What happened last week… ERC in Latvia

Jari Ketomaa

The second round of the 2013 FIA European Rally Championship – what used to be the Intercontinental Rally Challenge – brought Latvia to the top table of host nations in the sport. The second successive snowbound event of the year saw a less dramatic result than in Austria, but once again showed that there is a cracking season of rallying to be enjoyed here.

The Rally Liepāja-Ventspils was won by rising Finnish talent Jari Ketomaa in a Fiesta RRC, aided by the turbo car’s grunt against the awe-inspiring commitment of his closest pursuer Craig Breen and the enormous experience of François Delecour, who finished second and third respectively in their Peugeot 207 S2000s.

With opening round winners Jan Kopeçky and the Škoda team absent from Latvia, Ketomaa takes a slender lead in the title race. Banking the points ensures that Delecour is in the hunt, while Breen is no doubt looking forward to getting his hands on Peugeot’s new turbocharged 208 R5 as the limitations of the 207 S2000 – one of the most successful cars of the last decade – become increasingly obvious.

After all the snow of the opening rounds, the next event is the asphalt-based Corta Ingles, which takes place in the Canary Islands on 21-23 March. WRF cannot wait!

2013 WRC to miss Solberg

solberg roaringIn a serious blow for rally fans around the world, Petter Solberg has said that he will not compete in the 2013 World Rally Championship. The 2003 world champion endured a difficult season with the works M-Sport Fiesta this year and, without Ford’s backing for the forthcoming campaign, team principal Malcolm Wilson is looking for $3 million from each of his drivers – which Solberg does not feel inclined to pay.

Last week, Solberg announced that he would drive for ‘free’. Clearly this did little to persuade M-Sport.

The former champion is not averse to spending money. When Subaru dropped its WRC programme at the end of 2008, the Norwegian committed to creating his own outfit in just a few weeks – fielding a Citroën Xsara WRC that was pulled out of the French marque’s museum! The Petter Solberg World Rally Team went on to campaign the C4 WRC and DS3 WRC until the end of 2011, when its star man was forced to admit that he couldn’t sustain the financial commitment.

pettercyprus

A slightly uncomfortable return to M-Sport followed this season – which the young Solberg previously abandoned in 2000 amid much ill-feeling. The team accepted him on condition that he would support Jari-Matti Latvala’s title bid, which failed to materialise. Instead Solberg became the dominant driver in the team, but a string of incidents in the final third of the season saw him drop back to fifth in the drivers’ standings behind Latvala and the privateer Ford of Mads Østberg.

Østberg has now been confirmed as M-Sport’s lead driver for 2013, bringing significant funding with him, while Nasser Al-Attiyah has arranged title sponsorship for the team from Qatar and will compete on selected WRC rounds alongside his FIA Middle East Rally Championship campaign. With Solberg out of the running and former IRC and SWRC champion Juho Hänninen equipped with an M-Sport Fiesta of his own, the team is now almost certain to announce Evgeny Novikov as its second top-line driver.

Earlier this week the well-heeled young Russian stated that if he could not get a ‘works’ specification car from M-Sport he would take his money to Citroën. It appears that there is no great obstacle in his way now.

Given the nickname ‘Hollywood’ by the mechanics in his early days, former breakdancing champion Solberg has always been the number one showman in the WRC. He’s a driver who has worn his heart on his sleeve, done his best to entertain and has won armies of fans for his never-say-die optimism – not to mention his occasional lapses of language and judgement, such as falling out of his Subaru while waving to the crowds or declaring that he crashed because of being distracted by a fart.

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On behalf of the sport and its fans, WRF wishes Petter a relaxed and enjoyable 2013 – and we look forward to seeing him back in action before too long.

M-Sport livery for 2013 revealed – edited

2013 Fiesta

It’s a bumper day for M-Sport the livery of the 2013 Ford Fiesta WRC has been revealed.

In fairness it’s an evolution of the design carried since 2011, but it’s rather smart, we think.

2011 – Abu Dhabi Fiesta WRC

Ford-Fiesta-RS-WRC-2011_01

2011 Black Fiesta

All-Black-Fiesta

2012 – Ford/Castrol Fiesta WRC

sordofiesta

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.

You can’t keep a good man down…

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Let’s be honest, Petter Solberg’s had a fairly miserable season in 2012. He swallowed his pride and signed on with Ford in the clear and certain knowledge that his job, in the team’s eyes, was to support the title bid of its mercurial young star, Jari-Matti Latvala.

