Monte Part 6: Shiny, happy people…

Ostberg closed Day 3 with his first stage win

Ostberg closed Day 3 with his first stage win

Sisteron is an emblematic stage and it closed the third day’s action in the Alpes Maritimes. Despite extremely icy conditions, almost everyone came through with a smile on their face. All except Mikko Hirvonen…

Sébastien Loeb was happy to have nudged a second or two further away from anyone else. But with his Citroën more than 90 seconds ahead after 13 stages, it’s all fairly academic. In second place, Volkswagen’s star Sébastien Ogier is also a picture of contentment, choosing to ignore Loeb’s very existence and focus instead on his own 90-second advantage over Evgeny Novikov in third.

The young Russian charger has been spectacular throughout, and by putting his M-Sport Fiesta in contention for a podium he is doing all that Malcolm Wilson could ask. He gets the quote of the day award, too, for stating that it had been ‘a fine day’. Presumably he is honing his ENglish skills from watching 1950s war movies and will soon appear in the service park smoking a pipe and with a spaniel skipping along at his heels.

Novikov’s ascent was aided by Dani Sordo having a spin in his Citroën. Nevertheless, Novikov had been hauling him in at a furious pace, so the Spaniard was fairly sanguine about it all.

Joy was unbounded for fifth placed Jari-Matti Latvala, however, in the second Volkswagen. Although the Polo has escaped damage in what has been a remarkably hesitant first event for the former Ford team leader, Sisteron was the first time he looked competitive all weekend and by bagging the second fastest time through the stage he also swept past Citroën team leader Mikko Hirvonen.

Hirvo was the most glum of the front runners. on a particularly icy day which brought out the Finn’s cautious side. He explained that he had spent so much time on the brakes that they overheated, dropping still more time to let his countryman and former team-mate Latvala through into fifth place.

Juho Hänninen holds eighth in his M-Sport car, making his the second best Fiesta so far on the event – a good reason to be cheerful in his first event at the wheel of a contemporary WRC car. The Finn’s margin over his team leader Mads Østberg is nevertheless depleted after the young Norwegian bagged his first stage win with a fine drive through Sisteron. The top 10 is completed by the works-supported Citroën of Bryan Bouffier and the Czech-entered Fiesta of Martin Prokop.

Young German ace Sepp Wiegand continued on his way towards WRC2 victory in the Škoda Fabia S2000 despite an electrical gremlin. The sole surviving WRC3 entrant, Sébastien Chardonnet, was meanwhile having plenty of fun in his Citroën DS3 R3T after putting spikes on the front wheels and finding the handling so good that his time was good enough to beat most of the 4WD WRC2 cars!

M-Sport’s Triple Whammy

Surpri-i-i-se! Neuville jumps ship from PSA

Surpri-i-i-se! Neuville jumps ship from PSA

As expected, the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team has named Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov as full-time partner to Mads Østberg in 2013. It has also named Citroën youngster and former Peugeot IRC frontrunner Thierry Neuville as its third driver, contesting all 13 rounds of the 2013 WRC season.

That’s three Qatar-branded Fiestas running all year, with a fourth car for former IRC winner and S2000 world champion Juho Hänninen taking part in the first two events of the year plus team sponsor and former PWRC world champion Nasser Al-Attiyah joining for seven events. This gives team boss Malcolm Wilson three young men all eager to prove that they can step up to the top step of the podium on a regular basis plus a pair of established performers.

The signing of Neuville was a surprise, although his absence from the Citroën launch event in Abu Dhabi was telling. Clearly throwing in the towel with the PSA Group, which has nurtured the young Belgian’s career so far, in favour of a non-works Fiesta, was a gamble worth taking in his mind. Certainly Neuville has the full backing of Al-Attiyah, with whom he campaigned the third Citroën on this year’s world championship. Whether or not he also brings the stipulated $2-3 million that M-Sport requires for a full year in 2013 is not yet known.

There is plenty of scope for over-anxious young drivers to bend their cars in 2013 as they seek to make a name for themselves. Nevertheless it also has plenty of excitement in store on the stages – and that’s what the WRC is all about.

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 names Hänninen – edited

HänninenFinland gets another top-line driver in the WRC for 2013 with the announcement that former Škoda ace Juho Hänninen will compete in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta.

Hänninen won the 2010 Intercontinental Rally Challenge and the 2011 Super 2000 World Rally Championship at the wheel of a Fabia S2000 but left the Czech squad at the end of this season. Although initially plans were made for him to compete in a MINI WRC next year, the withdrawal of Ford made a top-line seat available and Hänninen brings not only talent but, crucially, sufficient sponsorship funding to suit team boss Malcolm Wilson’s needs.

“I want to thank Škoda for the past four years,” said Hänninen in an M-Sport statement. “Together we won all we aimed for, but unfortunately the two-year programme they offered me wouldn’t have taken my career forward. My life’s ambition has been to compete at the highest level of rallying, in WRC, and succeed there. Now my wish has come true with the car M-Sport will provide me.”

Hänninen’s regular co-driver, Mikko Markkula, will co-drive for Andreas Mikkelsen in the works Volkswagen on next year’s WRC, the Finn welcomes experienced countryman, Tomi Tuominen, on board for 2013. With 21 WRC starts to his name, Tuominen has navigated for the likes of Sebastian Lindholm and Toni Gardemeister.

“I´ve known Tomi for years,” said Hänninen. “He´s an experienced co-driver and I believe our co-operation will be great.”

Our new favourite rally driver

The name Inessa Tushkanova might not mean a massive amount to you yet, but give the girl time. Or just give her $3 million and Malcolm Wilson will put her in one of his cars for a season.

At present M-Sport’s second seat is likely to be heading towards another spectacular Russian driver who is unlikely to trouble the championship title battle, Evgeny Novikov. Nevertheless, while Inessa may lack Evgeny’s seat-of-the-pants excitement in the car, she excels in the pants-completely-missing excitement of a glamour girl.

Yes, if the American public is both titillated and appalled by Danica Patrick’s rampant sexiness in America, they ain’t seen nothing compared to dear old Inessa.

 

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.

Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team announced

Former PWRC champion and Dakar winner Nasser Al-Attiyah has put together the financial package required for Qatar to take title sponsorship of the M-Sport squad in next year’s WRC. A three-car squad of Fiestas will be entered in the WRC, with Al-Attiyah also contesting the FIA Middle East Rally Championship.

Al-Attiyah and Qatar have had a relationship with Citroën Racing this season, but the emirate of Abu Dhabi will partner the French marque in 2013. Initially it was believed that Al-Attiyah would have to call time on his WRC ambitions, but Ford’s withdrawal from the WRC meant that the squad of Fiestas came on the market at an appropriate price.

The Qatar deal is not believed to have any impact on M-Sport team boss Malcolm Wilson’s requirement that potential drivers for 2013 should be prepared to bring funding with them. This has put 2003 world champion Petter Solberg’s seat in jeopardy, as he has stated this weekend that he will happily drive without taking a salary but will not pay the team for his position.

A confirmed driver line-up for the 2013 Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team is expected next Monday.