It’s enough to make you feel 20 years younger – blissful camerawork on an amazing event. Sainz in a ‘Grale really is rather special…
We’ve got all sorts coming up on the European Rally Championship, Citroën’s customer car plans and the new generation of R5 cars.
But while that percolates through, take some time to enjoy Carlos Sainz in his prime at the wheel of a wedge-shape-but-oddly-sexy Toyota Celica in 1989.
If you’re pushed for time, just check out the first 45 seconds and take that little bit of car control to wherever you’re hurrying out to… any chore will seem much better, we guarantee.
With refreshing candour, Jari-Matti Latvala announced in France that he is currently perched on the horns of a dilemma – should he renounce his undisputed Number 1 status at Ford in 2013 to join the Volkswagen ‘superteam’? His fear is that there are no guarantees of Ford continuing with its WRC programme beyond the end of its current deal with M-Sport, ending in a year’s time.
But are his fears justified? In a word: yes.
To many, many fans around the world, the idea of Ford turning its back on rallying is akin to Ferrari calling time on its F1 team. It has been omnipresent in the sport for 60 years, won countless rallies and produced a series of sporting icons.
Yet cast aside the era of global domination that Ford achieved in the heady days of the 1970s, when Stuart Turner ran the show and BDA-engined Escorts snarled and barked in the forest, and there really is little to show in the trophy cabinet against what has been spent. When you the situation from the standpoint of a Ford accountant, the return is lamentable.
Those dollars are all-important. Ford’s sales fell almost 10% in Europe during the first half of 2012 to reach its lowest level in 17 years and a predicted $1bn (£630m) loss in revenues. Factories are going to close, and essentials such as energy consumption are being targeted in the remaining factories – so an expensive WRC programme of, say, £30 million per year looks like a hard sell.
Ford’s budget has itself been repeatedly slashed over the years since its high watermark in the days of McRae, Sainz and the first generation Focus WRC… by 40 per cent in 2004 and by a similar figure again in 2008. By comparison VW is believed to have spent 100 million Euros just getting to the startline with its Polo WRC – and will throw whatever is needed at the competition budget to succeed… including Latvala’s salary.
Tellingly, since 2009, motor sport no longer has its own director within Ford’s European management structure – Gerard Quinn is but a manager (and a renowned budgetary hitman), who reports in to both the Vice President of Marketing, Sales and Service and to the Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs.
Success on the stages is one thing, therefore, but if taking part in rallies is failing to shift metal off the forecourt then there’s no reason for Ford to devote a hefty chunk of its budget to the WRC. The one thing that Quinn has in common with Ford’s earlier motor sport directors such as Mark Deans and Martin Whitaker is a preoccupation with how badly the WRC has done at selling itself.
Whether it’s service parks that are hidden away out of the public eye rather than encouraging the locals in to explore, the lunacy of holding the Rally of Italy in Sardinia rather than the mainland or the absence of investment in online access to the sport… year after year the Ford bosses have watched millions of dollars getting thrown into the weeds.
Since the end of 2011, Ford has had to carry this cost without Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority funding. The cars carry Castrol colours but BP is a production partner to Ford Motor Company, meaning that a lot of what is believed to be a notional $10 million ‘sponsorship’ is in fact made up from deals that help deliver cars more cheaply rather than direct cash to the rally programme.
A year ago, Ford renewed its wedding vows to the WRC with a 24-month agreement to M-Sport. Gerard Quinn was absolutely transparent about the rationale, however:
“We had to be confident about the stability of the championship and to ensure it continues to provide great value and increased exposure globally,” he said. “We discussed it with our stakeholders and after receiving such assurances we look forward to focusing on competition once again.”
What happened? The WRC promotion imploded a month later, with the 2012 series taking place in a virtual blackout. As a result, Quinn made noises about switching to a cost-effective and well-promoted effort in the IRC but this is no longer available. So all eyes at Ford’s offices in Cologne will be on what Red Bull is going to make of the job of selling the WRC worldwide.
In three months’ time, Red Bull Media House will open its account as the WRC promoter with the biggest event on the calendar, the Monte Carlo Rally. That one event must set the tone for the year as a whole in how the WRC presents itself to the world from that point onward.
Let’s assume that they’re starting with a clean sheet of paper, not only developing online platforms for the WRC but also attacking all the TV stations that they are advertising with around the world, massaging the American interest in rallycross and working together with the teams to ensure maximum effort in all promotional activity.
After that, however, the job of keeping Ford in the WRC must rest with Malcolm Wilson and the M-Sport team. They have to give Gerard Quinn the tools that he needs to go to the accountants in Cologne and justify committing to the series until 2015 at least.
