WRC post Loeb - what hope?

In the wake of Sebastien Loeb winning his ninth consecutive World Rally Championship crown, it seems appropriate to consider the health of the series both in the context of Loeb’s unprecedented dominance and in light of several recent developments.

Nobody can stop him - is quitting a lifeline for WRC?
Nobody can stop him - is quitting a lifeline for WRC?
It’s regrettable that in the eyes of many, Loeb’s reign over the WRC will be remembered as the factor that killed it; at least in terms of their own interest in the sport. To undermine a man’s achievements in such a manner is to detract from the sheer brilliance that formed their basis. That seems unfair, but close competition is what makes any sporting pursuit captivating. In the short term, then, Loeb’s period of rule over the WRC will absolutely do harm to the series, but you hope that in years and decades to come we can look back at this era with nostalgia and a sense of romance, some degree of satisfaction that we were fortunate enough to witness something that will likely never be bettered as long as the WRC survives, in whatever shape or form that may be.

Hopefully we can eventually look back on Loeb’s success with the same fondness we do the spectacle of Group B.

If he keeps winning what does it mean?
If he keeps winning what does it mean?
What we do know is that the title Loeb won on home recently will almost certainly be his last, for he’ll only contest a part campaign in 2013 due to him being “a little tired of the schedule imposed by the World Rally Championship, what with the test sessions, reconnaissance and the various other things.” Loeb is off to try his hand in the World Touring Car Championship – with Citroen, naturally. It’s something of a shame that the mercurial Frenchman won’t be gunning for a 10th WRC title but for a handful of rallies at least we’ll still have a benchmark by which to judge all other competitors.

But if Loeb wins all the rallies he enters next season it’ll be hard to believe that the eventual World Champion is the best rally driver in the world. Regardless, the WRC will have a new champion in 2013 and for some that’ll be akin to progress.

Ford is quitting WRC as a manufacturer
Ford is quitting WRC as a manufacturer
Such of a much more meaningful type has come in the form of a new promoter for the series and a new manufacturer, too. Red Bull Media House and Sportsman Media have together taken grasp of the WRC’s commercial reins, an agreement that will hopefully result in a broadcasting deal that finally exploits emerging technologies. We can feel confident that this development is exceptionally good news for the WRC.

Hyundai’s commitment to the series from 2014 is also extremely positive. Far Eastern manufacturers have historically invested much in the series – think Toyota, Mitsubishi and Subaru – to the immeasurable benefit of the sport’s fans, but the WRC has lacked an Eastern entrant since Subaru quit in 2008. We can expect a whole new demographic of fans to be attracted to the series once Hyundai’s i20 WRC hits the stages.

Mini adventure in WRC didn't pay off
Mini adventure in WRC didn't pay off
“The WRC offers the most technologically-diverse challenge for an automotive manufacturer. Our participation will demonstrate Hyundai’s engineering excellence and durability, and will also help to enhance our passenger vehicles in future,” says Mark Hall, Marketing Director at Hyundai Motor Europe, suggesting that the eternal art of powersliding through forests still has marketing value for car manufacturers. Hyundai’s programme will be a full works effort run out of the brand’s Frankfurt base, apparently, with driver line-ups yet to be decided.

So Loeb is on his way out, the promotion of the series seems to be in trustworthy hands and new manufacturers are taking an interest. On the flip side, both Mini and Ford have canned their involvement as factory entrants; a huge blow given that things really were looking up, but such is the state of the European new car market. We can find some solace in the knowledge that Prodrive and M-Sport will at least continue to run privately funded Mini and Ford Fiesta World Rally Cars in 2014.

VW arrives in WRC next year
VW arrives in WRC next year
One also wonders how long Citroen will continue with its WRC campaign once its WTCC programme is up and running. Should the worst happen, we’ll only have VW and Hyundai fielding works cars, leaving us with a series contested by two manufacturers – just as it has been for the last four seasons.

These remain uncertain times for the World Rally Championship, but there have been many meaningful changes of late and change is inarguably better than stagnation.

P.H. O'meter

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