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Inside Lane Guide to WRC 2015

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SP 12014 was a blockbuster year for WRC. Incredible thrills and dramatic spills were served up by the bucket load, with new teams looking to make their mark, young drivers eager to test their metal against the big guns, old stagers bowing out and, of course, a certain Frenchman doing what he does best; winning. 2014 may have belonged to Sébastien Ogier and Volkswagen but winners are there to be shot at. Nowhere is that more true than in the rough and tumble world of WRC, so on the eve of the new campaign, Insidelane takes a comprehensive look at the teams, drivers, cars and locations that are set to make WRC 2015 a season to savour.

The Teams:

Volkswagen Motorsport World Rally Team:

VW team SPIf ever a case study for the mantra “practice makes perfect” was required, look no further than Volkswagen WRC. After announcing their intention to field a WRC team back in 2011, the German powerhouse set out on a 17-month long program of meticulous preparation; engineering the perfect car, drilling the service crew, honing the skills of their star driver and amassing detailed information on each individual event. The result: Total WRC domination. In 2013, VW became the first manufacturer to win both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships in its debut season. Last year, meanwhile, Volkswagen arguably increased its supremacy over the series, winning all but one rally and claiming the top three places in the drivers’ championship on the way to wrapping up a second consecutive manufactures’ title. Besides being crowned two-time world champions, a history-making run of 12 consecutive rally victories, stretching from Australia 2013 to Finland 2014, is undoubtedly the team’s standout achievement to date. However, that remarkable winning streak was bookended by two relative failures on their home event in Germany. Finally claiming top honours on home soil, the only piece of silverware missing from the German team’s sizable trophy cabinet, will be amongst boss Jost Capito’s top priorities for this season. Plus the small matter of a grabbing a third consecutive world title, naturally.

Team Principle: Jost Capito

Drivers:

Sébastien Ogier:

Age: 31

Nationality: FrenchWales_05 Ogier

Co-driver: Julien Ingrassia

World Championships: 2

Career WRC wins: 24

2014 finish: 1st

Proclamations of Ogier’s legendary status may be a little premature, however over the last two years the flying Frenchman has proven himself to be an exceptional rally driver. Beginning his career with Citroën in 2009, Ogier’s breakthrough season came in 2011 when he claimed five rally wins and pushed teammate Sébastien Loeb close for the title, finishing an eventual third overall. But it was his decision to jump ship to newcomers Volkswagen that really set the 31-year-old on the path to glory. Few in the entire history of WRC can match his record of 17 wins in the space of two seasons and his two world titles mean he is one of an elite group of only eight men to be crowned double world champions. His driving style can be electrifying at times, but it is an unerring sense of consistency and a finely honed talent for lead management that separates Ogier from the rest. Clearly the man to beat again in 2015.

Jari-Matti Latavala

Age: 29

Nationality: FinnishLatvala VW 1

Co-driver: Miikka Anttila

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 12

2014 finish: 2nd

Younger, yet more experienced than his French teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala is the latest in a long line of Finnish rallying masters. Seemingly born to drive, Latvala first got behind a wheel at the tender age of 8 and by 10 was honing his rallying skills on a frozen lake near his home. He made his WRC debut in 2002 aged 17 and in 2008 became the youngest ever rally winner in WRC history with victory in Sweden. Latavala continued to amass experience with Ford until signing for VW in 2013 with whom he has enjoyed his greatest success to date. Four wins, including an emotional triumph at his home event in Finland, propelled the 29-year-old to second in the world championship last season, albeit a considerable distance behind Ogier. Significantly, his victory in France was the first success on asphalt for a man previously known as a gravel and snow specialist, meaning Latvala now has the knowledge of how to win on all three surfaces. Expect him to mount a sterner challenge for the championship in 2015.

