So I know what you are thinking…”Shaun, rally is by far NOT manufactured results like some of our other favorite series.” I agree to you 100% minus the sly tactics the teams pull on occasion. I am talking about the grand scheme of things to be honest and my point is that rally is a sport of manufacturers…or at least it used to be! Audi, MINI, Lancia, Porsche, Peugeot, Ford, Subaru, Mitsubishi, and all the rest were at one time battling it out through the history of rally as full works teams. In recent years that has obviously not been the case. The WRC has seen an oppressive era of Ford and Citroen destroying the competition and recently the only competition at rally’s top flight. As much as the IRC wants to brag it has more manufacturers, they are indeed wrong. Skoda and Peugeot make up the field for the most part with Proton and folks like Abarth making cameo appearances. Yes I get that Proton is full time in the IRC, but not getting out of the second stage of an event brings that into question! The problem with rally these days are the lack of manufacturers. It is not like F1 where privateer teams come in and enjoy success or even challenge for wins, it is reliant on big manufacturers spending money and running a factory outfit. It is also more appealing to the manufacturers because of it’s relatively low cost compared to ultra techno F1 and Le Mans.
Look at previous years for example in the WRC. At the time, the BP Abu Dhabi Ford team and Citroen Total teams were the only cars with a chance. While Ford is not 100% a factory effort, they may as well be with the amount of support they get from Ford. Stobart Ford and Citroen Juniors squad were unable to challenge for victory. “Well Shaun, Sebastien Ogier won in a Citroen Junior machine last year!” I get that, but he is not only an exceptional talent, but was also being groomed to take over a seven times champion. So Citroen will see to it that he wins and puts on a good showing. Either that or they can answer questions as to what they will do after Loeb leaves. So look at the private entries and nothing jumps off the page for the last couple seasons. Peugeot and Skoda both operate “factory” teams so they too are not exempt in the IRC.
This season in the WRC, we have several teams that are “privateer” entries with a real shot at winning rallies. Let’s not blow this out of proportion. Ice 1 Racing, Petter Solberg World Rally Team, and M-Sport Stobart are getting heavy doses of manufacturer support. So much so that the previous teams mentioned are not allowed to take their cars to the shop to work on them ahead of the next event. So I will claim that as a very heavy manufacturer involvement. One large problem facing these private teams though is money. Yes I know…money has hit all the series we cover here at Open Paddock, but the rally teams are no exception. When Petter Solberg is struggling to finance his own operation due to a lack of sponsors, there is an issue. This is making it increasingly difficult for teams to show up for all the events and creating an environment that does not support them becoming too competitive. A gap that produces lack luster rallies and a gap that needs to be filled by manufacturer efforts.
When International Sportsworld Communicators changed over to North One Sports, a new push was made to bring manufacturers back into the sport. The FiA followed up with a new formula that may bring about those car companies this year and now into the future. Previously, the WRC machine was a 2.0 litre turbo charged car. The FiA decided to move towards the world engine, which for the WRC meant a 1.6 litre turbo S2000 variant. The FiA figured that most of the car companies in the world had a 1.6 turbo in production, and with the standard regulations on the S2000 chassis, more companies could afford to come in and participate. This new formula was good enough to bring in a former rally marque in MINI. With BMW at their back and Prodrive taking care of logistics and technical development, we would have a third manufacturer for the first time in a few years. A third since the fall of Subaru and Suzuki to be exact. While the car has yet to compete, the drivers are already raving that the car could be a challenger in 2012.
North One Sports original goal was to have four manufacturers in the series and it looks as though our fourth is very nearly about to come in. Volkswagen is set to be the fourth to enter with either a Polo or Scirocco WRC machine. While no announcement has been made official, it is thought that a recent German TV agreement with the WRC giving greater exposure was the one thing Volkswagen were waiting for. The WRC getting Volkswagen will be a major shot in the arm to the series due to its massive size. While MINI is good, it is a smaller company and not nearly the size of VW. So there we have it right? Wrong! This past week it was made aware that Saab are also very close to maybe pushing into the sport with a 9-1 or 9-2. This after a Russian Billionaire Vladimir Antonov made a hefty investment to North One TV and completely cleared them of all debt. This allows the WRC promotional body to invest in further development of the sport. Antonov is also very close with Saab and it is thought anyway that this investment will pave the way for Saab to come in as a FIFTH manufacturer.
So what does it all mean in the grand scheme of things? It shows that now top level drivers llike Petter Solberg, Juho Hanninen, and Mads Ostberg will have full term rides without having to worry about sponsorship dollars or floating from series to series. It gurantees another four seats for the top line drivers that cannot keep their own teams afloat. It gives the series a much needed shot in the arm and issues a rather clean bill of health to something that has been just staying afloat in the motorsport world. Manufacturers are realizing that rally is cheaper and more relevant because the cars actually look like the cars you can buy for the most part. Let’s face it, throughout time rally has been a manufacturer sport and has to be for the sake of its survival.