Colin’s tribute gets an airing

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As we look forward to the opening day of the 2013 WRC, there’s more good news to be had. The BBC will be screening the third of its motor sport heroes trilogy, when Olympic cycling star Sir Chris Hoy profiles his own hero, 1995 world champion Colin McRae, on Sunday, January 27.

The programme will be aired at 9pm after the first episode in the new season of Top Gear. The programme, originally scheduled for broadcast on December 28 2012, disappeared at the last minute. It should make for riveting viewing. As with the previous programmes on Sir Stirling Moss by Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Jackie Stewart by James Martin, the star presenter will progress towards driving an iconic car from his subject’s career – in this case a Subaru Impreza 555, similar to the one in which McRae clinched his title.

BBC withdraws McRae tribute programme

Press shot from production company, Touchline TV

Press shot from BBC via Touchline TV

The BBC has left the public bewildered after dropping the second of three planned instalments of its ‘Racing Legends’ series. As is stated fairly categorically on the series page on the BBC website here (at least at the time of writing), ‘there will be 3 episodes’.

According to the original press release, this series was to have featured 1) Sir Patrick Stewart, formerly Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, meeting his boyhood hero Sir Stirling Moss; 2) Sir Chris Hoy, Britain’s most successful Olympian, telling the story of his hero Colin McRae; 3) TV chef James Martin meeting his idol Sir Jackie Stewart.

All three episodes were due to have been aired in the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve but all mention of the McRae programme disappeared during the week before broadcast. Both the Moss and Stewart programmes have subsequently been shown but the McRae episode has disappeared and is extremely unlikely to see the light of day.

Responses from the BBC to enquiries from motor sport fans have been varied – reportedly including statements that there are contractual, copyright and legal issues involved. WRF understands from a well-placed source that there is a considerable degree of nervousness permeating the BBC at the present time in the wake of the Sir Jimmy Savile debacle.

According to the amended press release for the series (which has moved the Stewart programme to episode 2 and the McRae programme to episode 3 with a ‘TBA’ broadcast date), Colin’s father Jimmy McRae ‘speaks movingly about the tragic accident that claimed his son’s life’. In the current climate it’s therefore logical to expect that any programme which celebrated Colin’s life would have exposed the BBC to further criticism with regard to the welfare of children.

The fact is that although Colin McRae’s life and career were an inspiration to millions, the 2011 Fatal Accident Inquiry into his death in a flying accident found the 1995 world champion responsible for the crash which ended his life and those of his five year-old son, his son’s six year-old friend and another adult friend of the family. This cannot have been news either to the BBC’s commissioning team… but clearly someone got spooked at the eleventh hour.

A barometer of where the public opinion is at present came in the Telegraph’s review of the opening Racing Legends show with Sir Stirling Moss. In the eyes of motor sport fans it was a perfectly likeable documentary, but Stirling’s familiar trenchant views on the 1955 Le Mans disaster – admirably unchanged from that day to this – made him, in the reviewer’s eyes, ‘too different from the rest of us to be terribly likeable’.

In the Twitterverse, the dropping of the McRae programme was clearly news to Sir Chris Hoy, who tweeted: ‘Not sure when BBC racing legends prog about Colin McRae is on, for those of you asking’. Meanwhile one of the show’s production team, Lindsey Green, insisted in her feed that it will ‘Probably be on early next year’.

While rally fans have been left disappointed, so too are those who participated in making it… not least the owner of the Sunbeam Ti that underwent expensive restoration work in order for Hoy and Jimmy McRae to take the wheel of the car. WRF hopes that the McRae programme can be edited into a form that is more palatable to the BBC’s fear of the British public – ideally with more content on the rivalry between him and Britain’s other ‘lost’ champion, Richard Burns.

Petter goes sideways in 2013

Hirvo in his RS1800

Hirvo in his RS1800

Petter Solberg will be staring out of the side window for a good period of time next year, if rumours are true. The 2003 world champion is believed to have bought a classic Ford Escort RS1800 in which to get his kicks while away from the WRC action.

The car is one prepared by Viking Motorsport – the classic rally specialist owned by Phil Mills, Petter’s former co-driver.

Viking-prepared Escorts are proven to be extremely rapid machines in classic competition. Solberg meanwhile follows the likes of Colin McRae and Mikko Hirvonen in buying himself one of the Group 4 cars which made such a legend in the sport through the 1970s with their sideways style and barking BDA engines.

Still a favourite in club-level and classic rallies, regular faces seen peering out of RS1800s include Stig Blomqvist, Gwyndaf Evans and his FIA Academy-winning son Elfyn.

This RS1800 was McRae's pride and joy

Where now for Ford?