Andreas Mikkelsen

Age: 25

Nationality: NorwegianMikkelsen SP

Co-driver: Ola Floene

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 0

2014 finish: 3rd

Hailed as the natural successor to Norway’s 2003 world champion Petter Solberg, Mikkelsen is now flag-bearer in chief for a country with a proud WRC tradition. The youngster’s career so far has been something of a whirlwind. Debuting in the WRC with Ford in 2006, Mikkelsen became the youngest driver ever to score points in a WRC event by finishing fifth on Rally Sweden 2008. The Norwegian linked up with Škoda in 2011 and enjoyed two title-winning years in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, a proving ground for many future rallying greats. Parent company Volkswagen then picked up the young prospect for the 2013 WRC season during which he competed in eight rounds. Last year he embarked on his first full season, securing five podium finishes and third in the drivers’ championship. For 2015, Mikkelsen again lines up in VW colours as part of their development team. A shot at a maiden WRC rally victory looks to be a genuine possibility.

The Car:

Volkswagen Polo R WRC

Polo SPThe first generation Polo R WRC swept all before it. In the capable hands of Volkswagen’s trio of crack pilots, the hothatch scorched its way to 22 wins and a further 18 podiums in two seasons. For 2015, VW have taken full advantage of a loosening in development regulations and is the first manufacturer to bring a brand new generation model to the season opener in Monte Carlo.

Visually, the second generation Polo R will sport a new livery, with the predominantly white colour scheme giving way to a snappy dark-blue design. Under the fresh exterior, VW technicians have been hard at work installing a raft of modifications and upgrades, chief among which is the all-new paddle-shift hydraulic transmission, with new regulations phasing out its 2014 stick-shift counterpart. An imposing new rear wing caps off the upgraded aero package, and elsewhere three quarters of last year’s components have been revised and optimised, for an overall lighter, stronger and simpler 2015 machine.

 

Citroën World Rally Team:

Ostberg podium 2There are no two ways about it; the halcyon days of dominance, with Sébastien Loeb at the wheel and world championships arriving with the frequency of London buses are well behind Citroën. As the great man made his final bow from full-time competition in 2012, the curtain well and truly came down on a decade of Citroën supremacy in WRC. Times change, and even those for whom winning has become second nature eventually have to concede defeat. That has been the story of the past two years in the Citroën camp. The post Loeb era began with a relative whimper, with the combination of Dani Sordo and Mikko Hirvonen failing to maintain the lofty standards. The pair delivered just one rally win in 2013 (Loeb, in semi-retirement, tellingly scored two victories during his limited schedule of events), but with the French brand channelling investment away from rallying for a tilt at the World Touring Car Championship, the duo were perhaps asked to do the impossible. Both men were replaced for the 2014 season, with the inexperienced pair of Mads Østberg and Kris Meeke stepping into the breach; however despite at total of eight podium finishes, Yves Matton’s outfit again played second fiddle to a rampant VW team. Last season was the first time that Citroën had failed to post a single rally victory since 2000. A team in crisis? Not quite, but with a smaller pool of resources to work with, less experience behind the wheel and an increasing number of success-hungry competitors in the service park, expect another rough ride for the eight-time constructors’ world champions in 2015.

Team Principle: Yves Matton

Drivers:

Kris Meeke

Age: 35

Nationality: BritishMeeke SP

Co-driver: Paul Nagle

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 0

2014 finish: 7th

Kris Meeke’s WRC career has been far from a smooth ride. As a young man, he became a protégé of the late Colin McRae, who’s guidance helped him to make his way in the world of rallying. British Junior champion in 2002 and IRC champion in 2009, the Northern Irishman eared himself a seat in the newly formed Mini WRC squad for the 2011 season. His record with the British-based team was mixed but he had shown good enough pace to be considered for a full WRC program the following season. However, Meeke’s hopes were dashed when he was dropped for 2012, collateral damage of an internal budget dispute within the Prodrive-run team. It wasn’t until last year when the 35-year-old finally found himself back in the WRC fold, called up by his old boss Yves Matton to join the Citroën factory squad. Often the Polo’s pursuer-in-chief, Meeke put in a series of good performances, culminating in four podium finishes. In Germany, he came tantalisingly close to a maiden win. With all three VWs out of the running, Meeke needed only to keep his DS3 on the tarmac to cap the biggest achievement of his career to date. However, he crashed his DS3 with only a handful of stages to go and was understandably devastated. More determined than ever to chase down the dream of becoming a WRC rally winner, the steely Ulsterman will be a hard man to beat in 2014.

