Sweden team-by-team

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Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team

1 Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena – 8/10

A disastrous qualifying stage left Loeb out in the cold in Sweden, and he only got to show his true pace on the final morning. He was able to kick great lumps out of Ogier’s lead but the damage was done. Worryingly for Citroën, the man who is only contesting four events this year was the only one to take any points away from Scandinavia.

2 Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen – 3/10

Disaster begat disaster for Hirvo on an event to forget. The WRC now moves to a string of gravel events, where he knows he has to deliver event wins.

Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team

4 Mads Østberg/Jonas Andersson – 8/10

Not-very-mad-Mads was back again, driving his second event at the head of the M-Sport squad in conservative style. He did enough to be the fastest non-Sébastien on the event, but the hoped-for sparkle was notably absent.

5 Evgeny Novikov/Ilka Minor – 6/10

Novikov had his sensible head on and drove a quiet rally to reach the finish. It’s not what he’s known for, but it keeps the repair bills down a bit.

Qatar World Rally Team

6 Matthew Wilson/Giovanni Bernacchini – 1/10

Last-minute substitution for an indisposed Nasser Al-Attiyah, Matthew wasn’t very fast and then crashed.

11 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul – 7/10

Neuville bounced back from his Monte disappointment to put in a strong performance and to record the longest jump at Colin’s Crest.

15 Juho Hänninen/Tomi Tuominen – 6/10

Officially that’s the end of the road for the former IRC champion… but you can expect to see him back in an M-Sport car before long. Didn’t sparkle as much as many had hoped in the snow, but unless your name is Sébastien not many people did.

Volkswagen Motorsport

7 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Antilla – 7/10

Latvala took a measured approach and delivered a solid finish.  Losing out on the podium to the Mads Østberg in what used to be his team-leading car at M-Sport was cruel. Ogier has delivered Volkswagen’s debut victory, so the pressure is not going to decrease on the likeable Finn.

8 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia – 10/10

A fantastic drive, with a relaxed and happy Ogier revelling in being the fastest Sébastien for the majority of the event. His eighth win at the sport’s top level was taken in style, and of course he now has his name in the record books as the first man to guide a Volkswagen to overall victory in the WRC. Throw in a strong position in the WRC points and the weekend could scarcely have gone better.

Abu Dhabi Citroën Total World Rally Team

10 Khalid Al Qassimi/Scott Martin – 1/10

AL Qassimi doesn’t have much in life that he really needs to worry about. Which must be nice.

14 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio – 3/10

Sordo is handy on asphalt. This was a snow rally. Wasn’t stellar.

Lotos Team WRC

14 Michál Kosciuszko/Maciek Szczepaniak – 4/10

It’s hard to tell whether the likeable Pole is good, bad or indifferent. So we’ll reserve judgement.

Jipocar Czech National Team

21 Martin Prokop/Michal Ernst – 7/10

Prokop used his experience to good effect and popped up into the points for the second time.

Monte team-by-team

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Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team

1 Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena – 10/10

Loeb did enough on the opening day to prove that none of the full-time contenders for his vacant WRC throne has got anything like the same speed, then settled cheerfully into a rhythm that was still fractionally faster than anyone else in the event. Fair to say that whoever wins the 2013 title will not be the greatest rally driver in the world.

2 Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen – 6/10

Monte has never been an event on which Hirvo has shone. He is a gravel man, and gets through events like this with gritted teeth and bloody-mindedness. A bright start on the opening day quickly gave way to grumpily plodding along complaining about his tyre choices and lack of confidence, but he kept his head and was duly promoted when other guys aimed higher and ran out of talent.

Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team

4 Mads Østberg/Jonas Andersson – 6/10

Not-very-mad-Mads was almost totally anonymous for much of the Monte, trundling along in the bottom third of the top 10. It made sense to be cautious and play the long game on an event that didn’t quite have enough snow to suit him, but when the conditions were right he showed the sort of pace that delivered those podiums in 2012. Sweden should be fun.

5 Evgeny Novikov/Ilka Minor – 4/10

Right up until the last day, Novikov was the star of the rally. He delivered a swashbuckling performance that thrilled and terrified onlookers in equal measure, surviving numerous scares until he came to grief against a wall. The thing is, you could write the same about Cyprus in 2009 or, indeed, most events of his career. Leopards, spots etc. – looks like an expensive year ahead for M-Sport.

