Rally – WRC Musical Chairs

By Mike Shaw, Rally Reporter:

As the WRC season nears its end, drivers and teams start the process of playing musical chairs in hopes of landing the next championship. The stakes are especially high for 2013 as it has the potential to be a huge turning point for the sport. At least it had the potential, as suddenly the number of available seats has been drastically reduced for 2013.

Late last week we heard the official, although long rumored, exit of BMW / Mini as an official works manufacturer. The Mini John Cooper Works WRC car will remain in the World Rally Championship and other rally events as Prodrive will continue to homologate the car and offer services for paying customers. Prodrive interestingly responded to the BMW / Mini announcement stating that they are committed to a full 2013 WRC campaign. It very well could be that Prodrive has finally secured a committed sponsor for next year, but no confirmation of their driver lineup has been announced. It would be safe to assume Dani Sordo will remain their driver choice as he assisted in the initial development. For sure next season we will likely still see customer teams like the Brazil World Rally Team and others with paying drivers like the always comical Paolo Nobre, but they will not be required to compete in all the events.

The BMW / Mini exit was fully expected, however the big shocker, as reported just yesterday here on OpenPaddock.net, is that Ford announced its exit from the WRC as a “Title Sponsor.” A lot of chatter has gone around about the verbiage used by Ford in their announcement however the conclusion is that they are doing the exact same thing as BMW/Mini. Last year Ford had committed to two more years in the WRC, so they still have one year remaining on a contract and will have to pay penalties to get out of it. Why has Ford chosen now to exit the WRC though? Did they know something about the new Red Bull Media House deal the rest of us didn’t, or did Ford already commit to this decision before the Motorsports Council confirmation of the new global promoter? Either way, this is very sad news as Ford, working with Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport, has been a factory works team in the WRC since 1997. M-Sport quickly responded to Ford’s announcement just like Prodrive, that they would continue homologating the Fiesta WRC and maintain customer cars. Likely that means drivers such as Mads Ostberg and Evgeny Novikov, etc. will likely continue to run Fiesta WRCs next season.

So if Ford is out, where does that leave the Ford drivers? Well, announced today was that Jari-Matti Latvala is officially leaving Ford for Volkswagen. My assumption is that Ford already knew he was leaving, and without Jari-Matti Ford felt it didn’t have the talent for a 2013 title against VW or Citroen. Why JML would leave Ford now is a tough call. Sure, Ford had only one more year on its contract at the time, but if JML won the championship in 2013, his options would be plentiful. My guess is he simply played the safe bet and went to the manufacturer with the deepest pockets and doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to Sebastian Ogier.

So that leaves Petter Solberg. Where does he go? He has vowed to never run his own team again. He only wants to be a manufacturer driver. Will Citroen pick him up as the spare seat for the events Loeb misses next year? Citroen always has a line to their stable with the mighty success they have had over the years, however Petter was extremely frustrated as a customer driver with Citroen and felt his car wasn’t getting the proper attention to be competitive. Also Citroen has done a great job of developing young talent such as Thierry Neuville who has shown to be a very capable driver in the rounds he has run in the Citroen DS3 WRC. My initial thought is that Petter Solberg, although highly marketable, is part of the old guard and will simply fade away. I’m a huge Petter Solberg fan, but I’d bet that he ends up working with Hyundai as a development driver like Carlos Sainz did for VW.

It is interesting how so much talent is going to VW for their first season. Everyone has high hopes for VW, however being their first season there are always issues that crop up. To think that VW will suddenly win the championship in its first year is a stretch at best. Remember how Mini had a fast car when it first came out, but ran into reliability issues. They adjusted the radiator placement as it was too low for rough, gravel events and would get clogged up with debris or cracked. Also, they switched from a mechanical water pump to an electric one as they had multiple motor belt issues. Based on recent history, my prediction is that 2013 will have Citroen once again claiming the manufacturers crown with Mikko Hirvonen also claiming the drivers’ title. I’d love to be proven wrong, but with Ford’s exit, I can’t see it going any other way.

Editor’s Note:
Mike Shaw has been a regular contributor to OpenPaddock.net, offering his observations, opinions, and insight into the world of rally. Beginning in 2013, as OpenPaddock moves into it’s fifth year of operation, Mr. Shaw will formally join our growing team as our Rally Editor in charge of reporting on, offering opinion of, and organizing coverage of the WRC, Rally America, and Global Rallycross. We welcome Mr. Shaw on board and hope that you enjoy his insightful writing and reporting as much as we have.

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