The revenues that M-Sport brings from selling and servicing customer cars in the WRC, WRC2, WRC3, regional and national series might give leverage to ease the pain – although it must now face competition in the marketplace from Peugeot, Renault, Toyota and Citroën.
More importantly, the WRC programme itself needs to show signs of success, and produce either Ford’s first drivers’ championship victory since 1981 or its first manufacturers’ crown since 2007 – with or without Jari-Matti Latvala.
While the action on the stages of France takes priority, in the service area it’s clear that the ‘silly season’ of driver signings is well under way. With the FIA having moved to allow three-car teams that gives potentially nine cars capable of taking rally wins but at the moment only two drives are inked into place: Mikko Hirvonen will lead Citroën and Sébastien Ogier will lead Volkswagen.
Ask anyone in the teams what their feelings are and they will quiet rightly suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere. Well, almost anyone…
“I would take Latvala and Sordo,” Volkswagen’s technical chief, Francois-Xavier Demaison, said recently when asked about his current vacancies. In other words, the only other men who are currently felt capable of leading a WRC team. That would make tremendous sense to Volkswagen, but is highly unlikely.
Dani Sordo is virtually certain to be a Volkswagen driver. While Prodrive has stated that it wants to retain his services at the head of a team of MINIs in 2013, there is no evidence yet of the kind of backing required for the team to contest a full season – still less develop the car to the same extent as the well-funded, works-backed Fords, Citroëns and Volkswagens.
Jari-Matti Latvala has gone on the record to say that there is also a concrete offer on the table from Volkswagen. This is giving the amiable Finn some sleepless nights, but it is impossible to see that the move could work out well for him.
Jari-Matti is a sensitive soul and prone to making mistakes under pressure. Ogier is going to be strident in his defence of the Number 1 status that he holds, while Sordo has a prominent mentor within the team structure in the form of Carlos Sainz. In those two drivers it has a super-fast gravel specialist in Ogier and a proven asphalt talent in Sordo – an all-rounder like Latvala would therefore be a threat to both men.
It seems that Jari-Matti’s main concern is whether Ford is going to be sticking around in the WRC beyond the end of its current deal with M-Sport in 2013. That is fair enough, but he would be walking away from the support of a team that has weathered many crises of confidence and repair bills in seven seasons that have yet to deliver consistent form.
If Latvala were to remain at Ford, it would make a good deal of sense for Ford to retain Petter Solberg in the second car. Yes, he has been as guilty as his young team-mate of dropping points this year, but he has been the more consistent podium finisher. Furthermore the WRC needs genuine star quality, and Solberg delivers that in spades – going out and selling his sport to the public and sponsors with his ebullient enthusiasm and often zany antics.
The third Ford should by rights go to Solberg’s fellow countryman, Mads Østberg. Two men from Norway might seem a bit odd to Ford Europe’s marketing types, but at this stage in the game they need the kind of talent and pace that can take points away from rival teams and keep up with Latvala if he falters. Østberg is that man.
That leaves us with the third seat at Volkswagen and the two shared drives at Citroën.
For Volkswagen the obvious answer lies in Norway once again: the defending IRC champion, Andreas Mikkelsen. He’s grown in confidence with every stage in his WRC appearances with Ogier this year in their squad of Škoda Fabia S2000s. He has also got a lot of experience of winning at an international level, bringing confidence and the knowledge that he’s not going to be fazed by the pressure of running in a tussle for the podium places.
That leaves us with the two shared drives at Citroën, with both Sébastien Loeb and Khalid Al Qassimi picking a shortened calendar of events. In all likelihood Thierry Neuville has done enough to retain one of the coveted DS3 drives, the bespectacled Belgian not in the breathtaking mould but developing well.
The other DS3 should be given to Kris Meeke as often as possible. Yes there are younger men – Ott Tanak and Evgeny Novikov spring to mind – but neither is proven. Meeke, like Mikkelsen, won the hard-fought IRC through an ability to win on all surfaces in fierce competition. Yes, he does interface with the scenery on occasion, but not enough to deny him the chance of ably stepping in to Loeb’s seat whenever it becomes available.
So there we are then: that’s the silly season sorted…
OK, so we’re taking a liberty here because any poll about the greatest WRC champion of all wouldn’t be worth its salt without Markku Alén or Sandro Munari, so we’re including 1977 and 1978. With that in mind, cast your eyes down these fine specimens of the genus Accelleratii Incredibus and cast your vote for your Champion among Champions.
It’s always worth looking back before moving on…