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.

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Mads leads a mad Spanish dash

The final round of the 2012 WRC season is well underway, with Norway’s young star Mads Østberg out in front, heading a Ford 1-2 in front of the M-Sport Fiesta of Ott Tänak in a rain-lashed Rally de España. This is much-needed good news for Norway, given that its other two rally heroes – Ford’s Petter Solberg and VW’s Andreas Mikkelsen – both crashed out after hitting the same rock on SS2. They were joined by Citroën’s junior driver, Thierry Neuville, who also fell foul of the intransigent mineral.

Some rueful faces on SS2 following rock intervention…

Staying the course – so far at least – in the wake of the two leading Fiestas come the pair of works Citroën DS3s with Mikko Hirvonen in front of Sébastien Loeb, ahead of early leader Jari-Matti Latvala in the surviving works Ford, who is taking things very steadily indeed.

Less than a minute covers the top five after three stages, with all the drivers finding the conditions extreme and many spins and near-misses reported. In the wake of the surviving big guns, sixth place is held by the oft-overlooked Finn, Jarkko Nikara, in his paid-for run at the wheel of a Prodrive MINI although the second M-Sport Ford of Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov is hard on his heels.

Australia’s Chris Atkinson holds eighth in the ‘works’ MINI followed by the Qatar-backed Citroën DS3 of Dutchman Hans Weijs Jr. The top 10 is rounded out by the all-Irish crew of Craig Breen and co-driver Paul Nagle in their Fiesta S2000, in an impressive performance to stay in front of Sébastien Ogier’s VW-entered Škoda Fabia.

 

 

 

MINI: surprise! Oh no… you’re not surprised!

Well that’s that.

To not very much surprise, Dr. Key Segler, senior vice-president of MINI business coordination and brand management, today called time on BMW’s endorsement of the brand’s WRC programme. Let’s recap:

  • August 2010: BMW and Prodrive confirm that they are building a car based on the 5-door Countryman model
  • April 2011: MINI John Cooper Works WRC revealed
  • 2011 season: Six rallies contested with Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke. Podium finishes for Sordo in Germany and France, Meeke wins ‘Power Stage’ in Catalunya
  • January 2012: BMW withdraws backing from Prodrive team, makes MINI Portugal its ‘works’ effort using Prodrive-built cars
  • 2012 season: Prodrive carries on with a cast of pay-drivers instead of Meeke. Sordo takes second on the Monte. MINI Portugal employs lots of drivers and Chris Atkinson does well in the tail end of the season.
  • October 2012:  BMW drops the whole programme faster than a once-treasured Jim’ll Fix It badge.

Dr. Segler said: “By the end of the season WRC Team MINI Portugal will have competed in every rally in 2012. As such, in accordance with FIA regulations, we will have achieved the WRC homologation for the MINI John Cooper Works. In doing so, we would have achieved the prerequisites to allow those interested to continue to run the car in the WRC on a customer rallying basis.”

Many people have wondered why BMW got involved in the whole enterprise, given that its commitment lasted for a grand total of eight months at a time when, by the standards of most European motor manufacturers, it has prospered. Perhaps anticipating this question, Dr. Segler added:

“In a very difficult commercial environment, MINI has played an active role in ensuring that friends of the MINI brand can continue to participate in motorsport.”

That’s right: they did it for you. They spent all that money for ‘friends of the brand’, and in no way for themselves, you cynical old so-and-so’s. Now that their charitable work is done, these very same BMW execs are now going off to make world a better place in some other way. A bit like Spider-Man.

Meanwhile back on Earth, Prodrive’s business development director Richard Taylor said: “We understand MINI’s decision and in the current challenging economic climate it was not unexpected.”

WRF has no doubt that Prodrive expected the announcement. The clue probably came back in January when the funds were cut off and BMW attempted to prevent the cars competing at all in 2012… although we could be wrong.

Prodrive remains committed to running its MINIs in 2013 (or ‘focussed’ [sic] according to its website), aiming for a two-car squad with top drivers rather than a pay-as-you-go customers. We at WRF are committed to playing strip poker with the Brazilian women’s beach volleyball team in 2013 and are, frankly, getting better odds.

MINI Portugal is also understood to be entering two cars in 2013 for Australia’s Chris Atkinson and former IRC, ERC and SWRC champion Juho Hänninen.

Chris Atkinson looks set to stay a MINI driver in 2013