Hyundai busy in Frankfurt

The Polo-esque Hyundai i20 WRX

The Polo-esque Hyundai i20 in Frankfurt

There are rumblings in Germany as Hyundai starts to get its development programme of the i20 into gear.

At the launch of its new three-door i30 road car, Hyundai’s vice-president in Europe, Allan Rushforth, explained to Swiss magazine Blick that the Korean giant has targeted its Volkswagen equivalent with each new model in its range. The i20 supermini on which its new WRC car is based looks very similar to the Polo, and subsequently the first rolling hack of the rally car – dubbed i20 WRX – looks rather familiar as well.

After a period of relative quiet since the announcement of its i20 WRC programme at the Paris Motor Show in September, it was felt that something more had to be seen in Europe to convince us pesky Europeans that the programme was going ahead. More than a few doubts have been raised by the silence, and no further announcements were planned until the Geneva Motor Show in March. Thus the little demo in Frankfurt was tacked on to the i30 launch to keep all the sceptics at bay!

The new team base is currently being prepared ready for a year of development in 2013 and the first anticipated WRC outings to follow in 2014.

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A brief history of WRC promotion

Much is being said about the commercial rights of the WRC at present, so let’s take a little look back through the last 25 years of the sport’s rollercoaster ride through popular culture.

In 1987, Jean-Marie Balestre, in his role as president of FISA, the worldwide governing body for motor sport, was encouraged to appoint Bernie Ecclestone to the role of vice-president of promotional affairs, with authority over all of its motor sport series.

Balestre was so encouraged by Max Mosley, the then-president of the FISA Manufacturers’ Commission, as a means of bringing ‘peace in our time’ to the endless squabbling over control of the commercial rights to Formula One. Something to do with keeping friends close and enemies closer, no doubt came to mind…

Bernie and Balestre – an unlikely double-act

Right away Ecclestone’s department at FISA focused its efforts on squeezing every last cent out of Formula One. One of its first moves, for example, was cancelling the hugely successful World Touring Car Championship at the end of its first season in 1987 in order to encourage greater participation in Grand Prix racing from sponsors and manufacturers.

Rallying generally escaped such terminal attentions, however – indeed, Ecclestone’s department generally improved matters.

Have you ever noticed that footage of the Group B era, for example, is as rare as hen’s teeth? That’s because if an event was filmed (and not all were) it was by domestic broadcasters for domestic TV coverage and the subsequent tapes were scattered to the four winds.

In his FISA role, Ecclestone ensured that a consistent season-long approach was taken to filming WRC events by his production and distribution company, International Sportsworld Communicators (ISC). It all worked rather well – even if ISC reported that the 1990 Swedish Rally showed a large increase in spectator numbers and global TV viewership…  a Herculean achievement when it was cancelled due to lack of snow and replaced with a rallysprint!

ISC brought order – and coverage – to the WRC in early 1990s

ISC’s footage was made available to national broadcasters in a season-long deal alongside Formula One events. If you wanted one, you took the other – and for a while everything was rolling along very nicely, in many ways.

Meanwhile, in 1991, Max Mosley ousted Balestre as FISA president and subsequently became FIA president in 1993, absorbing FISA back into its parent organisation. Again, the WRC largely escaped any direct attention as a result of this move, not least because of the furore that followed the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix and the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna.

When the dust finally settled in Formula One, however, a new fly arrived in the ointment for the Mosley-Ecclestone FIA: the European Union.

FIA fell foul of EU competition laws under Mosley’s reign

A Statement of Objections lodged with the EU argued that the FIA had violated existing antitrust legislation and had abused its licensing power and its ownership of the commercial rights to all 16 FIA championships – including the rights to TV broadcasting and other commercial exploitation of those rights through ISC.

After much blood, sweat and tears in court, the EU found against the FIA in 2000 and it was ordered to break up its commercial alliance with Ecclestone. As a result the role of vice-president of promotional affairs at the FIA disappeared, and Ecclestone sold ISC, together with the WRC’s commercial rights, to a consortium led by Prodrive founder David Richards.

Richards paid the FIA $50 million for the 10-year rights to the sale of television, merchandising, licensing and advertising of the WRC, using cash generated by selling 49% of Prodrive to venture capital company Apax Partners & Co. Immediately changes began to be made to the way in which the WRC was promoted – and many of these changes proved successful on the surface of things.

