Newsround… Newsround… Newsround…

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It’s the Autosport International Show, folks. This means that there will be drunken chaos in the Metropole Hotel tonight, during which the subject of conversation will include such nuggets as:

Michal Kociuszko will contest a full season in the WRC at the wheel of his Lotos-backed, Motorsport Italia-run MINI, sans the Red Bull Mobile advertising

The Czech National Team Fiesta WRC of Martin Prokop will appear in an extended schedule of 11 out of the 13 WRC rounds this year after opting to run DMACK tyres

Ford has relevealed its definitive 2013 livery. As was pictured last month it blends the burgundy of Qatar with the green of Castrol and black of M-Sport. A late infusion of blue stops it looking quite so much like the UAE flag… although it still does!

Jänner Rallye winner Jan Kopeçky is pushing Škoda Motorsport to extend his season to give him a shot at winning the FIA ERC title

Petter Solberg will be putting his marriage vows to the test next weekend when he debuts his new Ford Esort RS1800 in a local snow rally, co-driven by wife Pernilla

Prodrive will be entering a pair of MINI S2000s in WRC2 for Ukrainian drivers Valery Gorban and Oleksii Kikireshko, sponsored by Mentos and Chupa Chups. Apparently there is more mileage in this than the confectionary giant’s previous sponsorships, including Sheffield Wednesday football club.

Petter goes sideways in 2013

Hirvo in his RS1800

Hirvo in his RS1800

Petter Solberg will be staring out of the side window for a good period of time next year, if rumours are true. The 2003 world champion is believed to have bought a classic Ford Escort RS1800 in which to get his kicks while away from the WRC action.

The car is one prepared by Viking Motorsport – the classic rally specialist owned by Phil Mills, Petter’s former co-driver.

Viking-prepared Escorts are proven to be extremely rapid machines in classic competition. Solberg meanwhile follows the likes of Colin McRae and Mikko Hirvonen in buying himself one of the Group 4 cars which made such a legend in the sport through the 1970s with their sideways style and barking BDA engines.

Still a favourite in club-level and classic rallies, regular faces seen peering out of RS1800s include Stig Blomqvist, Gwyndaf Evans and his FIA Academy-winning son Elfyn.

This RS1800 was McRae's pride and joy

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.

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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.

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.

You can’t keep a good man down…

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Let’s be honest, Petter Solberg’s had a fairly miserable season in 2012. He swallowed his pride and signed on with Ford in the clear and certain knowledge that his job, in the team’s eyes, was to support the title bid of its mercurial young star, Jari-Matti Latvala.

In the end there wasn’t much of a title bid for Petter to support, and instead his season became a race for third place in the final standings against Latvala and the independent Ford entry of Mads Ostberg. Solberg was more consistent than Latvala until the final third of the year, when things started to go seriously awry and he ended up a disappointing fifth.

Once again the Norwegian is fighting for his future in the wake of Ford’s withdrawal from the sport. He is 38 years old and hasn’t won a rally since 2005 but he is one of the biggest names in the sport and one of the most popular men in the world to rally fans.

In his column for Autosport this week, Solberg spoke with commendable candour about his prospects. One thing that rally drivers universally share – which too many of their circuit racing contemporaries do not – is a complete absence of ‘BS’, as evidenced when Petter said:

 “I have to think like this. I’m a professional driver and if I can’t make a living doing this then I have to look for other work, it’s as simple as that. If I do retire, it would be nice to have started and finished my WRC career with Ford.”

Once again the fire in the belly that caused Solberg to set up his own team in just six weeks following Subaru’s withdrawal from the WRC seems to be glowing again. We love Petter at WRF and will forgive him all manner of mishaps because, as he wrote on his car back in 2009: ‘This is my life!’

We know it is, old boy, and we’re all the richer for that.

Happy birthday for Sunday, too!

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.