Mads Østberg

Age: 27

Nationality: NorwegianOstberg SP

Co-driver: Jonas Andersson

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 1

2014 finish:  5th

Another of WRC’s latest generation of talents, Østberg was winning rallying honours back in his native Norway whilst most people of his age were busy doing maths homework. He made his WRC debut back as early as 2006 with a one-off drive in a Subaru Impreza but it was in 2011 when the young Scandinavian really started making waves internationally. This time at the wheel of an M-Sport-run Fiesta RS, Østberg came within a whisker of winning the season opener in Sweden, eventually finishing second. A further second place in Wales and a solid 2012 campaign, during which he claimed his maiden rally victory in Portugal, paved the way for a drive with the M-Sport senior squad in 2013. After a year with Malcolm Wilson’s outfit, Østberg was snapped up by Citroën last season, picking up four podiums including second place in Italy, and remains part of an unchanged line-up for 2015.

Sébastien Loeb (Monte Carlo only)

Age: 41

Nationality: FrenchLoeb SP

Co-driver: Daniel Elena

World Championships: 9

Career WRC wins: 78

2014 finish:  N/A

It never quite felt right that the last ever sighting of Sébastien Loeb in the WRC would be that of his car buried in a ditch on a quiet lane deep in the Alsace countryside. That was the slightly sobering outcome of Rally France 2013, when the nine-time world champion signed off a glittering decade-long career, during which time he cemented his name as the most successful man in WRC history and surely one of the greatest drivers of all time across any discipline. Loeb shifted his attention to WTCC in 2014, spearheading Citroën’s venture into circuit racing, and finished a very admirable third in the championship. However, he just couldn’t resist the temptation to dust off the rallying leathers and returns to his old stomping ground in a DS3 for a one-off guest appearance at the 2015 season opener in Monte Carlo. Will the old master still have what it takes to mix it with the new blood after a year away? For a man with 78 WRC wins, 2 World Touring Car Championship race victories, a Pikes Peak International Hill Climb record and a second place finish in Le Mans 24 hours to his name, that question might just answer itself.

The Car:

Citroën DS3 WRC

DS3 SP2015 is a landmark year for the tradition-steeped Citroën DS line as it celebrates its 60th anniversary. To mark the big occasion, the rally-going variant of the French manufacture’s popular hothatch will feature a special new livery this season, with an eye-catching “60” motif spread across the rear portion of the car. Underneath the white, red and gold exterior, the team will bring a new power unit to the opening round in Monte Carlo, developed alongside that of its World Touring Car counterpart. Improved suspension and a new paddle-shift gearbox are further additions, with two more upgrades scheduled for later this year.

M-Sport World Rally Team:

M-Sport logo SPM-Sport are well and truly part of the WRC furniture. The longest serving team still competing in the championship, M-Sport first appeared in rallying’s premiere series back in 1997 when they joined forces with Ford. This fruitful partnership saw such legendary drivers such as Colin McRae and Marcus Grönholm pass through the team’s ranks and yielded two constructors’ world titles in 2006 and 2007. Ford officially withdrew from WRC in 2012, leaving M-Sport to run a squad of non-factory Fiestas, albeit with limited technical support from the American brand. Despite lacking the support of a major manufacturer, the post Ford era has been largely positive, with the British-based team guiding Thierry Neuville to a stunning second in the 2013 drivers’ championship. It was all change again last year in the M-Sport garage. Welsh youngster Elfyn Evans partnered the experienced Mikko Hirvonen as the Fiestas mustered a total of 3 podiums between them. The 2014 campaign was Hirvonen’s last, so the promising Evans now takes up the mantel of team leader with two-time Estonian Rally champion Ott Tanak stepping in to provide support. Underdogs they may be, but with years of WRC know-how, great support, particularly in Britain, and the vastly experienced and incredibly popular team principle Malcolm Wilson at the helm, you can be certain M-Sport will be up there challenging for podiums again in 2015.