Qatar World Rally Team

7 Juho Hänninen/Tomi Tuominen – 5/10

With only two events in which to prove he deserves a full-time WRC drive, Juho started brightly as the fastest of the Fords, despite having just one day in the car before the start of the event. You would expect a former IRC and SWRC champion to adapt quickly and he didn’t disappoint. He then slowed to try and reach the finish, lost too much ground and crashed trying to make it up. But with Juho these things aren’t habitual.

11 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul – 4/10

Neuville has the backing of team sponsor Nasser Al-Attiyah, who brought the young Belgian with him from Citroën. Up to now Neuville has had a few shunts but also shown some good speed. He did both in the space of two days on the Monte, making himself the first man to retire from the event. Not perhaps the result that anyone wanted.

Volkswagen Motorsport

7 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Antilla – 3/10

Jari-Matti started the Monte somewhat adrift from the pace, hovering at the bottom of the Top 10 and looking rather lost. Then something clicked and he went a bit faster. Then he crashed. Only his hesitance at the start of the event was unfamiliar.

8 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia – 8/10

It’s fair to say that Ogier was in a class of his own. It’s a class above the rest of the full-time runners of 2013 but still not able to sit at the same table as that other Sébastien bloke. Ogier may rant and rail that Loeb is irrelevant to the title – but he wouldn’t be saying that if he had been faster than the reigning champion. VW will be pleased with its star man, though – and deservedly so.

Abu Dhabi Citroën Total World Rally Team

10 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio – 7/10

It was hard to believe that this was the same driver who hauled that big-ass MINI Countryman with such verve in Monte Carlo a year earlier. Reunited with Citroën and having had the benefit of driving every one of the current generation WRC cars except the Polo, Sordo should have been in position to take the fight to Ogier at least. Instead he had to wait for Novikov to bin it before reaching the podium.

Lotos Team WRC

12 Michál Kosciuszko/Maciek Szczepaniak – 5/10

A small team trying to do all 13 events on a meagre budget, they needed to finish the Monte in the top 10. They did so, but more than half an hour behind the front-runners with an S2000 Škoda and a Group N Mitsubishi in front of them… this could be a long season in so many ways.

Jipocar Czech National Team

21 Martin Prokop/Michal Ernst – 7/10

Prokop isn’t the fastest man in the WRC but he tries hard and occasionally things go his way. With DMACK tyres he has traded pace for budget, but so long as sufficient works cars go off in front of him he’s got to be looking at repeating his seventh place finish quite regularly in his 11-round season.

Bryan Bouffier

22 Bryan Bouffier/Xavier Panseri – 6/10

Bouffier is a decent journeyman who pops up in all sorts of machinery, but he’s good on the Monte and won it in 2011, the last time it was held under the auspices of the IRC. He arrived with what was effectively the fourth works Citroën and wearing the nattiest livery of them all, but something somewhere didn’t ignite and he pottered round without causing drama or offence.

Julien Maurin

24 Julien Maurin/Nicolas Klinger – 3/10

Privateer Ford entry. Went out on SS10 when in contention for tenth place. Nothing more to add.

40th WRC Season Review Pt.2 – The Teams

The bald facts are that the 2012 season gave Citroën Racing the chance to continue a 100% record in the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in this, the 1.6-litre era of the WRC. Through the course of the season it seized that chance with both hands.

The DS3 WRC is a fine little car, one blessed with chuckable handling which Loeb professes to enjoy far more than the bigger C4s and Xsaras of his early years of dominance. In 2012 nothing really failed to perform to title-winning standards, with two notable exceptions.

The team messed up sufficiently to get Hirvonen excluded from victory in Portugal, which was a blip. Secondly,and of longer-term concern, is that Hirvonen himself has not yet shown that he can pick up where Loeb leaves off. Nevertheless, in 2012, Hirvonen’s consistency was a blessing for the team – particularly in ensuring that fabulous string of consecutive 1-2 results at the mid-point of the year, which smothered any hopes that those in the Ford camp may have harboured.

