Mikko Hirvonen emerged victorious.

When cars are separated by more than a minute, nothing much is going to happen. Nothing did. Hirvonen pootled along after the early jostle with his nine-time title-winning team-mate Seb Loeb finished on Friday, the Finn never needing to break sweat after Loeb threw his car at the scenery.

The remaining podium places were taken by M-Sport Ford Fiestas (those of Evgeny Novikov and Ott Tänak), after the works Fords of Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg came to grief on Friday. Mads Østberg was impressive in his drive to fourth place in the Adapta team Fiesta, logging a succession of stage wins to claw back time after being forced to run in front-wheel-drive only on Friday afternoon.

Far and away the most impressive performance of the weekend was, however, that of fifth-placed Sébastien Ogier. In a non-turbo Škoda Fabia S2000, the Frenchman was in electrifying form, taking the outright fastest time on SS5 and keeping  ahead of Chris Atkinson’s MINI WRC and Martin Prokop’s Fiesta WRC to the finish. Ogier’s team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2012 IRC champion-elect, also shone as he seeks to secure forward progress in his career, finishing seventh.

Ogier conjures another giant-killing performance for Škoda

Nevertheless, it was a spectacularly boring affair. Given that most of the field can find their way through the stages of the Rallye de España blindfolded, there are unlikely to be any great surprises there, either.