WRC: What's new in 2014
Welcome to another WRC season, the 42nd season in the history of the FIA's World Rally Championship, a year with a lot of changes in the teams, some changes in the cars and continued confusion among the promoters about what exactly they want the championship to be. The most exciting prospect is the arrival of a fourth regular manufacturer, Hyundai, the second new manufacturer in successive seasons, who have been set a very high benchmark standard to aim at following the impressive arrival twelve months earlier of Volkswagen. Citroen Racing continues to run a WRC team, this time alongside their new WTCC racing team, while Ford is represented once again by the private M-Sport team.
Volkswagen will be hoping to replicate their 2013 WRC success and have proven their pace already at the first round at Monte Carlo
Not for many years has there been such a turnaround of the drivers in the top teams, the only stability being shown by VW who continued to run the new world champion Sebastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala as their lead drivers, and their cadet driver Andreas Mikkelsen in a second-level support team car. With the exception of VW, the whole driver market for 2014 hung in suspense waiting for the young Belgian Thierry Neuville to decide who to drive for. In the end he plumped for the new Hyundai team, who offered a longer term contract with a representative salary, even though their new i20 car had never turned a wheel in anger - and he had never even driven a prototype. It was a bold but easily justifiable decision for the 25 year old, who had driven impressively well in 2013 but who had not yet won a WRC event.
With Ogier, Latvala, Mikkelsen and now Neuville settled, the next big question centred on the plans for a driver even less experienced in the WRC than Neuville. This was the former Formula 1 driver Robert Kubica, whose determination to succeed in this new sport had been amazing in 2013. He presented a major dilemma for Citroen Racing team, who in 2013 had lost the services of Neuville, a driver they had encouraged through difficult days, and who in 2013 had given a similar support to Kubica. In the end Kubica's primary commercial backer, Lotos, could not work with a rival oil company (Total) who had been a long time Citroen partner and Kubica accepted the chance to run a support championship team with M-Sport. The rest of the line-up fell it place. Mikko Hirvonen went back to M-Sport, with the 25 year old Elfyn Evans as number two Citroen ended up with Kris Meeke and Mads Ostberg with team patron Khalid Al Qassimi entered only for occasional events and Hyundai decided to alternate their number two car between Dani Sordo (who had been strangely dropped by Citroen), test drivers Juho Hanninen and on occasion Chris Atkinson. Welcome therefore Evans and Kubica, goodbye Nasser Al Attiyah (and with him, Qatar sponsorship), Evgeny Novikov and Michal Kosciuszko.
Robert Kubica was the last missing piece of the 2014 WRC driver line-up puzzle
The WRC calendar was largely familiar, with Poland a surprise substitute for the popular Acropolis Rally, the WRC being persuaded to return to Poland by the offer of a cross-border route in which stages would also be run in neighbouring Lithuania, the first time a Baltic country had been involved in the WRC. The events themselves showed a shift in format, three years after FIA President exhorted the concept of greater variety in the ways events were run, the FIA commissions decided to revert to long established formats (essentially meaning three full day events with Sunday early-afternoon finishes), leading to ongoing debates about who was actually now running the show. Is it the newly re-elected FIA President, the FIA specialist commissions, or the new Promoters who work hard trying to make free-to-view national rally television more generally available?
Discontent at lack of visible progress by the Promoters coupled with a lack of positive direction by the championship commission had escalated through 2013. This culminated in angry words from manufacturers and more changes in running order rules for 2014, coupled with the decision to drop the Qualifying Stage and associated running order selection process, for the season. On this topic, nobody seemed to be happy or present a consistent line. Meanwhile the FIA commissions continued with their trial-and-error policies and presented a completely new and untried number system for the different rally categories. In theory, this was to highlight that a category with the lower number was superior to a category with a higher number. Thus for 2014, the World Rally Cars will run under the new class RC1, the second class is RC2, which caters for a wide variety of homologated cars often with confusing names such as N4, R4 and R5, the RC3 caters for R2 and R3 cars and so on till RC5 caters for R1 cars. Nightmare.
The new Hyundai i20 WRC is the only completely new car to take to the 2014 WRC stages
There is the same situation about cars in the WRC. Under an agreed cost-saving plan, the three continuing manufacturers (Citroen, Ford and VW) will not present any significant new homologation applications in 2014. This means that these three cars will continue much as before usually with exactly the same chassis units as in 2013, leaving only Hyundai's WRC i20 the only new car on the starting line. This will be a one season model while Hyundai develop their new version WRC car due for 2015. In the WRC support categories, new cars will come along in 2014. Due for homologation in March are the Citroen and Peugeot R5 cars, the Citroen ear-marked for competition on WRC level events and the Peugeot 208 T16 car for regional championship competition. Due in January is the new uprated Citroen DS3 R3T Maxi model, then half way through the season is due the Renault Clio Turbo R3T. For the first time since the end of the Group B supercar era, a world championship rally is due to see a sports car in action! Following the FIA's move to make sports car homologation within the R-GT group easier, a Porsche Cayman has been entered in Monte Carlo. This year the number of tyre manufacturers eligible for competition with four-wheel-drive championship competitors has increased from two to four, with the arrival of Pirelli and Hankook.
A lot of things are wrong about the WRC these days, as evidenced by the complete tangle at the FIA in deciding how to continue the Junior rally series at world level. The promoters of the European regional championship were given permission to go ahead with a Junior series of their own, open to younger drivers in any R2 cars, leaving the FIA to indicate they wanted the world level Junior series to run for R3 cars. This policy was deeply unpopular for two reasons, firstly R3 cars would present to huge challenge for young and lesser-experienced drivers, and anyway the only available R3 cars available at world rally level were Citroen DS3 R3Ts which had already established a monopoly in the WRC3 category. Even as this article is written the FIA are giving unconvincing assurances that a Junior world series will happen in 2014. The reality is that the European R2 category is promising, especially with the arrival in 2014 of the Opel Adam R2. The other disappointment is the lack of direction coming from the WRC Promoters. What is happening in the ERC under the leadership of Eurosport Events deserves the attention of the WRC. This year the ERC also have a cup for manufacturers as opposed to teams, once again they have picked up another established WRC event which has fallen out with the WRC organisers (taking on the Acropolis Rally, like they previously had done with Monte Carlo and Corsica but they seemed to be deceived by the wish to strike uncharted territory, this year by saying that their events would run Qualifying Stages, which had already proved to be disastrous in the WRC. Not even the ERC is free from controversy!
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