The Citroën squad was further bolstered by a Junior Team entry for Belgian driver Thierry Neuville and by the Qatar World Rally Team entry of Nasser Al-Attiyah. This was intended to be a precursor to deeper ties between Citroën and Qatar in 2013, but instead the French marque has allied itself with Abu Dhabi, causing Nasser to abandon his campaign early.

Of course the might of the French squad’s claim to both drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles was greatly assisted by the number of times that Ford drivers dropped the ball, lost the ball or left the ball on the dressing table at home when rushing to get to the airport. For the Ford World Rally Team, 2012 would prove to be its last – and despite the firm’s financial troubles, the responsibility for losing the iconic Blue Oval from the WRC must be shouldered by the men of the M-Sport team.

Bringing Petter Solberg in to partner Jari-Matti Latvala in the works squad looked like a good move. Solberg was the only other world champion still active in the sport, the fans love him and he signed on in the knowledge that his primary role was in giving support to the younger man. The early season problem was that, all too often, the younger man had already gone out on the first day, making the supporting role redundant. Later on in the season, the pair seemed to be in competition for the most retirements.

Ford boys got themselves in a knot throughout 2012

With Loeb leading from the front all season long, neither of the Ford drivers made a convincing case that they were competing to win a single round of the 2012 WRC. In truth they only ever looked likely to get an each-way result – and even that was on the proviso that they could refrain from going off the road, which they very often did.

Latvala crashed out of three from the first four rallies of the year, before missing the fifth with a broken collarbone. Solberg took a conservative route to third on the Monte, got told to speed up, and then he too started crashing and collecting damage more regularly.

Some have speculated that the Fiesta is a very, very hard car to drive on the limit and much less forgiving than the Citroën DS3. For his part, Latvala claimed with characteristic candour that he put himself under too much pressure to stay on Loeb’s pace when clearly he wasn’t up to it, and thus took himself out of contention by going past his own limits.

Either way, Ford was on a hiding to nothing with its works team – and so too were the majority of its privateers.

The fastest non-works car was almost always Mads Østberg’s Fiesta, tended by the Adapta squad. Mads was there to pick up the pieces when the works cars hit trouble, and when Hirvonen was penalised in Portugal he was handed victory on a plate. This M-Sport supported effort delivered the reliability it needed to and got its driver out of any mechanical issues with commendable skill. The point must soon come, however, when its star man will have to move on or go backwards.

Østberg was a solid performer and his victory was a Ford highlight

M-Sport had another busy year. The Ford ‘B-team’ took on a new look at the start of the season, with the arrival of Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov and the equally youthful Estonian driver Ott Tänak, after several seasons of fielding M-Sport team boss Malcolm Wilson’s son Matthew and Petter Solberg’s brother Henning.

At the start of the year it seemed as though Henning and Matthew would be competing all year in a Ford ‘C-team’ under the Go-Fast Energy Drink banner, but this fizzled out after Sweden. Instead, M-Sport gave Novikov a forum to show that his talent is beginning to draw level with his wallet, while on the other hand the much-touted Tänak appeared to suffer a crisis of confidence in the second M-Sport car.

Novikov took the lead within the M-Sport setup

 

A fourth Ford effort was pieced together by M-Sport under the Monster World Rally Team colours as a means of getting three more rallies out of the viral movie stunt driver, Ken Block. Quite why they bothered is a mystery, as Block once again showed that there is a world of difference between going sideways around an abandoned warehouse for an Internet film and successfully completing a WRC event. A second car was entered for Chris Atkinson in Mexico.

The other regular Ford runner was the Czech National Team, built around the hard-trying talents of Martin Prokop. It did a decent job, then lost its car in a fire on the Rallye Deutschland and was forced by fiscal prudence – there can be no other explanation – to switch to DMACK tyres. One suspects that, like Wyle E. Coyote, Prokop will keep coming back in the WRC, although success will continue to prove as elusive as pursuing a cartoon Roadrunner.

If Ford was everywhere and nowhere in 2012, BMW had confused everyone with its WRC programme for the MINI. It attempted to bail out of its deal with Prodrive at the start of the season, failed on legal grounds, and so took its works status and granted it to  the Motorsport Italia-run WRC MINI Team Portugal.

