Sweden team-by-team

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Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team

1 Sébastien Loeb/Daniel Elena – 8/10

A disastrous qualifying stage left Loeb out in the cold in Sweden, and he only got to show his true pace on the final morning. He was able to kick great lumps out of Ogier’s lead but the damage was done. Worryingly for Citroën, the man who is only contesting four events this year was the only one to take any points away from Scandinavia.

2 Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen – 3/10

Disaster begat disaster for Hirvo on an event to forget. The WRC now moves to a string of gravel events, where he knows he has to deliver event wins.

Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team

4 Mads Østberg/Jonas Andersson – 8/10

Not-very-mad-Mads was back again, driving his second event at the head of the M-Sport squad in conservative style. He did enough to be the fastest non-Sébastien on the event, but the hoped-for sparkle was notably absent.

5 Evgeny Novikov/Ilka Minor – 6/10

Novikov had his sensible head on and drove a quiet rally to reach the finish. It’s not what he’s known for, but it keeps the repair bills down a bit.

Qatar World Rally Team

6 Matthew Wilson/Giovanni Bernacchini – 1/10

Last-minute substitution for an indisposed Nasser Al-Attiyah, Matthew wasn’t very fast and then crashed.

11 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul – 7/10

Neuville bounced back from his Monte disappointment to put in a strong performance and to record the longest jump at Colin’s Crest.

15 Juho Hänninen/Tomi Tuominen – 6/10

Officially that’s the end of the road for the former IRC champion… but you can expect to see him back in an M-Sport car before long. Didn’t sparkle as much as many had hoped in the snow, but unless your name is Sébastien not many people did.

Volkswagen Motorsport

7 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Antilla – 7/10

Latvala took a measured approach and delivered a solid finish.  Losing out on the podium to the Mads Østberg in what used to be his team-leading car at M-Sport was cruel. Ogier has delivered Volkswagen’s debut victory, so the pressure is not going to decrease on the likeable Finn.

8 Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia – 10/10

A fantastic drive, with a relaxed and happy Ogier revelling in being the fastest Sébastien for the majority of the event. His eighth win at the sport’s top level was taken in style, and of course he now has his name in the record books as the first man to guide a Volkswagen to overall victory in the WRC. Throw in a strong position in the WRC points and the weekend could scarcely have gone better.

Abu Dhabi Citroën Total World Rally Team

10 Khalid Al Qassimi/Scott Martin – 1/10

AL Qassimi doesn’t have much in life that he really needs to worry about. Which must be nice.

14 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio – 3/10

Sordo is handy on asphalt. This was a snow rally. Wasn’t stellar.

Lotos Team WRC

14 Michál Kosciuszko/Maciek Szczepaniak – 4/10

It’s hard to tell whether the likeable Pole is good, bad or indifferent. So we’ll reserve judgement.

Jipocar Czech National Team

21 Martin Prokop/Michal Ernst – 7/10

Prokop used his experience to good effect and popped up into the points for the second time.

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Sweden Part 1: Ogier in control

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Volkswagen Motorsport can breathe a sigh of relief as its star man Sébastien Ogier has won all but two of the eight stages so far on the Rally Sweden in his Polo R WRC. He stands just over half a minute ahead of the Citroën DS3 WRC of overnight leader and nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb, who in turn stated that the increasing gap to Ogier is down to the younger man’s pace.

Just 1.7 seconds behind Loeb at the end of Friday’s running is the second Volkswagen of Jari-Matti Latvala. Fourth place is held by the M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC of  Mads Østberg as the Norwegian recovers from a 20 second penalty to make his bid for the podium in one of his strongest events of the year.

Østberg is in good cheer. More so than Citroën team leader Mikko Hirvonen, who earned a full 50 seconds as his penalty applied to for arriving late at the third time control – caused by rolling his Fiesta at the start of the second stage. Hirvonen ended the day with a fastest stage time, but has an uphill struggle to reach the points.

Østberg leads a phalanx of Fiestas in which his team-mate in the Qatar-sponsored M-Sport squad, Evgeny Novikov, is holding off local hero Pontus Tidemand in his PDS-entered example. Behind the Swede is Finnish ace Juho Hänninen in another Qatar-funded entry from Thierry Neuville in the fourth of five cars under M-Sport’s banner. Two privately-entered Fiestas round out the top 10 with Henning Solberg keeping ahead of Martin Prokop.

A much larger entry for the main WRC class has ensured that plenty of runners are scratching their heads and trying to work out a way into the points. Former MINI WRC team leader Dani Sordo for one, in his Citroën, albeit considerably closer to the points than the Abu Dhabi team’s sponsor Khalid Al Qassimi in the fourth Citroën.

Matthew Wilson’s run in M-Sport’s entry for their Qatari sponsor Nasser Al-Attiyah is also going to require Lazarus-like qualities to get a sniff of the points. So too is the lone privateer MINI of Michal Koszciuszko.

