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