Kubica to tackle ERC?

Kubica - from national events in 2012 to internationals in 2013?

Kubica – from national events in 2012 to internationals in 2013?

French magazine Auto Hebdo has run the story that former BMW and Renault F1 star Robert Kubica will contest the 2013 FIA European Rally Championship at the wheel of an M-Sport Ford Fiesta RRC.

Given the number of drivers that both M-Sport and Citroën is having to juggle between its cars on the WRC campaign, and the 28-year-old Pole’s habit of doing things in a proper manner, it would make a good deal of sense not to try and squeeze in to the mix in the rebooted WRC. The shorter format of ERC events will give him the opportunity to build up strength in his injured arm and experience of top-flight competition – in what will doubtless be a well-run and extremely pleasant atmosphere engendered in the service parks of the Eurosport series.

Elsewhere, it is understood that both M-Sport and Citroën have applied to the FIA for homologation of left-mounted gearshifts on its cars in order to allow more customers to compete in them. Kubica would prefer a left-mounted shift to reduce the strain on his injured right arm, but other drivers may also request the modification in future.

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.

Loeb looms large in Mads’ mirror

Mads Østberg retains the overnight lead in Spain, but he’s got a cushion of just 27.2 seconds over second placed Sébastien Loeb as the Rally de España heads for two days on asphalt roads. Østberg is always impressive on gravel, but he was still at school the last time that Loeb was beaten in Spain.

No pressure then, Mads!

Ostberg shone in the dreadful weather of the opening day

The superstar in his Citroën was content to play a waiting game on the first full day, taking great pains to avoid silly mistakes in a gruesomely wet and treacherous pair of loops which saw several other lead entries slip up. Whenever the going was good, Loeb stepped it up and vaulted up the order from fourth to second but it was clear that he is simply biding his time now in readiness for the coming asphalt action.

Third place overnight is being held by the charging works Ford Fiesta WRC of Jari-Matti Latvala. In his last appearance at the wheel of an M-Sport-prepared car, the Finn put on a decent spurt and remains just 20s shy of Loeb. Latvala’s only desire at this stage in the season is to take on and beat the mighty nine-time champion in order to claim his first asphalt victory, thereby fulfilling one of the biggest aims of his career and to make a suitable parting gift to the M-Sport team.

Just behind the top three are Mikko Hirvonen in the second works Citroën and Ott Tänak’s M-Sport Fiesta. A mighty chasm of almost five minutes follows them, but remarkably sixth place in the running is held by the S2000 Ford Fiesta of Irish youngster Craig Breen.

Craig Breen is the success story of Spain so far

Breen was helped up the order by a time-consuming puncture for Jarkko Nikara in the Prodrive MINI WRC, while S2000 favourite Sébastien Ogier’s Volkswagen-run Skoda Fabia S2000 stopped on the road section before Salou.

Breen therefore holdsthe lead in the SWRC class as well as his sixth spot on the leaderboard, ahead of Hans Weijs Jr in the Qatar Citroen. Nikara is eighth, while SWRC contender PG Andersson is ninth in his Proton Satria Neo, after losing time with a driveshaft breakage in the morning and then an error in the afternoon. The Top 10 is rounded out by Russian driver Evgeny Novikov’s M-SPort Ford Fiesta WRC, which is shod with DMACK tyres for the first time.

And so we move on to the asphalt…

Malcolm’s version of events

M-Sport team principal Malcolm Wilson has issues a press release from his headquarters at Dovenby Hall in Cumbria following Ford’s withdrawal from the WRC. As we predicted yesterday the team will be focusing on the development of its extensive range of customer cars based on the Fiesta platform, ranging from the entry-level R1 to full-house WRC specification:

“I would like to thank Ford of Europe for their enthusiastic support and the faith shown in the team over the past 16 seasons.  We understand that tough decisions have had to be made to safeguard Ford jobs, we accept the commercial reality of the situation and look forward to continuing our strong technical partnership into the future.

“M-Sport is extremely proud of our history with Ford since 1997; 208 podium finishes, scoring points on 156 consecutive events and 52 wins from 225 starts in the WRC along with two world titles underlines the dedication and commitment of the whole team in Cumbria.

”My intention is that we will continue to push to secure stage wins and overall results on the forthcoming events for Ford and to push forward with the development work that was started in March this year to improve and refine the Fiesta WRC even further, ready for the 2013 season.

”We will also continue to work closely with our colleagues at Ford Racing towards the launch of the Fiesta R5 for March 2013 and the improvements that we are working on for the R2 car which will continue to the form the basis of a series of national and regional young driver programmes in the future.

“Confirmation of our key championship programmes for 2013 is our first priority and a challenge that the team here is very much looking forward to.  After that we can review all options and determine the right direction for the future”

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.