At the sharp end of WRC2, meanwhile, Sweden is delivering an event that favours the grunty, stable and stolid production cars over the flighty S2000-based machines. Norway’s Anders Grǿndal has a 34 second advantage after eight stages, his Subaru Impreza holding sway over the Fiesta RRC of Saudi Arabian driver Yazeed Al Rajhi.

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…

Red Bull branding matters for 2013

There is little news to have come from Red Bull’s meeting with the FIA and teams last week, to discuss how Red Bull Media House would fulfil its new role as the official promoter of the WRC.

The main bone of contention appears to be over who will provide the timing services to the championship – a vital point, of course, but not one that will trouble many of those potential fans whom the series wishes to excite. The cars will run and they will be timed, come what may. No timekeepers means no rally, so that’s not going to be an issue for very long.

Nothing has yet been said about where – if anywhere – Red Bull’s colours will be seen in the resultant coverage, however. And this is rather a key point.

The energy drink’s logos have been a regular feature of rallying at every level. In the WRC they have been carried by the Citroën World Rally Team since 2008 but the five-year deal ends this season and will not be renewed. When discussing the investment of Abu Dhabi Racing into the French championship-winning team for 2013, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi stated that one of the key factors was that ‘100% of the livery on the cars was available’ – which is as unequivocal as it gets.

Red Bull’s sponsorship of Citroën ends this year after five seasons

There is a long-standing relationship between Red Bull and Volkswagen’s motor sport programmes, most famously its team of Dakar-winning Touaregs. Volkswagen makes its grand entrance to the WRC in Monte Carlo and it’s Red Bull’s first event as promoter – so will the Polos carry the famous colours of the people who promote the championship?

If that were to happen, the outcry would be pretty seismic with the teams and constructors free to make claims of favouritism if the Polos get a microsecond more airtime than the other entrants. All the teams will be working hard as you read this to reel in their own sponsors, who will in turn ask serious questions if they are merely to end up as bit-players in the Red Bull Show.

Red Bull has scored some big wins with VW sponsorship

Equally, one of the stars of Volkswagen’s Dakar project, Nasser Al-Attiyah, is doing deals to put together a fully-funded three-car team for M-Sport in 2013, with himself in one of the cars. Although Nasser will doubtless bring significant funding from Qatar, he is also personally sponsored by Red Bull’s Middle East franchises – as witnessed by the M-Sport Fiesta RRC that he drove to victory in Cyprus this weekend.

Traditionally there is nothing to stop Red Bull’s individual offices at a national or regional level from sponsoring sporting events, teams or personalities – in fact it’s positively encouraged. But what, then, will be said if Red Bull in the Middle East wishes to sponsor Nasser’s team in the WRC?

Nasser’s personal sponsorship from Red Bull could be contentious

The responsibility for the timekeeping of WRC events ultimately must rest with the FIA. Red Bull has more pressing questions to answer in the commercial exploitation of the series and its advertising rights – to which there is, as yet, no answer.

Kubica to compete ‘full-time’ in 2013

Polish star of race track and rally stage, Robert Kubica, claims that he is ready for a return to full-time competition following the disastrous accident he suffered on the Ronde di Andora in February 2011, when his Škoda Fabia S2000 struck the end of a guard rail. The accident resulted in partial amputation of his forearm, compound fractures to his right elbow, shoulder and leg, as well as significant loss of blood which has required long and painful rehabilitation from the moment that his life was out of danger.

Kubica’s passion for rallying left him brutally injured in 2011

Throughout that time, Kubica’s employers at the Lotus F1 Team have kept his seat available ready for his return. Kubica’s revocery has been protracted, and suffered setbacks including slipping on ice in the street and falling last winter, aggravating his injuries. Nevertheless, the man himself is confident and in September this year he made a return to competition by winning the Ronde Gomitolo Di Lana at the wheel of a Subaru Impreza WRC.

After surviving a crash on the San Martino di Castrozza Rally without further injury, Kubica won again in last month’s Rally Citta di Bassano, and stated at the time that he would be ready to attempt a full season in competition through 2013. This week, Kubica announced that he will be contesting one more Italian event, the Rally di Como on 15-17 November, and will then head to France for the Rallye du Var a week later. In both of these events he will be entered by Citroën Racing in a 2010-specification C4 WRC.

Happy days are here again as Kubica’s recovery continues

Lotus has meanwhile soldiered on in Kubica’s absence: a miserable 2011 season led to the signing of 2007 F1 world champion and latterly WRC contestant Kimi Räikkönen on a one-year deal for 2012, delivering his best year’s racing in almost a decade. Kimi has re-signed for Lotus in 2013, while the second driver – Franco-Swiss hotshoe Sébastien Grosjean – has alternately shone and infuriated the team and the F1 paddock as a whole.

Grosjean’s position in the team is in the balance despite the patronage of team principal Eric Boullier, and it may well be that the team is seeking to honour its commitment to Kubica if he proves himself strong enough to cope with the g-forces entailed in hustling an F1 car about the place. If not for a full season, then for as many races as is prudent with an eye to supporting a title bid for Räikkönen and scoring constructors’ points, with Grosjean being offered a deal to drive whenever Kubica is unable to do so.

