Happy New Year, WRC fans

Plenty to happen in the next fortnight - then Monte is 'go!'

Plenty to happen in the next fortnight – then Monte is ‘go!’

We’ve got a fortnight until the WRC bursts back to life. In that time, big things will happen:

  • Red Bull, Sportsman and the FIA must get on the same page regarding the WRC’s promotion and TV coverage.
  • Nasser Al-Attiyah will be in the thick of the action on the Dakar.
  • The all-new FIA European Rally championship will kick off in the snow of Austria.

In the meantime the entry list for Monte Carlo is rather promising, with Citroën fielding Sébastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo with support for Bryan Bouffier in a fourth DS3 WRC. Volkswagen has its new Polos ready for Sébastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala. M-Sport has two teams and four Fiestas for Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov (running DMACK tyres), Juho Hänninen and Thierry Neuville.

The remaining WRC entries are for Martin Prokop’s Czech Fiesta, another Fiesta for Julien Maurin and a lone MINI WRC entered by Lotos for Poland’s former JWRC contender Michal Kościuszko.

In the first ever WRC2 class, there’s a works Škoda Fabia for Esapekka Lappi with a sister car entered by Škoda Deutschland for Sepp Wiegand. Leading the competition against the Czech cars will be Italy’s Luca Betti in his Peugeot 207 S2000. Four more S2000s (three Peugeots and another Fabia) will also take the start, as will a phalanx of Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X and Subaru Impreza WRXs, including a new-build R4 car for Ireland’s Eamonn Boland.

In the WRC3 classes a total of eight Citroën DS3 R3Ts will meet the challenge of a single Peugeot 208 R3T, six Renault Clio R3s will take on a lone Honda Civic R3, R2 is populated with Citroën C2s, Peugeot 208s and Ford Fiestas, there are five Suzuki Swifts, a pair of Citroën DS3 R1s, a Renault Twingo R1 and a smattering of Monte Carlo ‘randoms’ – including Czech driver Martin Rada in an Alfa Romeo 147!

Plenty to look forward to there…

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

M-Sport livery for 2013 revealed – edited

2013 Fiesta

It’s a bumper day for M-Sport the livery of the 2013 Ford Fiesta WRC has been revealed.

In fairness it’s an evolution of the design carried since 2011, but it’s rather smart, we think.

2011 – Abu Dhabi Fiesta WRC

Ford-Fiesta-RS-WRC-2011_01

2011 Black Fiesta

All-Black-Fiesta

2012 – Ford/Castrol Fiesta WRC

sordofiesta

Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team announced

Former PWRC champion and Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah has put together the financial package required for Qatar to take title sponsorship of the M-Sport squad in next year’s WRC. A three-car squad of Fiestas will be entered in the WRC, with Al-Attiyah also contesting the FIA Middle East Rally Championship.

Al-Attiyah and Qatar have had a relationship with Citroën Racing this season, but the emirate of Abu Dhabi will partner the French marque in 2013. Initially it was believed that Al-Attiyah would have to call time on his WRC ambitions, but Ford’s withdrawal from the WRC meant that the squad of Fiestas came on the market at an appropriate price.

The Qatar deal is not believed to have any impact on M-Sport team boss Malcolm Wilson’s requirement that potential drivers for 2013 should be prepared to bring funding with them. This has put 2003 world champion Petter Solberg’s seat in jeopardy, as he has stated this weekend that he will happily drive without taking a salary but will not pay the team for his position.

A confirmed driver line-up for the 2013 Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team is expected next Monday.

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.

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…

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.