Monte Carlo, Monaco – Motorsport can be a funny business, mainly because it’s such a very costly business. Car manufacturers understand there is some benefit to racing their product, but sometimes the benefits can get lost in the shuffle – particularly during the long, slow awakening from a global economic downturn. Given how extreme the associated costs can be, brands can be, ironically, very slow to enter the fray and very quick to quit.
In terms of motorsport involvement, the VW Group is an interesting case. This global monolith has wisely acquired a number of distinct car brands over the years – Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche, SEAT and Skoda – all with very distinct identities and all of which are involved in racing to one degree or another.
Corporately, the VW Group shies away from allowing its brand activities to overlap, so when it came time to consider where to go racing with the VW brand, a few options were automatically ruled out. For example, despite rumours the VW Group was thinking of building an engine for use in Formula One, the consensus is that any future Grand Prix activities would happen under the Porsche umbrella.
Ultimately, the decision was made to take VW off-road – and in a very big way. From 2009 to 2011, it has contested the infamous Dakar Rally after it moved to South America and it dominated, winning in all three years. The tricky thing about Dakar, though, is that manufacturer support fluctuates wildly. Prior to VW sweeping all others aside, Mitsubishi did the exact same thing, winning seven times in a row from 2001 to 2007. Currently, the MINI brand is working on its own streak having won the last two editions of this grueling contest.
But there’s not much marketing value to winning a rally if the competition isn’t up to snuff – or isn’t there in the first place. Thus, the brand turned its corporate attention to another form of off-road racing: the FIA World Rally Championship. The early steps were tentative… but smart.
In 2011, Sebastien Ogier was snapped away from the powerhouse Citroën team when the rising superstar put too much pressure on his teammate, the sport’s reigning king, Sebastien Loeb. For a full season, Ogier did nothing but prepare for 2013, competing in the S2000 class with a Skoda Fabia and putting countless miles on the developing Polo WRC car.
Unconfirmed reports indicate the WRC program includes a three-year timetable to challenge for the championship and a total investment of 30 million Euros. Whether these qualify as fact or fiction, there seems little doubt that VW has entered the WRC to win.
The timing is either brilliant or disastrous, depending on your point of view: The plan was already in motion when the world of WRC underwent significant upheaval.
First, something was going seriously sideways with the freshly-minted MINI factory rally effort as they were preparing to start just its second season in 2012. There was clearly some difference of opinion between the manufacturer and the outfit hired to develop the Countryman and run the team, David Richards’ Prodrive concern. At least some of that difference of opinion seems to have come down to finances.
All of a sudden, what looked to be an up-and-coming WRC entry was no more; MINI pulled its support from its own factory team, leaving behind a gaggle of “factory-supported” privateers, including Prodrive and the talented Dani Sordo. At the end of 2012, when the chance to return to a factory team came up, Sordo jumped at it and found himself back at Citroën.
The change in status at MINI was then overshadowed by an even bigger development that reflected the same type of decision in another manufacturer’s HQ. After a 16-year run as a factory-backed outfit, Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport team lost its corporate partner; the Ford Motor Company, with an eye towards the troubled European economy, decided to withdraw from the WRC.
As with MINI, there will still be Ford rally cars in the WRC, but they will be running on a drastically-reduced budget. This decision sent further shockwaves through the sport. Former world champion Petter Solberg was again left without a factory drive after previously being let go when Subaru withdrew from the WRC in 2008.
But arguably the biggest shift of all took place when another champion – the perennial title-holder, Loeb – announced he was leaving the sport. For the 2013 season, the Frenchman announced plans to compete in a partial season consisting of just four rallies. In the world of rallying, there is Sebastien Loeb… and there is everyone else. He has won the last nine titles in a row, a record of success unmatched by anyone in any form of professional motorsport.
The void created by his semi-retirement from rallying would be enormous and everyone associated with the sport understood that the WRC was entering a new era. The VW Group certainly knew this to be the case: When it saw all the changes taking place around them, they knew this was an opportunity to strengthen its own team.
From the ashes of the Ford factory team, they picked up a quick teammate for Ogier in Jari-Matti Latvala. Early last year, they also secured the services of Jost Capito, former head of performance vehicles and global motorsports for Ford. There’s no word on whether Capito saw the writing on the wall at Ford – and left while the leaving was good – but there’s no question he’s an intelligent guy.
Fast forward to the second weekend of December 2012. At the behest of the VW Group, the global media has descended on Monaco to witness the unveiling of its brand new Polo WRC car, its road-going derivative and the team tasked with making everything come together as planned. The glitzy event, which takes place in the principality’s famed Casino Square and includes guest appearances by VW brand ambassadors Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Jacky Ickx, is proof positive there’s some money behind the effort.
During separate interviews with Capito, Latvala and Ogier, the tone of the conversation varies. Ogier is an interesting case – he’s absolutely confident in his own abilities as a rally driver and has big expectations for the season. “Of course, we want to win and that’s the target,” he says. “But if I’m in the top-five, I will be happy. And if I’m on the podium, I will be very happy.”
For the young rally star, spending the past year developing the Polo WRC car was a challenge: “It was a bit difficult to get the motivation sometimes, but I think it was the right decision not to race the Polo (in 2012). Ten months of driving the car without (outside) reference – this can lead to getting comfortable in the car and going in the wrong direction.”
Part of that much-needed reference will come from new recruit Latvala, who admitted to the media that last year’s Ford was good enough to win the title, but he couldn’t get the job done. The disappointment in the way his time at Ford ended is palpable for Latvala; he believes Ford deserved at least one championship during Loeb’s reign and he’s crushed he could not deliver it.
The main question now is whether Latvala can pull it together and become the VW team leader. “Sebastien has a big passion to win, for sure,” the Finn reports. “ But I have a big passion to win as well. Ford did well for me, but there was always a limitation. The biggest difference now is we have the budget to run the program.”
For his part, Capito is in charge of managing expectations. With the changes in WRC, the door is open for a new factory team to step up and dominate; Citroën may still be there, but its main asset has been Loeb and no one believes Mikko Hirvonen will dominate in the same fashion. But the fact remains that VW is still a brand new team and Capito lays out a three-year plan that includes podium finishes by the end of 2013, fighting for wins by the end of 2014 and battling for the championship by the end of 2015.
Capito also spoke about the rationale behind the move away from the Dakar Rally and into the WRC: “Dakar is just one event in one part of the world and the WRC is 13 events over the course of the year in 13 different countries. For a brand with a small global car such as the Polo, the WRC is a much more significant platform.”
In Monaco, the company also revealed the VW Polo R WRC, a 220-horsepower version of its small hatchback that will be made available to only 2,500 customers around the world. VW also launched an ambitious promotional campaign linked to its WRC involvement; details can be found at rallytheworld.com. Long story short, the VW Group believes the WRC is a great platform for promoting its vehicles, and the undiscovered gem of the motorsport world.
It will be very interesting to see how this season in the WRC plays out and how the new VW team fares against its more experienced competition. The early signs indicate it will be a banner year: At the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo in January, Ogier finished second behind Loeb. Time will tell if this result convinces Loeb to reverse his decision to retire outright, which could impact VW’s plan of winning a WRC championship altogether.