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 is suffering as European car sales fall to new lows

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.

Ford has lamented that WRC events are based off the beaten track

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.

Quinn (right) has to be able to justify Ford’s WRC campaign beyond 2013

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.

A dozen years in the making… Loeb’s astonishing success

So he’s done it. With the 75th WRC victory of his astonishing career, Sébastien Loeb has ensured his ninth consecutive drivers’ championship – with Daniel Elena taking the honours as co-driver for the ninth time and Citroën taking its eighth manufacturers’ crown.

This is not news, of course.

We had all been expecting this result, and once the rally proper got underway on Saturday morning, Loeb did what was needed and built towards the magic 30-second cushion. At the halfway point this was done – not even Colin McRae at his feistiest ever thought that a 30s gap was surmountable if both cars were running well.

The 2012 Rallye de France-Alsace became yet another tour-de-force and thereafter the hyperbole began to spout – as did the detractors who claim that Loeb can’t be compared to (insert the name of your preferred 1970s-1990s icon here) because of the lack of competition in the sport during his reign.

Well… yes and no.

The WRC has crumbled during Loeb’s reign, with only Ford offering any meaningful resistance at all from 2006. But let us not forget that in his early years, Loeb was thrown into the lion’s den.

Astonishing pace defeated all the big names – if not the rules! – on 2002 Monte

The biggest and most successful names of the previous generation may have been getting long in the tooth but the likes of Sainz, McRae, Burns, Makinen, Grönholm, Delecour, Auriol and Panizzi were all very much active when the ‘boy wonder’ appeared in their midst. Loeb even had both Sainz and McRae as team-mates in 2003 and outpaced them both.

Those who say that the WRC became boring in the Loeb/Citroën era also have a point, although that is no fault of the competitors. From the high water mark of seven manufacturers doing battle in 1999-2000 it fell to six in 2001, five in 2004, three in 2006 and two in 2009.

There are also many who decry the metronomic precision with which Loeb and Elena applied themselves to the job – that a scientific, calculated approach is an anathema to going sideways through forests at 100mph. Well, yes, but the thing is that inspirational drivers seldom achieve as much as they should.

2006 title secured with privateer Kronos effort – and a broken arm!

In F1 Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve and Jean Alesi won hearts but seldom races and never titles. In rallying Markku Alén never won a pukka world championship and neither did Henri Toivonen. Colin McRae was too inconsistent too repeat his 1995 title despite all the efforts of first Subaru and then Ford.

Pace is one thing, but control is quite another.

Being able to drive within the limits of yourself and your car and still be so far ahead of rivals of the calibre of, say, Marcus Grönholm in the course of season after season, on snow, asphalt and gravel and all the many permutations of the WRC calendar… that is undeniably special.

Four titles came at the wheel of the Citroën C4 WRC

That is why WRF joins the salute to our record-breaking world champion as he seals what might just be his last WRC title. We hope not, because we’re a bit anally retentive and 10 titles is a much better number to retire with than nine.

Perhaps that’s how Seb is going to make it more of a challenge next year – he won the title in 2006 despite missing the last four rounds, so why not skip a few more and still clean up on awards night? After all, when you look at what Loeb has achieved – and Elena and Citroën – it goes far beyond any rational argument to say that it can’t happen.

Loeb holds records for the most championships, rally wins, stage wins, podium finishes and points in WRC history – records of towering achievement that it will take almost a decade for a similarly-accomplished driver to match. To do so would mean the sort of skill that has delivered only 25 retirements from 162 starts, and aside from Loeb, that’s a statistic nobody has achieved.

When you look at it that way, you can only wonder where the likes of Mikko Hirvonen, Petter Solberg and Jari-Matti Latvala have even found the willpower to turn up and offer any sort of resistance over the past few years. They were in the best place to know that, when it comes to Loeb, resistance is futile.

Leaping into the history books in 2012

Félicitations, champion des champions – et bonne chance à l’avenir.

Easy-peasy poll #1: your champion of champions

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.

Sandro Munari, 1977

Markku Alén, 1978

Bjorn Waldegård, 1979

Walter Röhrl, 1980, 1982

Ari Vatanen, 1981

Hannu Mikkola, 1983

Stig Blomqvist, 1984

Timo Salonen, 1985

Juha Kankkunen, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1993

Miki Biasion, 1988-89

Carlos Sainz, 1990, 1992

Didier Auriol, 1994

Colin McRae, 1995

Tommi Mäkinen, 1996-99

Marcus Grönholm, 2000, 2002

Richard Burns, 2001

Petter Solberg, 2003

Sebastien Loeb, 2004-12