MINI will seemingly always be left in the Mini-Cooper’s shade

This fairly inexplicable move by BMW came across as some sort of Bavarian hissyfit – completely bonkers, given that Motorsport Italia was dependent upon Prodrive for development, parts and support. Whether due to the pressure of works status or simply the Mediterranean temperament, the team dropped its lead driver, former PWRC champion Armindo Araújo. It replaced him with Chris Atkinson, who managed to drive all three of the competing cars in one season thanks to stints with Monster (Ford), Qatar (Citroën) and MINI Team Portugal.

The Munich marque has now washed its hands of MINI rally cars and the WRC completely – which is a shame. Prodrive remains in an optimistic mood and is seeking to contest all of next year’s events – although without Dani Sordo, the performances of the succession of rent-a-drivers it placed in the car during 2012 don’t give cause for great optimism.

There ends the WRC team review, but if we’re talking teams and manufacturers then mention must be made of Volkswagen Motorsport.

Ogier flew high in the S2000 Fabia for his Volkswagen team

 

Entering a pair of Škoda Fabia S2000s in the SWRC, the team’s star driver, Sébastien Ogier, truly lived up to his billing. He was flat-out everywhere, refusing to concede ground to the turbocharged WRC cars and running happily in the top eight, often the top six, on virtually every round he entered.

Kevin Abbring made four appearances in the second Volkswagen car and Sepp Wiegand made a one-off run, but for the majority of the time Ogier was paired with Škoda’s double IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen, who earned a pass to the WRC squad for next year with an impressive season. The SWRC campaign was a signal of intent from the German giant – and a deeply impressive performance on its own merits.

Coming up in Pt.3 we have the story of the support classes: PWRC and SWRC.

A brief history of WRC promotion

Much is being said about the commercial rights of the WRC at present, so let’s take a little look back through the last 25 years of the sport’s rollercoaster ride through popular culture.

In 1987, Jean-Marie Balestre, in his role as president of FISA, the worldwide governing body for motor sport, was encouraged to appoint Bernie Ecclestone to the role of vice-president of promotional affairs, with authority over all of its motor sport series.

Balestre was so encouraged by Max Mosley, the then-president of the FISA Manufacturers’ Commission, as a means of bringing ‘peace in our time’ to the endless squabbling over control of the commercial rights to Formula One. Something to do with keeping friends close and enemies closer, no doubt came to mind…

Bernie and Balestre – an unlikely double-act

Right away Ecclestone’s department at FISA focused its efforts on squeezing every last cent out of Formula One. One of its first moves, for example, was cancelling the hugely successful World Touring Car Championship at the end of its first season in 1987 in order to encourage greater participation in Grand Prix racing from sponsors and manufacturers.

Rallying generally escaped such terminal attentions, however – indeed, Ecclestone’s department generally improved matters.

Have you ever noticed that footage of the Group B era, for example, is as rare as hen’s teeth? That’s because if an event was filmed (and not all were) it was by domestic broadcasters for domestic TV coverage and the subsequent tapes were scattered to the four winds.

In his FISA role, Ecclestone ensured that a consistent season-long approach was taken to filming WRC events by his production and distribution company, International Sportsworld Communicators (ISC). It all worked rather well – even if ISC reported that the 1990 Swedish Rally showed a large increase in spectator numbers and global TV viewership…  a Herculean achievement when it was cancelled due to lack of snow and replaced with a rallysprint!

ISC brought order – and coverage – to the WRC in early 1990s

ISC’s footage was made available to national broadcasters in a season-long deal alongside Formula One events. If you wanted one, you took the other – and for a while everything was rolling along very nicely, in many ways.

Meanwhile, in 1991, Max Mosley ousted Balestre as FISA president and subsequently became FIA president in 1993, absorbing FISA back into its parent organisation. Again, the WRC largely escaped any direct attention as a result of this move, not least because of the furore that followed the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.

When the dust finally settled in Formula One, however, a new fly arrived in the ointment for the Mosley-Ecclestone FIA: the European Union.

FIA fell foul of EU competition laws under Mosley’s reign

A Statement of Objections lodged with the EU argued that the FIA had violated existing antitrust legislation and had abused its licensing power and its ownership of the commercial rights to all 16 FIA championships – including the rights to TV broadcasting and other commercial exploitation of those rights through ISC.