David Richards went from co-driver to team owner to ringmaster

Manufacturer involvement was still strong, with Ford, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, SEAT, Škoda and Subaru being joined by Citroën. The Junior WRC was also thriving in quality and quantity and the Production Cup offering national-level participants their chance to take part in WRC events.

The sport was also at the cutting edge of the computer simulator market, with its own products alongside those endorsed by star drivers such as Colin McRae and Tommi Mäkinen. There was also an international magazine, RallyXS, produced by the British publisher Haymarket, aimed squarely at appealing to the same readership as its glossy sister F1 Racing.

Nevertheless, the foundations were already starting to give way. For starters the exodus of manufacturers was already taking hold. SEAT was gone at the end of 2000, Mitsubishi’s full-house effort ended in 2002, Hyundai abandoned ship in 2003, Peugeot and Škoda in 2005. Suzuki came and went in a season, as BMW brand MINI later would, but commitment to the cause was signally lacking.

Worse still, the WRC’s star drivers, who did so much to propel it in the 1990s, were also falling by the wayside. By the end of 2005 it had lost Tommi Mäkinen, Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae, Richard Burns, Markko Märtin, Francois Delecour, Gilles Panizzi, Didier Auriol and the sport had entered an age of complete supremacy for one man: Sébastien Loeb.

The days before Loeb: big guns battling in different cars

In October 2007, North One Television purchased ISC from Richards, promoting Simon Long from within the company to become CEO of the newly-renamed North One Sport. ISC was in trouble, reporting a £2.2m operating loss for the series – but North One saw something special.

“We’re moving in a dizzying and vastly different media world than when we first came into the sport,” said North One Television CEO Neil Duncanson. “Together with the teams, the events and the FIA our aim is to ensure the sport takes its rightful place in the digital era.”

Erm… right.

From that point on, the one drum that the remaining manufacturers repeatedly thumped under North One’s control was that nothing was being done to modernise the WRC’s promotion – it was not being taken online, out to the public or indeed doing anything much at all.

The reason was that it cost around £8 million a season to film the WRC, and without the substantial promotional funds previously provided by the manufacturers and sponsors, North One Sport was reliant on the income from its baseball caps and computer games rather than substantial corporate investment.

Simon Long, North One Sport. Smiling.

Without big brands to invest in the promotion or buy TV advertising around the WRC programmes, the great slump towards pay-to-view TV obscurity accelerated, while sourcing vital funds needed to develop the WRC as an online product were never found. A new recession loomed in which Subaru departed, Ford cut its budgets and Loeb’s grasp upon the title was unshakable.

The   advent of cheap and plentiful mini-cameras meant that the vast majority of WRC footage was shot from inside the cars, rather than from expensive helicopters flying overhead and remote camera crews out on the stages. Quality plunged in line with expenditure.

At the start of 2011, North One Television sold North One Sport to Convers Sports Initiatives (CSI), a company belonging to the ambitious Russian entrepreneur and investor, Vladimir Antonov, who had recently purchased the Dutch supercar concern Spyker and the troubled Swedish giant Saab as well as Portsmouth Football Club.

Vladimir Antonov – a colourful character!

Some dubious noises had been made by the Swedish police about their investigations into Vladimir Antonov’s purchase of Saab, which were subsequently disproved in the USA. Nevertheless it was clear that this was going to be a colourful chapter in the WRC’s history. For his part, Simon Long was extremely upbeat about his new bosses, saying:

“Well, there’s going to be no shortage of action or momentum… Over the course of the current season you can expect to see a number of new innovations being unveiled. I can’t go any detail right now but it’s safe to say they will create a huge buzz when they are launched.”

How right he was!

On 23 November 2011, it was announced that a Europe-wide arrest warrant had been issued for Antonov by Lithuanian prosecutors wanting to question him as part of an investigation into alleged asset stripping at Snoras Bank. He was arrested in London the following day and appeared in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, while his properties were seized. A court hearing regarding Antonov’s extradition will be held in London on 21 January 2013.

In the absence of Antonov and CSI’s funds, North One attempted to continue as WRC promoter into 2012, but was stripped of all responsibilities on the eve of the Monte Carlo Rally by a furious FIA.

“The FIA sought urgent unequivocal assurances from North One Sport (NOS) that it could fulfil its contractual obligations and deliver the promotion of the upcoming Rally Monte Carlo and the Championship for 2012 and for the future,” it said.

