Mads is M-Sport’s man

Mads Østberg has been named as team leader for the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team in 2013. The young Norwegian has had a very impressive season this year in an M-Sport Fiesta WRC prepared by the Adapta team, proving the most consistent of all the Ford drivers through the course of the year, and taking his debut victory on the WRC in Portugal – albeit after the exclusion of Mikko Hirvonen’s Citroën.

This now leaves only the choice of second driver in the team to be resolved. Team principal Malcolm Wilson insists that his drivers must bring funding with them, putting Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov in pole position. But the team’s incumbent driver, 2003 world champion Petter Solberg, is offering to drive for nothing to keep his place at the top table of the sport.

A third car will be entered for Qatar’s former PWRC and Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah when his commitments permit.

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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.

40th WRC Season Review Pt.1 – The Rallies

We start the WRF run-down of the 2012 season – the 40th in the history of the WRC – with the events that filled the calendar: on which a lot of disappointment followed for most people, apart from those at Citroën.

The year began with the most famous rally of them all, Monte Carlo, returned to the WRC calendar for its 80th running after three years of self-imposed exile on the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. This should have been a massive cause for celebration, but because there was nobody promoting the WRC in 2012 it sort of fell on deaf ears.

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the occasion, Sébastien Loeb was in majestic form and dominated the event on which he had burst onto the WRC stage with his spellbinding drive as a young cub back in 2002. He danced the little DS3 up, down and round the Alpes Maritimes and duly delivered his sixth confirmed win for Citroën in consummate style.

Sordo had a fractured year after Monte heroics

A total of 81 other cars were entered – as per most events of the year – of which Dani Sordo shone for Prodrive’s MINI squad to claim second and the fiery Sébastien Ogier ran hard in the top six at the wheel of his Škoda Fabia S2000 entered by Volkswagen Racing. Jari-Matti Latvala had a short run of blistering speed in his works Ford but crashed, while incoming team-mate Petter Solberg played it conservatively and got told off by team principal Malcolm Wilson, who felt that manufacturer points were of secondary importance at this stage in the season.

The Rally Sweden brought four leaders through the course of the WRC’s all-snow event – none of whom were called Loeb, who shunted on SS7 and finished sixth sfter restarting. Latvala took victory for Ford, leading former team-mate turned Citroën number 2 Mikko Hirvonen. Mads Østberg completed the podium in his Adapta-prepared Ford.

Onward to the heat and dust of Mexico, where things all looked rather more familiar with Loeb and Elena claiming their sixth win on the event. Hirvonen finished second and Solberg third after Latvala crashed heavily when he thought that the M-Sport Fiesta of Evgeny Novikov was stranded on the stage. It wasn’t, but he still went off just in case.

Mads Østberg took his first WRC win in Portugal

In Portugal an uncharacteristic opening day shunt put Loeb out of the running and gave Mikko Hirvonen an open goal for his first Citroën win. Unfortunately, however, the post-event scrutineers found that his car didn’t match up to expectations and so victory passed to Østberg after a sterling performance from the young Norwegian, who picked up the Ford baton when the works Fiestas of Latvala and Solberg crashed out on consecutive stages.

In Argentina, Loeb charged from fourth in the early running to take yet another victory, this time in front of Hirvonen and Østberg on a 700km ‘endurance’ event that the Frenchman openly disliked. Jari-Matti Latvala was sidelined from the works Ford squad with a broken collarbone from a skiing accident, with Dani Sordo deputising for him and retiring on the final day. Solberg led the early stages but shunted.

Latvala and Solberg spent a lot of the year in the scenery

The Citroën steamroller flattened the Acropolis, with Loeb leading Hirvonen home to another 1-2 finish in Greece, with Latvala returning to take third. In New Zealand Loeb headed home in front of Hirvonen once again, this time with Solberg finishing third.

In Finland both Latvala and Solberg stayed the course, thus they finished in third and fourth places, while Loeb led Hirvonen home in yet another Citroën 1-2.

For those still awake at the back, that’s where the 2012 WRC was won: four gravel rallies in a row with four successive 1-2 results for Citroën.

Switching to asphalt and the Rallye Deutschland saw Loeb victorious once again, with Latvala slipping through past Hirvonen to take second. Latvala has focused a tremendous amount of energy on his asphalt driving… which is nice.

The 80th Rally GB was without doubt one of the disappointments of the season, being pushed back from its role as a season-ending spectacular of fog, snow and mud to become just another late summer gravel event and thus drawing an entry of just 31 cars. It was something of a ‘home’ victory parade at the end for Ford’s charger Latvala, who remembered how to drive on gravel, while Loeb held out for second after a great scrap with Solberg.

All this meant that Loeb only really had to turn up for his home event, the Rallye de France-Alsace, in order to seal his ninth and Citroën’s eighth WRC crown. He did show up and duly won, while in his wake Petter Solberg had one of the most remarkable accidents in recent WRC history, when he tore through a vineyard, the spectator areas and took down a power line all in one accident – fortunately without injury.

The Rally Italia-Sardegna saw Loeb take time off from dominance and celebrate his record-making title success with a little crash. Latvala also crashed, and Solberg hit a rock, leaving Hirvonen unmolested for his first Citroën win ahead of M-Sport youngsters Novikov and Ott Tänak.

And finally we had the RACC Rallye de España – with gravel on the opening day and asphalt for the balance of the event, this year with lashings of rain. Loeb ground out another masterful victory, Latvala didn’t crash and therefore beat Hirvonen to second place. Solberg did crash on the first day, but in the big picture it was all a bit academic.

And that was the 2012 season in a nutshell. In Part 2 we have the teams.