After much blood, sweat and tears in court, the EU found against the FIA in 2000 and it was ordered to break up its commercial alliance with Ecclestone. As a result the role of vice-president of promotional affairs at the FIA disappeared, and Ecclestone sold ISC, together with the WRC’s commercial rights, to a consortium led by Prodrive founder David Richards.

Richards paid the FIA $50 million for the 10-year rights to the sale of television, merchandising, licensing and advertising of the WRC, using cash generated by selling 49% of Prodrive to venture capital company Apax Partners & Co. Immediately changes began to be made to the way in which the WRC was promoted – and many of these changes proved successful on the surface of things.

David Richards went from co-driver to team owner to ringmaster

Manufacturer involvement was still strong, with Ford, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, SEAT, Škoda and Subaru being joined by Citroën. The Junior WRC was also thriving in quality and quantity and the Production Cup offering national-level participants their chance to take part in WRC events.

The sport was also at the cutting edge of the computer simulator market, with its own products alongside those endorsed by star drivers such as Colin McRae and Tommi Mäkinen. There was also an international magazine, RallyXS, produced by the British publisher Haymarket, aimed squarely at appealing to the same readership as its glossy sister F1 Racing.

Nevertheless, the foundations were already starting to give way. For starters the exodus of manufacturers was already taking hold. SEAT was gone at the end of 2000, Mitsubishi’s full-house effort ended in 2002, Hyundai abandoned ship in 2003, Peugeot and Škoda in 2005. Suzuki came and went in a season, as BMW brand MINI later would, but commitment to the cause was signally lacking.

Worse still, the WRC’s star drivers, who did so much to propel it in the 1990s, were also falling by the wayside. By the end of 2005 it had lost Tommi Mäkinen, Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Markko Märtin, Francois Delecour, Gilles Panizzi, Didier Auriol and the sport had entered an age of complete supremacy for one man: Sébastien Loeb.

The days before Loeb: big guns battling in different cars

In October 2007, North One Television purchased ISC from Richards, promoting Simon Long from within the company to become CEO of the newly-renamed North One Sport. ISC was in trouble, reporting a £2.2m operating loss for the series – but North One saw something special.

“We’re moving in a dizzying and vastly different media world than when we first came into the sport,” said North One Television CEO Neil Duncanson. “Together with the teams, the events and the FIA our aim is to ensure the sport takes its rightful place in the digital era.”

Erm… right.

From that point on, the one drum that the remaining manufacturers repeatedly thumped under North One’s control was that nothing was being done to modernise the WRC’s promotion – it was not being taken online, out to the public or indeed doing anything much at all.

The reason was that it cost around £8 million a season to film the WRC, and without the substantial promotional funds previously provided by the manufacturers and sponsors, North One Sport was reliant on the income from its baseball caps and computer games rather than substantial corporate investment.

Simon Long, North One Sport. Smiling.

Without big brands to invest in the promotion or buy TV advertising around the WRC programmes, the great slump towards pay-to-view TV obscurity accelerated, while sourcing vital funds needed to develop the WRC as an online product were never found. A new recession loomed in which Subaru departed, Ford cut its budgets and Loeb’s grasp upon the title was unshakable.

The   advent of cheap and plentiful mini-cameras meant that the vast majority of WRC footage was shot from inside the cars, rather than from expensive helicopters flying overhead and remote camera crews out on the stages. Quality plunged in line with expenditure.

At the start of 2011, North One Television sold North One Sport to Convers Sports Initiatives (CSI), a company belonging to the ambitious Russian entrepreneur and investor, Vladimir Antonov, who had recently purchased the Dutch supercar concern Spyker and the troubled Swedish giant Saab as well as Portsmouth Football Club.

Vladimir Antonov – a colourful character!

Some dubious noises had been made by the Swedish police about their investigations into Vladimir Antonov’s purchase of Saab, which were subsequently disproved in the USA. Nevertheless it was clear that this was going to be a colourful chapter in the WRC’s history. For his part, Simon Long was extremely upbeat about his new bosses, saying:

“Well, there’s going to be no shortage of action or momentum… Over the course of the current season you can expect to see a number of new innovations being unveiled. I can’t go any detail right now but it’s safe to say they will create a huge buzz when they are launched.”