“It is with regret and disappointment that no such assurance has been given to the FIA, and therefore today the FIA has been driven to terminate its contract with NOS.”

Jean Todt – FIA president un’appy with WRC in 2012

So it is that the 2012 WRC season has been promoted through a cobbled-together mix of budgets hastily thrown together by each event, ranging from small to tiny. There has been considerable rancour pointed in every direction, and it is this that the new incumbents at Red Bull Media House have inherited.

In all honesty, the WRC should be dead and buried. It is only the spectacle, the sport and the fans who have kept it alive – as defiant in the face of the odds as Petter Solberg’s dreams of winning a second title during the ‘Loeb era’. But here we are… now is not the time for the divisive comment being made before the new era is ushered in.

The FIA has given Red Bull Media House all the oxygen it can, in the shape of a calendar that strenuously avoids date clashes with the Formula One world championship at every possible turn. It also has the pick of the most famous events in the world, with the demise of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge. Then there’s the all-star Volkswagen Motorsport team arriving in a huge parade of elephants and dancing girls in Monte Carlo, with the existing and highly-professional setups at Citroën Racing and M-Sport saved from extinction by an influx of Middle Eastern cash.

Both M-Sport and Citroën Racing should celebrate their survival

As if all that weren’t enough, the 2013 will not be won by Sébastien Loeb. The old boy will turn up and sprinkle some magic on a handful of events, but leave the title race to a new generation, including Sébastien Ogier, Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov and Andreas Mikkelsen. These youngsters will keep established men like Solberg, Mikko Hirvonen, Dani Sordo and Jari-Matti Latvala on their toes.

Beyond 2013 a team from Hyundai is coming, while teams from Toyota and Subaru are expected. Plus there is plenty more young talent out there to be discovered and new stars to be born in the public eye.

It’s been a terribly sad decade for the sport, but the WRC can go in only one of two directions. It can be great once again or it can finally founder and die – and that responsibility is upon all of us who purport to care about it.

Four seats left in musical chairs

With Volkswagen’s WRC squad now fully-booked and Ford no longer putting its name to any cars, the identity of the drivers who will take the remaining positions in the current game of musical chairs hangs in the balance.

In all likelihood, the remaining positions will hinge on the works Citroën squad, where Mikko Hirvonen is set for all 13 rounds but there remains the opportunity for two drivers to share the team’s other two cars with Sébastien Loeb and Khalid Al Qassimi respectively.

Former Citroën number 2 Dani Sordo appears out of the running at his old team because of his insistence upon missing a maximum of two events – while 2009 IRC champion and former MINI WRC driver Kris Meeke has tested impressively for the French squad. It is likely that the team will retain young Belgian ace Thierry Neuville to partner Al Qassimi in the third car.

Mads Østberg will be looking for top-flight equipment in 2012

Ford privateer Mads Østberg, who won his first WRC event in Portugal, has also been mentioned in connection with the Citroën drive, but he appears more likely to remain in a Fiesta, with suggestions that his Adapta team will be placed on an equal footing with the former works Fiestas of M-Sport in terms of development parts.

With Ford believed to be paying a heavy price for breaking its contract with M-Sport a year early, Malcolm Wilson’s team is unlikely to run short of funds in 2013. Nevertheless, it needs to deliver results both to ensure that its customer cars continue to sell around the world and, longer term, to win new manufacturer backing.

Sordo made a one-off appearance with Ford in 2012

Ford’s severance cash would make it possible to draft in Sordo – who deputised for Jari-Matti Latvala on this year’s Rally Argentina – as team leader. If Østberg could be guaranteed equal equipment for his Adapta-entered car, M-Sport could retaining the fast and well-funded 22 year-old Russian ace Evgeny Novikov in its second entry.

Such a move would, however, bode ill for the aspirations of 2003 world champion Petter Solberg. The 37-year-old stated in Sardinia that he has three options to consider if he is to remain in the WRC in 2013. One of those may be M-Sport if Sordo finds a better offer, one may be with one of the privateer MINI teams and the other may be to join the neophyte Hyundai squad on a two-year deal.

Solberg is under pressure for 2013 drived

Equally under pressure in the coming weeks will be Estonian hopeful Ott Tänack, who took the second M-Sport seat this year with funding from the FIA. The highly-touted youngster, a protégé of former WRC star and fellow countryman Markko Märtin, suffered a severe slump in form earlier this season, but has bounced back close to the pace of the rest of the Fiesta runners of late.

