For the first time in a couple seasons, 2012 will see proper “junior” squads making a return in the World Rally Championship. These teams are often manufacturer efforts put forth to develop the future stars of the WRC. Jari-Matti Latvala and Sebastien Ogier are a couple of the most recent graduates from Ford and Citroen respectfully. These teams are rarely given the chance to compete for victories, but will see some of the best and brightest pushing the car to the absolute limit. The goal is to leave that lasting impression on Mr. Wilson or Mr. Quesnel’s face in hopes of securing the prized factory seat.
Citroen have been very active in grooming their own talent with Sebastien Ogier the most recent graduate. After competeing with the Citroen Juniors team, Ogier went on to give his teammate all he could handle in 2011. He was a regular podium finisher and was swapping rally wins with his Loeb for a majority of the year. Ogier is arguably the second fastest driver in the championship and will win a title sooner rather than later. The French ace was signed by Volkswagen this offseason and will continue to refine his craft in a Skoda Fabia S2000 ahead of the Polo R debut.
Ford have had a tougher go at it. Their Stobart “junior” team has really been anything but junior. Matthew Wilson has been a mainstay along with Henning Solberg. While Henning and Matthew have put together respectable finishes over the last couple years, neither was ever a serious shot to get in at the factory squad. It is this lack of young talent development that has really set back Ford. Instead of looking to groom new talent, they sank money into a failed effort that has yielded no fruit. Mads ostberg finally received a few rallies last season with the team and put together a very impressive 2011 campaign.
2011 was a terrible year for these development teams as the new formula of world rally car was drastically changed. While Stobart continued to run, Citroen did not produce enough DS3 to allow for such a team to exist. Instead, customer teams like Kimi Raikkonen’s Ice 1 Racing were allowed to purchase the machines. Ford had an armada of Fiesta S2000Ts available but those were purchased by folks like Ken Block and Dennis Kuipers (not what I call blossoming talent). So now that 2012 is rapidly approaching, let’s take a look at what these young development teams will look like.
Now that Ford and M-Sport have made nice with each other, the team can finally start to focus on the 2012 Fiesta and campaign. It has not come without troubles though. Stobart was the main sponsor for the second M-Sport team, however that has gone away and with it goes the finances. That has not stopped M-Sport from fielding the team with some fresh young faces. Mads Ostberg and Ott Tanak have secured deals that will see their continued development in the WRC. Back a few weeks ago it appeared as though Tanak may have been in line for the second factory seat. He has impressed so far and is smack in the middle of his five year development deal with M-Sport. Ostberg had a solid 2011 where he flew the M-Sport/Stobart banner for a majority of the season. A career best second place in Sweden was a great indicator of the speed capable.
I like the lineup here and I think this will work out well for M-Sport going forward. It is true that Petter Solberg is not getting any younger and a fresh crop of young drivers getting a crack at the top level will do well for when he decides to hang the boots up. I think that obviously Tanak is the guy that Ford looks to make into an “Ogier” like driver. If anything, Malcolm has realized that Citroen were able to dominate because of the talent that was groomed within the team at such an early level. Ogier worked with Citroen from the very bottom to the factory team last year. Perhaps Tanak will be able to follow suit and develop into a fine young talent.
Citroen have also brought back a junior team of sorts. Nasser al-Attiyah has been signed to drive a factory DS3 as has IRC standout Thierry Neuville. The Belgian star has been given a limited schedule in 2012. The only way to complete his development is to perform well. Thierry has really progressed well to this point. In 2010, he was a podium threat and upped his game for 2011 where he was able to take rally victories and even challenge for the IRC trophy. Olivier Quesnel has made it clear that he is offering the same program to Thierry as he did Ogier. Produce results and work your way to the top.
Nasser al-Attiyah on the other hand has proven his speed in Dakar and through other WRC events. While he is not necessarily a young gun, he does have a lot of skill and can add a lot of experience to the team. What also helps is al-Attiyah’s experience in Dakar for this year’s longer enduro rallies. This is a unique skill set amongst the other drivers in the junior programs and will be invaluable as the teams prepare for the long events.
All in all, there is a bit of a different look to the junior squads this year that I feel is very positive. Teams are developing the future talent of the WRC. There are also a number of drivers moving into the S2000 ranks that we will be talking about as we prepare for the 2012 kickoff in Monte Carlo!