Abu Dhabi Racing shows its colours

Gold! (As Spandau Ballet once said)

Gold! (as Spandau Ballet once said)

The new Red Bull-free livery for the DS3 WRCs of the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team and its sister Abu Dhabi Citroën Total World Rally Team has been revealed in this rather tasteful mock-up revealed today. All the interested parties said some very fine words about it, and we at WRF think it looks very smart.

Quite why they didn’t photoshop the graffiti out of the background, and maybe put some cheering fans in the shot, is a moot point.

The question of whether Red Bull, as the WRC’s new promoter, will apply its branding to any of the other entries remains unanswered. The energy drink has long-standing ties with Volkswagen and has previously applied its blue and silver colours to a variety of the German group’s competition cars. Given that the point of all Red Bull’s sporting programmes is to sell the brand to sports fans, it would be unusual to say the least if it had chosen to invest in the WRC without any overt branding on the cars… although this might become a bone of contention for any other manufacturers and sponsors in the series.

Meanwhile Nasser Al-Attiyah’s Dakar buggies are well and truly Red Bull branded – unlike his Qatar-backed Fiesta WRC squad.

Nasser's monster buggy

Nasser’s monster buggy

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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…

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?