Hyundai WRC round-up

There was a show car in Paris, but then auto salons are known for some pretty optimistic announcements – so what’s the deal with Hyundai’s burgeoning WRC programme?

Certainly FIA president Jean Todt is cock-a-hoop at the planned new entry for the WRC, saying: “We are delighted to welcome Hyundai back into our rallying family. This is a great boost to our championship and underlines the faith global manufacturers have in our sport, despite the difficult economic times we all face.”

It certainly is, and in the giddy whirl of flashlights playing over the white and blue show car, ST Kim, Hyundai Motor Company senior executive vice president said: “You already know that we care about developing the performance of our cars, and we’re taking our commitment to performance to a new level.

“I am happy to announce that Hyundai will race in next year’s World Rally Championship. We’re back, and we’re ready to compete.”

Crikey! Ready to compete, eh? So rather than opting for a Volkswagen-style programme of developing a car on the quiet, getting its driver line-up sorted and putting tens of thousands of kilometres on the odometer, does the Korean giant plan to just plunge straight in?

Erm… no. There may well be a genuine i20 spotted on European roads and forest tracks next year but as of now the team is still in the process of building its new base camp – in Germany. Yes, you Englanders, don’t get dejected but it seems that  ‘motorsport valley’ is no longer the first choice for factory motor sport programmes… the Germans are taking over.

According to Germany’s Rallye Magazin, Hyundai is looking to put a race shop in the neighbourhood of its European head office, located in Offenbach near Frankfurt. Heading up the operation is Michel Nandan, a 54 year-old French engineer with a fairly significant history in the WRC.

Michel Nandan brings real pedigree to the design team

In the mid-1990s, Nandan was based in Cologne with Toyota Team Europe, where he worked on the design and development of the ST185 and ST205 Celicas and the Corolla WRC. From there he moved to Peugeot and made the title-winning 206 WRC, following up with the unique 307 WRC.

After Peugeot pulled out of the series in deference to Citroën, Nandan took the lead in developing Suzuki’s ill-fated WRC car, the SX4. He’s been a bit quiet since then, but who wouldn’t be? It turns out that he’s been gainfully employed as Technical and Quality Manager of the FFSA, the French sanctioning body for motor sport.

All this is, of course, in marked contrast to the last time the words Hyundai and WRC were uttered in the same breath. That was in 2003 when the FIA slapped the Koreans with a $1million fine for quitting the series with four rounds to go, while it was also taken to court by British preparation experts MSD, who built its cars, for non-payment of bills.

Hyundai’s last WRC effort was average in life, ignominious in death

With MSD forced to make 100 staff redundant and Hyundai promising to be back in 2006 with a self-developed car, the whole thing disappeared into murk until the end of last month. Now we have a manufacturer with a show car, some Photoshopped pictures of the show car in action and some youtube footage of a test hack.

But there’s room for optimism in the appointment of Nandan, and presumably it won’t take too long to get a race shop set up in or around the European HQ. WRF thinks that the announcement that the car might compete in 2013 is ambitious, but a full-scale programme for 2014 could well deliver a tonic in terms of the competing manufacturers.

Of course the main topic of conversation among the fans is who might be recruited to drive the little beastie, once M. Nandan has declared it ready to start rolling in earnest. Well, that largely depends upon the game of musical chairs that’s currently being played out at fever pitch – presumably to some high energy disco music of the kind beloved by dodgy European nightclubs – among the existing teams. And for now that’s where our attention is being kept…

The 2013 WRC is announced

And so, after years of hiatus, indecision and apparent abandonment, the premier rallies in the world can prepare for what appears to be the first concerted effort to restore a sport that has often been a genuine rival to Formula 1 in its appeal to fans, sponsors and motor manufacturers.

That does not mean to say that the World Rally Championship is indeed bidding to usurp Formula 1, nor that the FIA under its president – the former WRC co-driver and Peugeot Sport team boss, Jean Todt – is attempting to undermine Grand Prix racing. What it does mean, however, is that the FIA is giving the battered and beleaguered WRC oxygen and first aid in the hope that it can be revived. The headlines from the World Council decisions announced in September 2012 are:

  • Confirmation that Red Bull Media House and The Sportsman Media Group will act in concert as promoters for the WRC from 2013
  • Confirmation of three clear levels of competition under the world championship banner: WRC, WRC2 and WRC3
  • Confirmation of a 2013 calendar incorporating many classic WRC events with only two F1 date clashes
  • Confirmation of renewed manufacturer interest in the series, with Citroen, Ford and VW to be joined by Hyundai

In a statement, the FIA said: “The promoter will be responsible for investing and developing the WRC with a view to increasing its profile, reputation and commercial value. In particular, the promoter, working in close collaboration with the FIA, will be focused on introducing live television and an innovative digital media strategy in the next years.”

