In a serious blow for rally fans around the world, Petter Solberg has said that he will not compete in the 2013 World Rally Championship. The 2003 world champion endured a difficult season with the works M-Sport Fiesta this year and, without Ford’s backing for the forthcoming campaign, team principal Malcolm Wilson is looking for $3 million from each of his drivers – which Solberg does not feel inclined to pay.
Last week, Solberg announced that he would drive for ‘free’. Clearly this did little to persuade M-Sport.
The former champion is not averse to spending money. When Subaru dropped its WRC programme at the end of 2008, the Norwegian committed to creating his own outfit in just a few weeks – fielding a Citroën Xsara WRC that was pulled out of the French marque’s museum! The Petter Solberg World Rally Team went on to campaign the C4 WRC and DS3 WRC until the end of 2011, when its star man was forced to admit that he couldn’t sustain the financial commitment.
A slightly uncomfortable return to M-Sport followed this season – which the young Solberg previously abandoned in 2000 amid much ill-feeling. The team accepted him on condition that he would support Jari-Matti Latvala’s title bid, which failed to materialise. Instead Solberg became the dominant driver in the team, but a string of incidents in the final third of the season saw him drop back to fifth in the drivers’ standings behind Latvala and the privateer Ford of Mads Østberg.
Østberg has now been confirmed as M-Sport’s lead driver for 2013, bringing significant funding with him, while Nasser Al-Attiyah has arranged title sponsorship for the team from Qatar and will compete on selected WRC rounds alongside his FIA Middle East Rally Championship campaign. With Solberg out of the running and former IRC and SWRC champion Juho Hänninen equipped with an M-Sport Fiesta of his own, the team is now almost certain to announce Evgeny Novikov as its second top-line driver.
Earlier this week the well-heeled young Russian stated that if he could not get a ‘works’ specification car from M-Sport he would take his money to Citroën. It appears that there is no great obstacle in his way now.
Given the nickname ‘Hollywood’ by the mechanics in his early days, former breakdancing champion Solberg has always been the number one showman in the WRC. He’s a driver who has worn his heart on his sleeve, done his best to entertain and has won armies of fans for his never-say-die optimism – not to mention his occasional lapses of language and judgement, such as falling out of his Subaru while waving to the crowds or declaring that he crashed because of being distracted by a fart.
On behalf of the sport and its fans, WRF wishes Petter a relaxed and enjoyable 2013 – and we look forward to seeing him back in action before too long.