Team Principle: Malcolm Wilson

Drivers:

Elfyn Evans

Age: 26

Nationality: BritishEvans SP

Co-driver: Daniel Baritt

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 0

2014 finish: 8th

Of all the drivers lining up at the first round of WRC 2015, arguably none have such a big season ahead of them as Elfyn Evans. The son of Welsh rallying legend Gwyndaf Evans, Elfyn started his rallying career in 2007. His international breakthrough came in 2012, when he was crowned WRC Academy champion, a feat that won him a WRC 2 drive with M-Sport the following season. During the 2013 campaign, Evans was drafted in to deputise for the absent Nasser Al-Attiyah on Rally Italia. On what was his first time behind the wheel of a full-spec WRC car, Evans pulled off an astonishing sixth place finish. This subsequently landed him a seat in the senior team for 2014, under the wing of experienced Finnish teammate Mikko Hirvonen. For a novice, he demonstrated a cool hand at the wheel and excellent consistency, securing nine top ten finishes from thirteen rallies, including fourth in Mexico and Germany. Along with Kris Meeke, Evans is helping to revive the fortunes of British rallying. The UK hasn’t had a WRC superstar to cheer since the golden era of Richard Burns and Colin McRae. Sooner or later this country will have another world champion to be proud of. Is Elfyn Evans that man?

Ott Tanak

Age: 27

Nationality: EstonianTanak SP

Co-driver: Raigo Molder

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 0

2014 finish: 15th

In the wake of Mikko Hirvonen’s retirement from WRC at the end of last season, M-Sport found themselves with a race seat to fill. Cue the arrival of rising star and two-time Estonian Rally champion Ott Tanak. Although his name may not be as illustrious as those of his competitors, the 27-year-old does have a fair amount of WRC experience under his belt. He took part in seven rounds of the 2011 championship driving an S2000 spec Fiesta before making his debut in a WRC car at Rally Wales GB, finishing an impressive sixth overall. 2012 saw him rewarded with a full campaign with M-Sport’s subsidiary team and he ended the season eighth overall. After a sabbatical in 2013, Tanak returned last year for three world championship rallies with M-Sport. His performance in Sweden following several months in the wilderness won him great plaudits and subsequently earned him a shot at a full WRC campaign for 2015.

Robert Kubica

Age: 30

Nationality: PolishKubica SP

Co-driver: Maciek Szczepaniak

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 0

2014 finish: 16th

Ex F1 star Robert Kubica will again take to the roads in an M-Sport-run Fiesta WRC in 2015. After switching his attention to rallying following a serious crash in 2011, Kubica stormed to victory in the 2013 WRC 2 championship, winning the title with a round to spare. His reward was a step up to WRC level as part of an M-Sport development squad; however his maiden season in the big pond proved to be a torrid one. The Pole restarted or retired on ten of the thirteen championship rounds, often in bizarre and dramatic circumstances. He retains the support of Malcolm Wilson’s outfit in 2015 but has yet to confirm his full championship schedule.

The Car:

Ford Fiesta RS WRC

Fiesta SPThe Fiesta is an almost ubiquitous sight in WRC these days, largely due to the technical support offered by M-Sport to the many privateer drivers who compete alongside the sport’s big guns. This year’s incarnation will feature a modified pneumatic gearshift system in time for Monte Carlo with more alterations in the offing as the season progresses, including a new engine. Evans and Tanak will pilot cars sporting a bright new look for 2015, with a white and blue livery inspired by the exploits of former champions Hannu Mikkola and Colin McRae whose Escort RS1800 and Sierra RS Cosworth wowed the WRC crowds of yesteryear.

