Aaaaaargh! It’s Ken Block!

Blocks new digs

Not enough action for you in Monte Carlo? Well fear not, rally fans, because Ken Block is returning to the WRC to bend more Ford Fiestas. Hooray!

For the second year running Block has announced that he will make three WRC outings at the wheel of an M-Sport Fiesta, naming his section of the Dovenby squad’s service area as the Hoonigan Racing Division.

“Once again, I’m trying to fit in as much driving as possible,” explained Block.“Unlike most drivers who only compete in one series, I’m very fortunate to be able to race in so many different disciplines. Between competing in X Games, Global RallyCross, Rally America, Gymkhana GRID and WRC, It’s going to be an awesome year. I can’t wait to get it started.”

Is it just us, or is The Block looking increasingly like Beaker from The Muppets? Anyway, a new livery featuring a lot of bright blue instead of his traditional fluorescent yellow-y green apparently signifies Block’s new Hoonigan thing, although his sponsor line-up of DC trainers and Monster energy drink remains unchanged…

“With the name change to Hoonigan Racing Division, we wanted to take the look in a slightly different direction, one that has been inspired by my love of 80s and early 90s skateboarding graphics, as well as Miami Vice-era offshore powerboats and a dash of hair metal and old school hip hop mixed in for good measure.”

We can’t wait.

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.

M-Sport moving on

In quitting the WRC, Ford of Europe has elected to break its contract with M-Sport, the team which has built and run its cars since 1997, with a year still to go.

Clearly there will be some financial compensation for Malcolm Wilson and his Cumbrian concern, but the team – and its suppliers and staff – will no doubt have a troubling few weeks ahead.

“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 and look forward to continuing our strong technical partnership into the future,” Wilson was quoted as saying in today’s mutual announcement.

In the short term, M-Sport will weather the storm reasonably well. Throughout its time running the works cars in the WRC, Wilson’s organisation has enjoyed an enormously profitable business from building, servicing and selling Ford rally cars for a host of disciplines.

Old cars generate income from privateers

Customer-owned WRC cars have competed in national and regional championships around the world as well as in the world championship itself, plus there is now a complete staircase for drivers and teams in M-Sport’s range of Fiesta rally cars which begins with the humble R1 ‘grass roots’ car to the more potent R2 and R3 front-wheel-drive machinery.

Furthermore the architecture of the current Fiesta WRC has been developed into the ‘Regional Rally Car’ platform: a basic package which can be tailored into either WRC or Super 2000 spec for competing in the FIA’s big regional series around the world.

Let’s not forget also the less regulated cars that have been campaigned by Marcus Grönholm and others in rallycross, and that have featured in Ken Block’s celebrated Gymkhana movies.

M-Sport’s most famous car? Viral star Block’s Fiesta

At the Paris Motor Show last month it was also revealed the Fiesta Regional Rally Car would provide the foundations for an R5 model to enter the WRC2.

When launching the car, M-Sport’s commercial director John Steele said: “We are predicting that the build numbers will be similar to the S2000 and we are working to make the car as economical as possible – the target is to make it half the price of the WRC. But this will only be confirmed once the test programme has been completed.”

As such, M-Sport has plenty of business to take the sting out of Ford’s announcement, but it is going to face a much tougher world in 2013. For a start its longtime rival, Citroën Racing, is being forced to become more self-sufficient and launching a range of customer rally cars of its own, from the DS3 R3 through to a new DS3 R5.

Citroën Racing now making customer cars to make up for lost budget

Peugeot has also revealed its own R5 car based on the new 208 model, and already has an R2 version ready to roll. Škoda meanwhile has enjoyed one of the most successful competition programmes in modern history with its Fabia S2000 which remains a potent force and will be joined by a Volkswagen-assisted R5 car in future. And if that weren’t enough, Toyota has announced a new Yaris R1 series at the foothills of a new era in rallying.

As such, M-Sport and its Fords are no longer going to be the ‘go-to’ outfit for privateers wanting the best machinery. Also, with no manufacturer interest, the selling point to aspiring stars of buying into a relationship with one of the big names in the sport will not be there.

Let’s face it – on the strength of results at the top level in recent years, a customer might well be swayed by Citroën’s record over Ford in the WRC or by the prolific successes of both Škoda and Peugeot in recent seasons.

Peugeot’s customer cars have scooped many European honours

If things are likely to get tough in 2013 they will almost certainly get tougher unless M-Sport’s commercial department can woo another motor manufacturer before long. Between the abrupt end of Subaru’s WRC programme and the smaller-scale reboot with MINI, Prodrive suffered a decimation of its workforce – and it is that which will doubtless be keeping Malcolm Wilson awake at night in the aftermath of Ford’s withdrawal.

When worlds collide…

America is generally pretty unaware of rallying. It’s something that happens in ‘Yurp’. Where ‘yurp’ is they’re not sure. But it’s where rallies happen.

Americans have sent something called a Ken Block to ‘yurp’ and it takes part in the occasional rally, which does make for some splendid comedy crashing.

In return the Americans have taken rallycross to their hearts, in the guise of the X-Games. It’s a bit like Twenty20 compared to test match cricket, but it’s a start.

Clearly this enthusiasm came from somewhere. There is hardcore support for rallying in America. A small bit perfectly formed college of rally fans, no less. And so we are honour-bound to salute you, our dear American cousins!