In the end there wasn’t much of a title bid for Petter to support, and instead his season became a race for third place in the final standings against Latvala and the independent Ford entry of Mads Ostberg. Solberg was more consistent than Latvala until the final third of the year, when things started to go seriously awry and he ended up a disappointing fifth.

Once again the Norwegian is fighting for his future in the wake of Ford’s withdrawal from the sport. He is 38 years old and hasn’t won a rally since 2005 but he is one of the biggest names in the sport and one of the most popular men in the world to rally fans.

In his column for Autosport this week, Solberg spoke with commendable candour about his prospects. One thing that rally drivers universally share – which too many of their circuit racing contemporaries do not – is a complete absence of ‘BS’, as evidenced when Petter said:

 “I have to think like this. I’m a professional driver and if I can’t make a living doing this then I have to look for other work, it’s as simple as that. If I do retire, it would be nice to have started and finished my WRC career with Ford.”

Once again the fire in the belly that caused Solberg to set up his own team in just six weeks following Subaru’s withdrawal from the WRC seems to be glowing again. We love Petter at WRF and will forgive him all manner of mishaps because, as he wrote on his car back in 2009: ‘This is my life!’

We know it is, old boy, and we’re all the richer for that.

Happy birthday for Sunday, too!

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.

Citroën gets its ducks in a row

The shape of next year’s Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team is expected to be announced in Paris tomorrow, with the Cantabrian press jumping the gun to suggest that, after weeks of feverish negotiation, Dani Sordo will rejoin the Citroën squad with whom he has spent the majority of his top flight career.

Sordo rose through the ranks in Citroën machinery, and joined the marque’s ‘privateer’ entry in the 2006 WRC alongside Sébastien Loeb, when Citroën Sport farmed out its title-winning Xsaras to the Kronos team in order to develop the incoming C4 WRC model. The young Spaniard remained as part of the Citroën setup until the end of 2010, when he was pushed out in favour of the team’s French prodigy, Sébastien Ogier.

Sordo claimed an IRC victory in Corsica with MINI S2000

Since then Sordo has been the de facto leader of Prodrive’s MINI WRC programme. A frustrating two years have ensued for the Cantabrian, who was known to be pushing for a campaign of at least 11 of next year’s 13 events as a prerequisite of signing any new contract after spending a good deal of time watching from the sidelines with MINI.

Earlier this year, Sordo deputised for the injured Jari-Matti Latvala in the works Ford squad and contested the Rally Argentina. Prodrive stated that it was keen to build its 2013 plans around him, while Volkswagen has also said that it was keen to bring Sordo in alongside Ogier and Latvala in a megabucks ‘superteam’.

It is expected that the new-look Citroën team for 2013, with funding from Abu Dhabi, will now feature both this year’s WRC runner-up Mikko Hirvonen and Sordo at all rounds of the 2013 WRC season. Its third car will be shared by nine-time WRC champion Loeb and former Ford WRC driver Khalid Al Qassimi, who is also chairman of the team’s new investor, Abu Dhabi Racing.

Abu Dhabi and Al Qassimi move to Citroën in 2013

The partnership of Hirvonen and Sordo would give Citroën strength in depth. Hirvonen is a strong performer on gravel, where he has won all of his 14 WRC events so far. Sordo has yet to take a victory at the top level of the sport, but when the series hits paved roads in 2013 he will never have enjoyed a better chance.

This combination is likely to prove string in the manufacturers’ battle for 2013, as Volkswagen is relying upon the gravel rally pace of its lead pairing of Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala. Latvala has spent considerable time and resource on getting up towards the asphalt rally speed of drivers born and raised in continental Europe, and battles between him and Sordo could well become a clincher in the 2013 manufacturers’ standings.

All this means that Britain’s former IRC champion, Kris Meeke, appears to be out of the running despite his impressive test for the team. It also means that Norwegian ace Mads Østberg, who is rumoured to have been chasing the Citroën berth with his not-inconsiderable budget, is likely to remain at the wheel of a Ford next season – whether with his own Adapta team or on the books of the Qatar-funded M-Sport effort.

Thierry Neuville may have to step back to Peugeot

Citroën has also had young Belgian driver Thierry Neuville on its books as a junior in 2011-12. At this moment in time his position remains unclear, although with strong backing from Citroën’s PSA sister Peugeot, he might be mollified with leading the charge for WRC2 glory in its new 208 R5.

Full analysis will follow tomorrow’s announcement…