How right he was!

On 23 November 2011, it was announced that a Europe-wide arrest warrant had been issued for Antonov by Lithuanian prosecutors wanting to question him as part of an investigation into alleged asset stripping at Snoras Bank. He was arrested in London the following day and appeared in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, while his properties were seized. A court hearing regarding Antonov’s extradition will be held in London on 21 January 2013.

In the absence of Antonov and CSI’s funds, North One attempted to continue as WRC promoter into 2012, but was stripped of all responsibilities on the eve of the Monte Carlo Rally by a furious FIA.

“The FIA sought urgent unequivocal assurances from North One Sport (NOS) that it could fulfil its contractual obligations and deliver the promotion of the upcoming Rally Monte Carlo and the Championship for 2012 and for the future,” it said.

“It is with regret and disappointment that no such assurance has been given to the FIA, and therefore today the FIA has been driven to terminate its contract with NOS.”

Jean Todt – FIA president un’appy with WRC in 2012

So it is that the 2012 WRC season has been promoted through a cobbled-together mix of budgets hastily thrown together by each event, ranging from small to tiny. There has been considerable rancour pointed in every direction, and it is this that the new incumbents at Red Bull Media House have inherited.

In all honesty, the WRC should be dead and buried. It is only the spectacle, the sport and the fans who have kept it alive – as defiant in the face of the odds as Petter Solberg’s dreams of winning a second title during the ‘Loeb era’. But here we are… now is not the time for the divisive comment being made before the new era is ushered in.

The FIA has given Red Bull Media House all the oxygen it can, in the shape of a calendar that strenuously avoids date clashes with the Formula One world championship at every possible turn. It also has the pick of the most famous events in the world, with the demise of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Then there’s the all-star Volkswagen Motorsport team arriving in a huge parade of elephants and dancing girls in Monte Carlo, with the existing and highly-professional setups at Citroën Racing and M-Sport saved from extinction by an influx of Middle Eastern cash.

Both M-Sport and Citroën Racing should celebrate their survival

As if all that weren’t enough, the 2013 will not be won by Sébastien Loeb. The old boy will turn up and sprinkle some magic on a handful of events, but leave the title race to a new generation, including Sébastien Ogier, Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov and Andreas Mikkelsen. These youngsters will keep established men like Solberg, Mikko Hirvonen, Dani Sordo and Jari-Matti Latvala on their toes.

Beyond 2013 a team from Hyundai is coming, while teams from Toyota and Subaru are expected. Plus there is plenty more young talent out there to be discovered and new stars to be born in the public eye.

It’s been a terribly sad decade for the sport, but the WRC can go in only one of two directions. It can be great once again or it can finally founder and die – and that responsibility is upon all of us who purport to care about it.

Red Bull branding matters for 2013

There is little news to have come from Red Bull’s meeting with the FIA and teams last week, to discuss how Red Bull Media House would fulfil its new role as the official promoter of the WRC.

The main bone of contention appears to be over who will provide the timing services to the championship – a vital point, of course, but not one that will trouble many of those potential fans whom the series wishes to excite. The cars will run and they will be timed, come what may. No timekeepers means no rally, so that’s not going to be an issue for very long.

Nothing has yet been said about where – if anywhere – Red Bull’s colours will be seen in the resultant coverage, however. And this is rather a key point.

The energy drink’s logos have been a regular feature of rallying at every level. In the WRC they have been carried by the Citroën World Rally Team since 2008 but the five-year deal ends this season and will not be renewed. When discussing the investment of Abu Dhabi Racing into the French championship-winning team for 2013, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi stated that one of the key factors was that ‘100% of the livery on the cars was available’ – which is as unequivocal as it gets.

Red Bull’s sponsorship of Citroën ends this year after five seasons

There is a long-standing relationship between Red Bull and Volkswagen’s motor sport programmes, most famously its team of Dakar-winning Touaregs. Volkswagen makes its grand entrance to the WRC in Monte Carlo and it’s Red Bull’s first event as promoter – so will the Polos carry the famous colours of the people who promote the championship?

