H&H’s WRC news and views!

Written by Evan Rothman/Handbrakes & Hairpins.

The World Rally Championship (WRC) is a massive news machine. Moving from country to country, continent to continent, it attracts the attention not only of motorsport media and enthusiasts, but of sports fans the world over. Thousands of spectators flock to the stages and the Service Park to soak up the action and cheer on their favourites. Now with four rallies ticked off the 2012 calendar thus far, the WRC is awash with news and rumours aplenty. Handbrakes & Hairpins brings you a few of the more important and entertaining ones…

After the turmoil caused by the BMW/MINI and Prodrive spilt just days before the season-opening WRC Monte Carlo Rally, it seems that while the official factory outfit is struggling to score a top five finish the lads (and lasses) at Prodrive seem to continue on their upward performance curve from 2011 regardless.

Dave Wilock (Prodrive WRC Team chief who replaced David Richards) has come out this past week singing the praises of the Prodrive-built MINI Countryman John Cooper Works WRC machine and its ace driver Dani Sordo.

Despite retiring on Day One from the recent WRC Rally Portugal, Sordo showcased the beefed up MINI’s pace on Days Two and Three as he powered to six stage victories. If he had not suffered on Day One, the Spaniard would have been on the podium…

“Dani’s drive on the Power Stage was just excellent in those [wet] conditions,” said Wilock. “It capped a rally that we generally have to be very pleased with, in spite of the overall finishing positions, because it has shown the world that the MINI WRC now has the pace to win on gravel as well as Tarmac.”

Sordo said: “I was really happy to win the Power Stage, it is a great way to finish the rally. I have had some really good moments on this rally and I have a lot of confidence in the car and the performance is fantastic. I can’t wait until we compete again as I think, with more luck on our side, we now have a real opportunity to do something very special with this car.”

Is Mr Sordo hinting at a rally win? You bet! Is it possible? Most definitely! His former team-mate Sebastien Loeb (Citroën Total World Rally Team) crashed out of the Portuguese event on Day One too and was unable to continue, showing he is human after all. But, more on that in a few more paragraphs.

Also impressive thus far in 2012 is Russia’s 21-year-old Evgeniy Novikov. In his ALM-Russia Ford Fiesta RS WRC, Novikov landed on the second step of the winners’ podium in the WRC Rallye de Portugal, his maiden visit to the podium in his WRC career. Sat alongside Novikov is the Denis Giraudet, the most experienced and knowledgeable copdriver in the business. The 56-year-old had this to say abou this driver; “There is no limit for Evgeny, he is very very good. But what people have to remember is he is so young. On Friday when the conditions were really awful he showed fantastic car control and because he is so young I think he could see through the fog.

“Evgeny is sometimes caught out because when you are so young you don’t have enough experience to build the confidence and you are doing mistakes,” said Giraudet. “You must always remember he is 21. Imagine if he was able to do three more years doing all the rallies there would be no mistakes because he would know the stages.

Novikov said: “Denis and I have both been waiting for this moment for a very long time and it has been an amazing weekend for us both. He has helped me a lot and I hope we can achieve more podiums together in the future.”

The “Mad” Mads Ostberg stole the headlines last month when he became the first privateer WRC driver to win an event since 1993, and he did so in fine form in Portugal against his rivals. Now third on the Drivers’ Championship standings, the Norwegian rally driver is certain to be a thorn in the side of the factory teams… With this confidence injection for his abilities, it will be most exciting to see how he performs in the rest of the season!

But, generating the most whispers this past week has been the rumours of Toyota making a return to the WRC. News to you? Nope, the brand has flirted with the WRC a few times since it withdrew from the sport at the turn of the century. This latest rumour is the most reliable to date, though.

Toyota has a “global race engine” as required for a Manufacturer entry into the WRC, and there are reports of a 1.6-litre turbocharged motor being tested at Toyota Motorsport GmbH in Cologne, Germany. Which chassis and car will the Japanese automotive giant use as its face of rallying? The Yaris is being thumbed as the weapon of choice, and this seems to fit with the plans of Toyota South Africa’s Motorsport arm in producing a Yaris S2000 for competition before mid-year.

In an interview with WRC.com, a spokesman from TMG said: “We’re leaning towards an S2000-style of car which would be available for customers first. This is a development project, but it’s very early days – the engine only fired up for the first time a few weeks ago – at the very earliest, a car won’t be available until next year. Obviously, this being a Global Race Engine, it could go in any car, but the Yaris seems to make sense.”

No secret is the fact that Toyota already has a rally car coming out of TMG, in the shape of an R1 challenge Yaris soon. Lets not forget that Toyota was one of the powerhouses of rallying, winning seven FIA world titles in the sport and a move back to the WRC would mean joining Ford, Citroen, MINI and Volkswagen.

Shaking up the establishment is exactly what the WRC needs, but not the sort of shake-up the sport has endured with the embarrassing handling of the NorthOne Sport/FIA debacle… Rally fans have been reminded that multiple WRC Champion Sebastien Loeb is but human after all. And, that Finnish star Jari-Matti Latvala is yet to reach his prime years of talent and is still learning from the masters the intricacies of the sport we all so love.

An error in a call, not in the co-driver Daniel Elena’s pace notes, but in Loeb’s hearing in fact, saw the French pairing crash out of the WRC Rallye de Portugal. A simple mistake that could have been more costly had it been on the Monte Carlo Rally for instance, but fortunately for the crew it resulted in a crash they both walked away from. Concentration is important, and this error from the world’s best highlights the challenges in rallying and the demands placed on crews.

Latvala’s accident is one of many in his WRC career and in his time in the Ford World Rally Team’s cars. His pace, his professionalism and his dedication to be the best will see him as WRC Champion soon, his drive to be the best sees him being overly critical of his mistakes. At that level of the sport it is needed, but so is the confidence and self-belief that one’s talent and speed is peerless. His boss Malcolm Wilson (Principal at M-Sport and Team Chief at Ford World Rally Team) has been supportive of his mistakes and backs the Finn for more wins in 2012; every encouragement for this star aids him on his way to the top step of the podium. Latvala is gaining in every regard in his rallying and competition experience, and when it all comes together for the lanky Finn it will be poetry in motion to witness in a forest…