“At the moment I’m working on the possibility of a full season of starts in 2013 to the highest possible level,” Kubica recently said to Autosport.cz.

Räikkönen returned from WRC to win for Lotus F1

Interestingly he has also stated to Italian magazine Autosprint that he envisages the year ahead being split between circuit his two beloved disciplines: ‘I think of my future I see it 70 per cent on track and 30 per cent in rallying,’ he said.

With a pair of part-time drives available at the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team next year, Kubica’s 30 per cent season of rallying might well tie in nicely with the vacant seat in Khalid Al Qassimi’s DS3 WRC. The Rallye du Var is for many teams the ideal test session for January’s Monte Carlo Rally, in which Kubica could take part and get used to the hubbub of media attention before trying his hand at the wheel of a Formula One machine once again.

For one of the sport’s good guys, we can only hope that 2013 marks an enjoyable new beginning.

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.

Seven seats on the merry-go-round

While the action on the stages of France takes priority, in the service area it’s clear that the ‘silly season’ of driver signings is well under way. With the FIA having moved to allow three-car teams that gives potentially nine cars capable of taking rally wins but at the moment only two drives are inked into place: Mikko Hirvonen will lead Citroën and Sébastien Ogier will lead Volkswagen.

Ask anyone in the teams what their feelings are and they will quiet rightly suddenly remember a pressing engagement elsewhere. Well, almost anyone…

“I would take Latvala and Sordo,” Volkswagen’s technical chief, Francois-Xavier Demaison, said recently when asked about his current vacancies. In other words, the only other men who are currently felt capable of leading a WRC team. That would make tremendous sense to Volkswagen, but is highly unlikely.

Dani Sordo is virtually certain to be a Volkswagen driver. While Prodrive has stated that it wants to retain his services at the head of a team of MINIs in 2013, there is no evidence yet of the kind of backing required for the team to contest a full season – still less develop the car to the same extent as the well-funded, works-backed Fords, Citroëns and Volkswagens.

Latvala has tested Ford’s patience but remains No.1

Jari-Matti Latvala has gone on the record to say that there is also a concrete offer on the table from Volkswagen. This is giving the amiable Finn some sleepless nights, but it is impossible to see that the move could work out well for him.

Jari-Matti is a sensitive soul and prone to making mistakes under pressure. Ogier is going to be strident in his defence of the Number 1 status that he holds, while Sordo has a prominent mentor within the team structure in the form of Carlos Sainz. In those two drivers it has a super-fast gravel specialist in Ogier and a proven asphalt talent in Sordo – an all-rounder like Latvala would therefore be a threat to both men.

Dani Sordo and Carlos Sainz – a longtime fan

It seems that Jari-Matti’s main concern is whether Ford is going to be sticking around in the WRC beyond the end of its current deal with M-Sport in 2013. That is fair enough, but he would be walking away from the support of a team that has weathered many crises of confidence and repair bills in seven seasons that have yet to deliver consistent form.

If Latvala were to remain at Ford, it would make a good deal of sense for Ford to retain Petter Solberg in the second car. Yes, he has been as guilty as his young team-mate of dropping points this year, but he has been the more consistent podium finisher. Furthermore the WRC needs genuine star quality, and Solberg delivers that in spades – going out and selling his sport to the public and sponsors with his ebullient enthusiasm and often zany antics.

Solberg’s enthusiasm knows few bounds

The third Ford should by rights go to Solberg’s fellow countryman, Mads Østberg. Two men from Norway might seem a bit odd to Ford Europe’s marketing types, but at this stage in the game they need the kind of talent and pace that can take points away from rival teams and keep up with Latvala if he falters. Østberg is that man.

That leaves us with the third seat at Volkswagen and the two shared drives at Citroën.

For Volkswagen the obvious answer lies in Norway once again: the defending IRC champion, Andreas Mikkelsen. He’s grown in confidence with every stage in his WRC appearances with Ogier this year in their squad of Škoda Fabia S2000s. He has also got a lot of experience of winning at an international level, bringing confidence and the knowledge that he’s not going to be fazed by the pressure of running in a tussle for the podium places.

Mikkelsen’s earned a place with VW in 2013

That leaves us with the two shared drives at Citroën, with both Sébastien Loeb and Khalid Al Qassimi picking a shortened calendar of events. In all likelihood Thierry Neuville has done enough to retain one of the coveted DS3 drives, the bespectacled Belgian not in the breathtaking mould but developing well.

The other DS3 should be given to Kris Meeke as often as possible. Yes there are younger men – Ott Tanak and Evgeny Novikov spring to mind – but neither is proven. Meeke, like Mikkelsen, won the hard-fought IRC through an ability to win on all surfaces in fierce competition. Yes, he does interface with the scenery on occasion, but not enough to deny him the chance of ably stepping in to Loeb’s seat whenever it becomes available.

Meeke went fast everywhere to win ’09 IRC – and shone for MINI

So there we are then: that’s the silly season sorted…