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.
It’s the Monte Carlo Rally, good people. That’s the Monte Carlo Rally! Cue the lights, cue the music, cue Kermit the Frog running past going ‘yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayy’.
Unlike Kermit, however, the Monte’s not on TV… unless you happen to have access to the Red Bull-owned Servus TV station in what used to be called ‘Greater Germany’, you watch Sky TV in New Zealand or you have S4C in Wales. Everyone else should form an orderly queue to hear Jon Desborough’s pearls of wisdom here:
So huddle over your laptops for the time being and let’s share our enjoyment of the Monte by whatever means possible.
Regulars here will know who’s who, what’s what and where’s where – so I’m not previewing it. Oh, all right then… there are Qatar-sponsored Fords that are painted to look like the UAE flag, UAE-sponsored Citroëns painted to look like Christmas decorations and Red Bull-sponsored VWs that have cost €100 million to get this far, so they look uncommonly sensible. There’s also supporting action from privately-entered WRC cars, the new support class structure to enjoy and it looks like there will be plenty of snow.
Despite the return of Dani Sordo to a competitive team (Citroën) and the arrival of Volkswagen, if I were a betting man I’d be putting money on Loeb.
All will be revealed in the next few days, though. Hurrah!
You won’t find anything about today’s announcements by Hyundai about its plans for 2014, however. Why? Because it’s very poor form to try and hijack the start of a real, live championship with yet more pictures of a concept car and not one actual piece of news. Nice try, Hyundai – now run along and come back when you’ve done something interesting.
Plenty to happen in the next fortnight – then Monte is ‘go!’
We’ve got a fortnight until the WRC bursts back to life. In that time, big things will happen:
Red Bull, Sportsman and the FIA must get on the same page regarding the WRC’s promotion and TV coverage.
Nasser Al-Attiyah will be in the thick of the action on the Dakar.
The all-new FIA European Rally championship will kick off in the snow of Austria.
In the meantime the entry list for Monte Carlo is rather promising, with Citroën fielding Sébastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen and Dani Sordo with support for Bryan Bouffier in a fourth DS3 WRC. Volkswagen has its new Polos ready for Sébastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala. M-Sport has two teams and four Fiestas for Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov (running DMACK tyres), Juho Hänninen and Thierry Neuville.
The remaining WRC entries are for Martin Prokop’s Czech Fiesta, another Fiesta for Julien Maurin and a lone MINI WRC entered by Lotos for Poland’s former JWRC contender Michal Kościuszko.
In the first ever WRC2 class, there’s a works Škoda Fabia for Esapekka Lappi with a sister car entered by Škoda Deutschland for Sepp Wiegand. Leading the competition against the Czech cars will be Italy’s Luca Betti in his Peugeot 207 S2000. Four more S2000s (three Peugeots and another Fabia) will also take the start, as will a phalanx of Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X and Subaru Impreza WRXs, including a new-build R4 car for Ireland’s Eamonn Boland.
In the WRC3 classes a total of eight Citroën DS3 R3Ts will meet the challenge of a single Peugeot 208 R3T, six Renault Clio R3s will take on a lone Honda Civic R3, R2 is populated with Citroën C2s, Peugeot 208s and Ford Fiestas, there are five Suzuki Swifts, a pair of Citroën DS3 R1s, a Renault Twingo R1 and a smattering of Monte Carlo ‘randoms’ – including Czech driver Martin Rada in an Alfa Romeo 147!
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.
The new Red Bull-free livery for the DS3 WRCs of the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team and its sister Abu Dhabi Citroën Total World Rally Team has been revealed in this rather tasteful mock-up revealed today. All the interested parties said some very fine words about it, and we at WRF think it looks very smart.
Quite why they didn’t photoshop the graffiti out of the background, and maybe put some cheering fans in the shot, is a moot point.
The question of whether Red Bull, as the WRC’s new promoter, will apply its branding to any of the other entries remains unanswered. The energy drink has long-standing ties with Volkswagen and has previously applied its blue and silver colours to a variety of the German group’s competition cars. Given that the point of all Red Bull’s sporting programmes is to sell the brand to sports fans, it would be unusual to say the least if it had chosen to invest in the WRC without any overt branding on the cars… although this might become a bone of contention for any other manufacturers and sponsors in the series.
In 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.
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.
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.