New Calendar

2013 marks the 40th anniversary of World Championship rallying, which saw the great events that had captured the public imagination through the 1950s and 1960s amalgamate to form a season-long contest for manufacturers. Next year, the 41st WRC season will take in a 13-event schedule that will once again take competitors on a globe-trotting journey from ice and snow to broiling asphalt and cold, foggy gravel:

Rallye Monte-Carlo: 20 January 2013

Rally Sweden: 10 February 2013

Rally Mexico: 10 March 2013

Rallye de Portugal: 14 April 2013

Rally Argentina: 5 May 2013

Acropolis Rally (Greece): 2 June 2013

Rally d’Italia: 23 June 2013

Rally Finland: 4 August 2013

Rallye Deutschland: Date TBC

Rally Australia: 15 September 2013

Rallye de France: 6 October 2013

Rally de Espana: 27 October 2013

Rally of Great Britain: 17 November 2013

Red Bull… as in the fizzy drink?

Red Bull Media House is part of the global empire being built upon the success of the premium-priced energy drink. Ever since Red Bull first appeared, it has developed long and clearly profitable associations with speed, adventure and ‘extreme’ sports. After a quarter of a century, Red Bull is so well known for its sponsorships around the world that it believes it can sell the sport as well as the soft drink – and has made a series of popular and profitable movies and sports events already through the Red Bull Media House.

In order to achieve this, Red Bull has joined forces with The Sportsman Media Group: a sports rights and marketing agency whose core business is the acquisition and distribution of tv, internet and mobile rights as well as global sports sponsorships. This is a gang well used to the cut-and-thrust of sports promotion, having gained its reputation for success in German soccer’s Bundesliga and grown into Spain’s soccer premiership La Liga.

This combination has an enormous amount of potential.

Cost-cutting for WRC Teams

As part of a cost-reduction process and to encourage manufacturer support in what remains a hostile financial climate, the FIA has confirmed that teams will only have to contest one round outside of Europe, although they must still take part in a minimum of seven events out of the 13-date calendar.

There is a risk that certain events may struggle to generate sufficient high quality entries, and that to the casual observer a 10-month season in which a team need only take part in 54% of the action might be hard to follow. Yet with a full deck of ‘classic’ events, two of the three ‘flyaways’ being cost-effectively grouped in South America and the third being Australia – or ‘sports heaven’ as it’s known – then few teams will elect to drop too many dates from their diaries.

Supporting Structure

For years people have rightly complained that the class structure of rallying has been utterly incomprehensible. Group A, Group N, Group R and the sub-divisions by engine capacity have done well to draw in huge fields that pay the event organisers well, but leave the public nonplussed as to who has won what.

Consider all that a thing of the past.

As of now we retain the WRC at the top of the heap for 1.6-litre turbocharged 4WD cars, either entered by or supported by the motor manufacturers and/or big sponsors. Then we have WRC2 for more basic 1.6-litre turbo or 2.0-litre cars with 4WD, which is likely to draw independent teams out of the main WRC and into an affordable and competitive support series running on the same events at the same time as the big boys. WRC2 will also include the ‘production’ 4WD models by the likes of Subaru and Mitsubishi.

In effect WRC2 merges the old Production WRC and Intercontinental Rally Challenge into a cohesive unit. Not only will this give all teams and drivers on the cusp of the WRC a measuring stick and the benefits of the attendant WRC promotion, but also ensure that a higher number of quality entries start each round of the WRC. To show just how bad things have got, the 2012 Rally GB saw only 31 cars start the event – more than 100 fewer than would be seen 10-15 years ago. More entries = more action = greater spectacle.

Finally there will be WRC3 as a third tier for 2WD cars, which will not garner great media coverage but will act as a ‘finishing school’ for talented young drivers graduating from national and regional competition into the line-of-sight of the sport’s big guns. It will also doubtless make for some entertaining action as well, for those who are lining the route and watching at Rally HQ!

These are exciting times indeed

WRC 1997 – 2012: a celebration

It’s always worth looking back before moving on…