If that were to happen, the outcry would be pretty seismic with the teams and constructors free to make claims of favouritism if the Polos get a microsecond more airtime than the other entrants. All the teams will be working hard as you read this to reel in their own sponsors, who will in turn ask serious questions if they are merely to end up as bit-players in the Red Bull Show.

Red Bull has scored some big wins with VW sponsorship

Equally, one of the stars of Volkswagen’s Dakar project, Nasser Al-Attiyah, is doing deals to put together a fully-funded three-car team for M-Sport in 2013, with himself in one of the cars. Although Nasser will doubtless bring significant funding from Qatar, he is also personally sponsored by Red Bull’s Middle East franchises – as witnessed by the M-Sport Fiesta RRC that he drove to victory in Cyprus this weekend.

Traditionally there is nothing to stop Red Bull’s individual offices at a national or regional level from sponsoring sporting events, teams or personalities – in fact it’s positively encouraged. But what, then, will be said if Red Bull in the Middle East wishes to sponsor Nasser’s team in the WRC?

Nasser’s personal sponsorship from Red Bull could be contentious

The responsibility for the timekeeping of WRC events ultimately must rest with the FIA. Red Bull has more pressing questions to answer in the commercial exploitation of the series and its advertising rights – to which there is, as yet, no answer.

Kubica to compete ‘full-time’ in 2013

Polish star of race track and rally stage, Robert Kubica, claims that he is ready for a return to full-time competition following the disastrous accident he suffered on the Ronde di Andora in February 2011, when his Škoda Fabia S2000 struck the end of a guard rail. The accident resulted in partial amputation of his forearm, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as significant loss of blood which has required long and painful rehabilitation from the moment that his life was out of danger.

Kubica’s passion for rallying left him brutally injured in 2011

Throughout that time, Kubica’s employers at the Lotus F1 Team have kept his seat available ready for his return. Kubica’s revocery has been protracted, and suffered setbacks including slipping on ice in the street and falling last winter, aggravating his injuries. Nevertheless, the man himself is confident and in September this year he made a return to competition by winning the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana at the wheel of a Subaru Impreza WRC.

After surviving a crash on the San Martino di Castrozza Rally without further injury, Kubica won again in last month’s Rally Citta di Bassano, and stated at the time that he would be ready to attempt a full season in competition through 2013. This week, Kubica announced that he will be contesting one more Italian event, the Rally di Como on 15-17 November, and will then head to France for the Rallye du Var a week later. In both of these events he will be entered by Citroën Racing in a 2010-specification C4 WRC.

Happy days are here again as Kubica’s recovery continues

Lotus has meanwhile soldiered on in Kubica’s absence: a miserable 2011 season led to the signing of 2007 F1 world champion and latterly WRC contestant Kimi Räikkönen on a one-year deal for 2012, delivering his best year’s racing in almost a decade. Kimi has re-signed for Lotus in 2013, while the second driver – Franco-Swiss hotshoe Sébastien Grosjean – has alternately shone and infuriated the team and the F1 paddock as a whole.

Grosjean’s position in the team is in the balance despite the patronage of team principal Eric Boullier, and it may well be that the team is seeking to honour its commitment to Kubica if he proves himself strong enough to cope with the g-forces entailed in hustling an F1 car about the place. If not for a full season, then for as many races as is prudent with an eye to supporting a title bid for Räikkönen and scoring constructors’ points, with Grosjean being offered a deal to drive whenever Kubica is unable to do so.

“At the moment I’m working on the possibility of a full season of starts in 2013 to the highest possible level,” Kubica recently said to Autosport.cz.

Räikkönen returned from WRC to win for Lotus F1

Interestingly he has also stated to Italian magazine Autosprint that he envisages the year ahead being split between circuit his two beloved disciplines: ‘I think of my future I see it 70 per cent on track and 30 per cent in rallying,’ he said.

With a pair of part-time drives available at the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team next year, Kubica’s 30 per cent season of rallying might well tie in nicely with the vacant seat in Khalid Al Qassimi’s DS3 WRC. The Rallye du Var is for many teams the ideal test session for January’s Monte Carlo Rally, in which Kubica could take part and get used to the hubbub of media attention before trying his hand at the wheel of a Formula One machine once again.

For one of the sport’s good guys, we can only hope that 2013 marks an enjoyable new beginning.

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.