2011 is just about to kick off in the cold wintry snow banks of Sweden. And it will be the beginning of a new era for the sport as the regulations change to a 1.6 litre turbo charged engine. Which is designed to attract more manufactures, and to try and keep costs of the sport down.
Much interest has picked up thanks to these changes. We shall see a British icon return back to the sport, in the shape of BMW-Mini run by Prodrive, and will compete in part of the season, starting from Sardinia, before fully committing to the sport in 2012.
There has also been other interests from manufactures such as Saab, Toyota, Hyundai, VW and Renault. Renault’s interest has picked up in rallying due to Lotus taking over the majority of their F1 team, freeing up alot of finance which some of which shall go to their R3 Rally program with the Clio, though there’s no word yet about entering the WRC. Volkswagen are the next manufacture expected to enter the WRC next, with their successful Dakar programme coming to an end, they are looking at other forms of motorsport, mostly the WRC. After the Dakar, Volkswagens Motorsport Director Kris Nissen said “WRC will be very interesting within the next year or so. We are interested in looking at other motorsports, the board are looking at the WRC and will make a final decision in the year”. VW driver and this years Dakar winner Nasser Al-attiyah, is expected to be in the drivers seat. It is also rumoured that Petter Solberg could be part of the driver line up, If VW do decide to commit to the WRC. There is also a rumour that Hyundai are looking to make a return with the new Veloster Coupe in 2012.
A lot of talk and interest for this year has been around the teams driver line up for 2011. Citroën Total World Rally Team entered their two French drivers Sébastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier in the new Citroën DS3 WRC, and for the first time in the 7 years of Loebs dominance, he shall start the season as equal number one in the team with team mate Ogier.
Team principal Olivier Quesnel has admitted that there is a risk of friction between his two French stars, but he insists that a healthy competitive environment is more important than the convenience of his team. “This year can be interesting with the two Sebs,” said Quesnel. “But it is very important for Citroen for both drivers to know that they start the year equal. After that, we will see how the season goes, but I think it will be a good story.” Loeb’s thoughts are “Of course, when you have won a certain number of rallies and championships, it would be hard to accept being a number two, instead, I would rather stop.” Unlike Sordo, Ogier has ruled out becoming Loeb’s understudy. “As far as I am concerned, we start off equal now,” said the two times rally winner in Portugal and Japan last year. “I’m determined not to slip into the number two role.”
The Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team have entered the two Finns Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala in the Ford Fiesta RS WRC, and they too start the season as equal
drivers from the start of the season. Ford have put a lot of testing into their 2011 WRC challenger, and the chassis is based on the Fiesta S2000 which has already proved to be a winner on the Monte Carlo rally in 2010. Ford are very confident about their new car. Talking at Fords unveiling at the Autosport show in January, Mikko said, “Like we say every year it’s about time to take the crown away from him [Loeb],” said Hirvonen. “It’s for them and for us a fresh start – it feels like we are all starting from scratch with completely new cars. I feel ready for it, so I’m excited to get started for Sweden – I wish we were there already.” Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala start in Sweden together with Khalid Al Qassimi from United Arab Emirates.
A number of new WRC-teams are added to the works teams from Citroën and Ford. In the new ICE 1 Racing WRC team you will find Kimi Räikönnen driving a Citroën DS3 and Petter Solberg WRC Team in a DS3 WRC Citroën number four. With Kimi competing in 10 rounds of the championship, he will skip the rounds in Mexico, Italy (Sardinia) and Argentina. Petter is expected to complete in all 13 rounds of the WRC in 2011 under his own Petter Solberg World Rally Team banner.
American Ken Block has been entered by Monster World Rally Team in a Ford Fiesta RS WRC for Sweden and the Dutchman Dennis Kuipers by Ferm Powertools World Rally Team in an identical car.
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team is the two car Ford team entering Norwegian Henning Solberg and English Matthew Wilson also in the new Fiesta based WRC car. Though Wilson is still working on finding funds for a full season he is expected to be out on the stages of Sweden, Mexico and Portugal. Anther Norwegian in a Stobart M-Sport Ford Rally Team is Mads Østberg. Ford will have 9 Fiesta’s on the start line in Sweden.
In terms of TV coverage for 2011. ESPN, the world’s leading multinational, multimedia sports entertainment company, has reached an exclusive agreement with North One Sport, the promoter of the WRC, to show the sport in the UK. The deal will provide motorsport fans with 4.5 hours of programming per rally – the most extensive season-long coverage of the WRC to date, including the new LIVE ‘power stage’.
Round 1 kicks of in Sweden this coming weekend (10-13 Feb).