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.

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Loeb looms large in Mads’ mirror

Mads Østberg retains the overnight lead in Spain, but he’s got a cushion of just 27.2 seconds over second placed Sébastien Loeb as the Rally de España heads for two days on asphalt roads. Østberg is always impressive on gravel, but he was still at school the last time that Loeb was beaten in Spain.

No pressure then, Mads!

Ostberg shone in the dreadful weather of the opening day

The superstar in his Citroën was content to play a waiting game on the first full day, taking great pains to avoid silly mistakes in a gruesomely wet and treacherous pair of loops which saw several other lead entries slip up. Whenever the going was good, Loeb stepped it up and vaulted up the order from fourth to second but it was clear that he is simply biding his time now in readiness for the coming asphalt action.

Third place overnight is being held by the charging works Ford Fiesta WRC of Jari-Matti Latvala. In his last appearance at the wheel of an M-Sport-prepared car, the Finn put on a decent spurt and remains just 20s shy of Loeb. Latvala’s only desire at this stage in the season is to take on and beat the mighty nine-time champion in order to claim his first asphalt victory, thereby fulfilling one of the biggest aims of his career and to make a suitable parting gift to the M-Sport team.

Just behind the top three are Mikko Hirvonen in the second works Citroën and Ott Tänak’s M-Sport Fiesta. A mighty chasm of almost five minutes follows them, but remarkably sixth place in the running is held by the S2000 Ford Fiesta of Irish youngster Craig Breen.

Craig Breen is the success story of Spain so far

Breen was helped up the order by a time-consuming puncture for Jarkko Nikara in the Prodrive MINI WRC, while S2000 favourite Sébastien Ogier’s Volkswagen-run Skoda Fabia S2000 stopped on the road section before Salou.

Breen therefore holdsthe lead in the SWRC class as well as his sixth spot on the leaderboard, ahead of Hans Weijs Jr in the Qatar Citroen. Nikara is eighth, while SWRC contender PG Andersson is ninth in his Proton Satria Neo, after losing time with a driveshaft breakage in the morning and then an error in the afternoon. The Top 10 is rounded out by Russian driver Evgeny Novikov’s M-SPort Ford Fiesta WRC, which is shod with DMACK tyres for the first time.

And so we move on to the asphalt…

Mads leads a mad Spanish dash

The final round of the 2012 WRC season is well underway, with Norway’s young star Mads Østberg out in front, heading a Ford 1-2 in front of the M-Sport Fiesta of Ott Tänak in a rain-lashed Rally de España. This is much-needed good news for Norway, given that its other two rally heroes – Ford’s Petter Solberg and VW’s Andreas Mikkelsen – both crashed out after hitting the same rock on SS2. They were joined by Citroën’s junior driver, Thierry Neuville, who also fell foul of the intransigent mineral.

Some rueful faces on SS2 following rock intervention…

Staying the course – so far at least – in the wake of the two leading Fiestas come the pair of works Citroën DS3s with Mikko Hirvonen in front of Sébastien Loeb, ahead of early leader Jari-Matti Latvala in the surviving works Ford, who is taking things very steadily indeed.

Less than a minute covers the top five after three stages, with all the drivers finding the conditions extreme and many spins and near-misses reported. In the wake of the surviving big guns, sixth place is held by the oft-overlooked Finn, Jarkko Nikara, in his paid-for run at the wheel of a Prodrive MINI although the second M-Sport Ford of Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov is hard on his heels.

Australia’s Chris Atkinson holds eighth in the ‘works’ MINI followed by the Qatar-backed Citroën DS3 of Dutchman Hans Weijs Jr. The top 10 is rounded out by the all-Irish crew of Craig Breen and co-driver Paul Nagle in their Fiesta S2000, in an impressive performance to stay in front of Sébastien Ogier’s VW-entered Škoda Fabia.

 

 

 

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.

Hirvonen cruises to victory

After the crash-fest of the opening day on Friday, the Rallye Italia-Sardegna lapsed into a virtual coma, from which Mikko Hirvonen emerged victorious.

When cars are separated by more than a minute, nothing much is going to happen. Nothing did. Hirvonen pootled along after the early jostle with his nine-time title-winning team-mate Seb Loeb finished on Friday, the Finn never needing to break sweat after Loeb threw his car at the scenery.

The remaining podium places were taken by M-Sport Ford Fiestas (those of Evgeny Novikov and Ott Tänak), after the works Fords of Jari-Matti Latvala and Petter Solberg came to grief on Friday. Mads Østberg was impressive in his drive to fourth place in the Adapta team Fiesta, logging a succession of stage wins to claw back time after being forced to run in front-wheel-drive only on Friday afternoon.

Far and away the most impressive performance of the weekend was, however, that of fifth-placed Sébastien Ogier. In a non-turbo Škoda Fabia S2000, the Frenchman was in electrifying form, taking the outright fastest time on SS5 and keeping  ahead of Chris Atkinson’s MINI WRC and Martin Prokop’s Fiesta WRC to the finish. Ogier’s team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2012 IRC champion-elect, also shone as he seeks to secure forward progress in his career, finishing seventh.

Ogier conjures another giant-killing performance for Škoda

Nevertheless, it was a spectacularly boring affair. Given that most of the field can find their way through the stages of the Rallye de España blindfolded, there are unlikely to be any great surprises there, either.

WRC goes bonkers in Sardinia crash-fest

Perhaps it’s because of all the jockeying for position on the 2013 entry list, with drivers skulking about in the bushes behind the service area signing letters of intent and holding 3 a.m. meetings with team principals. We don’t know, but for some reason the 2012 Rallye Italia-Sardegna’s becoming a fender-bending event like nothing else so far this year.

Sébastien Loeb took the opportunity to hurl his DS3 at the scenery on the first stage of Day 2. Well, he’s the newly-crowned champion so he can celebrate however he likes, can’t he?

Jari-Matti Latvala then gave the Sardinian hedgerows something to think about when he uprooted some flora and fauna with his Fiesta on the very next stage. Perhaps he’s hoping that M-Sport and Ford will agree to let him test his new Volkswagen before the end of the year by showing them how much money can be saved from their repair bill.

As a result of all this shenanigans the second works Citroën of Mikko Hirvonen took a healthy lead on the event over the second works Ford of Petter Solberg, who immediately set about closing the gap… and crashed!

In the wake of Latvala’s announcement that he will be driving for Volkswagen next year, Solberg stated that he was ready to pick up where Latvala left off as Ford team leader. Clearly, this was meant literally.

With Mads Østberg hobbled in a front-wheel-drive Fiesta following another disagreement with the scenery, this has left Hirvonen with a sizeable advantage over young Russian prodigy Evgeny Novikov in his M-Sport Fiesta, with the second M-Sport car of Ott Tänak holding the final podium position at the end of Friday’s action.

More than a minute separates each of the top trio, so you could be forgiven for thinking that things look a little less than exciting for the remainder of the event. This would be the wrong conclusion, however…

Tyre wear is proving problematic for the 1.6-litre turbocharged WRC cars, but the Super 2000 Škodas of Volkswagen Motorsport are coping admirably. So much so, in fact, that Sébastien Ogier went fastest of all on SS5 and, with Tänak nursing a misfire, the feisty Frenchman is in with a sniff of a podium finish.

Now that really would make Sardinia a rally to remember!

Ogier gets the Fabia S2000 flying on gravel – the podium is now in sight in Sardinia

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…