“As the Czech driver was driving, the main thought of the laptop guy was setting up the launch control in second gear or first gear… Second gear…. First gear… And it went on for hours as I stood there. You decide if that is relevant for winning a rally.”
It’s 2005, and with Markko Märtin and Francois Duval now driving for Peugeot and Citroen respectively, Ford’s WRC efforts are being spearheaded by Toni Gardemeister and Roman Kresta. German privateer Antony Warmbold was entering his third year of using an M-Sport-run Focus WRC, and the above is what he witnessed during pre-season testing.
Despite some strong drives by Gardemeister, Ford finished a distant third in the manufacturer’s standings with just over half the points tally of victors Citroen and the first winless year for the Focus since its introduction back in 1999. By the end of the year, Mitsubishi and Skoda had announced the end of their works efforts, while Citroen were preparing to hand the running of the Xsara WRC to Kronos Racing for 2006 as they developed the new C4 WRC, and Peugeot’s planned withdrawal went ahead. The entry list for the 2006 Monte Carlo Rally showed only two official manufacturer teams.
What happened? In a nutshell, cost. Despite the FIA proposing a plan for 2006 to allow manufacturers to miss up to three WRC rounds and still be allowed to register for the full championship, most stayed away. The very rules that saw the introduction of the World Rally Car formula in 1997 and brought about a revitalisation of the sport eventually almost killed it, as machinery simply became too advanced for budgets to keep up. Take a quick look at your typical mid-2000s WRC car; fully active hydraulically-actuated differentials utilising massive computer power, active anti-roll bars (and experiments with active suspension as a whole), carbon fibre aero and build costs approaching €500,000 per car. Front and rear diffs became passive from 2006-on, but the damage was done. When the global economic recession hit hard in 2008, many wondered if the championship could survive at all.
It did, just, and now those dark times seem aeons ago. As outlined in a previous article, the WRC is in the healthiest shape it’s been in years and features cutting-edge cars, supremely talented crews and is generating major public interest. Monte Carlo kicks off the 2019 season next week, and things are looking rosy for the sport.
Except they’re not. We’re extremely lucky to have four different brands competing this year, as the fate of the M-Sport Ford team was in doubt until the eleventh hour. Remember, this is the team that took the manufacturer’s title in 2017 and brought Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia to two consecutive championships. And they still had major trouble securing funding for a full 2019 campaign, eventually announcing that the inexperienced Teemu Suuninen and inconsistent Elfyn Evans will be their lead drivers. What does that tell you?
Citroen’s third car has disappeared into the ether as Ogier returns to the squad, while the long-running sponsorship from Abu Dhabi is on ice for at least this year, as Red Bull’s colours once again grace the French cars. Running only two cars leaves Craig Breen and Mads Ostberg in the lurch, and some Loeb guy who won a few events back in the day finds himself doing six rallies in a Hyundai. Hayden Paddon is also out of a drive. These guys are too good to be left on the sidelines – yet it is too expensive to run additional cars for them.
I fear that things may already have peaked, and that we will look back at the 2017 and 2018 seasons with the same fondness that we look at Group B and the early WRC car era. If the sport is as attractive to manufacturers as some may suggest, where are the new entries? Bar the annual “Subaru to return to WRC in (insert far-off year here)” headlines and forum posts by lunatics predicting a FIAT entry (what will they use, another bloody 500 derivative?), there’s precious little indication that any more makers are set to join. Without wishing to sound like a broken record, enjoy it while it lasts.
Written by Maurice Malone
Cover image by Cian Donnellan