Hyundai World Rally Team:

Hyundai podium GermanyAfter an eleven year absence, Hyundai finally made their return to the WRC fold last season. Under the guidance of ex-Peugeot technical director Michel Nandan, the Korean manufacturer pulled off a real coup in securing the signature of Thierry Neuville, championship runner up with M-Sport in 2013 and seen as a potential future champion. However, unlike Volkswagen who swept all before them in their debut season, Hyundai’s rookie year proved to be rather more of a rocky ride. A policy of driver rotation for the second seat saw the likes of Dani Sordo, Chris Atkinson and Juha Hänninen all given a chance to shine but a series of mechanical gremlins blighted the early part of the season, with a double retirement for Neuville and Sordo in Monte Carlo hardly the best way to celebrate the team’s WRC comeback. However, the points did start to accumulate and fortunes took an upturn as the season progressed, culminating in a memorable one-two finish for Neuville and Sordo on Rally Germany. The Belgian remained reasonably consistent for the remainder of the season but out of the other drivers it was the experienced Sordo who shone, posting fourth and fifth respectively in France and Spain. Those performances were enough to clinch him the number two seat on a permanent basis for 2015. Perhaps the switch to a more stable driver line-up will benefit the German-based team, who will look to kick on from their fourth place finish in the 2014 constructors’ championship.

Team Principle: Michel Nandan

Drivers:

Thierry Neuville

Age: 26

Nationality: BelgianNeuville SP

Co-driver: Nicolas Gilsoul

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 1

2014 finish: 6th

Excelling from a young age in his homeland, Thierry Neuville was always destined for big things in a rally car.  In 2011, he made his first mark on the world stage, scoring two wins and 5th overall in the Intercontinental Rally challenge. Sensing his undoubted talent, the Citroën factory team snapped up the youngster and added him to the ranks of their junior squad for the 2012 WRC season. Their faith was rewarded, as Neuville duly delivered six top ten finishes and a highly respectable seventh overall in the championship. His next move was to M-Sport and this would prove to be the real watershed moment in the young man’s career so far. In the face of the seemingly unstoppable Volkwagen juggernaut, Neuville fought valiantly, four times making the second step of the podium and ending the season as championship runner-up, bested only by the all-conquering Ogier. A big money move inevitably followed and in 2014 he signed a multi-year deal to spearhead Hyundai’s WRC comeback. Neuville’s first rally win seemed long overdue and he finally broke his duck in Germany last year, leading a triumphant Hyundai one-two and in the process becoming the only driver on the grid to deny Volkswagen victory last season. Reprising his role as team leader in 2015, the 26-year-old will be hoping to crash the VW party on a few more occasions this term.

Dani Sordo

Age: 31

Nationality: SpanishSordo SP

Co-driver: Marc Marti

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 1

2014 finish: 10th

It is perhaps an inevitability that any Spaniard looking to make a name for himself in rallying will automatically be compared to the country’s most successful WRC driver, the legendary Carlos Sainz. It does help, however, if that legend is your mentor and the man sat beside you in the passenger’s seat is his former co-driver. That was the leg-up that a young, talented and raw Dani Sordo needed to propel him to the big time. A JWRC winner in 2005, Sordo took his first steps in to WRC proper with Citroën in 2007. In the exalted company of Sébastien Loeb, the man from Torrelavega proved to be a more than capable foil, twice finishing third in the championship in 2008 and 2009. Those two years remain the high point of his career, as a combination of a loss of form and the swift rise of Sébastien Ogier saw Sordo first demoted to the junior team and then shown the door in 2010. A sojourn with the newly formed Mini WRC team in 2011-12 briefly promised to turn his fortunes around but the venture ended badly for all concerned when the team failed to find the budget to return in 2013, leaving Sordo high and dry once more. Ironically, it was Citroën who offered him a lifeline in 2013, partnering Mikko Hirvonen for the majority of the season. In general, Sordo failed to impose himself, albeit in a struggling team, but the one shining highlight came in Germany where the asphalt specialist  claimed a first ever WRC victory; at the 106th time of asking. Despite this, the reunion with Citroën never really worked out and Sordo upped sticks yet again in 2014 to join Hyundai as part of their driver rotation scheme. After a career littered with new beginnings and false dawns, the nomad of WRC may finally have found his home in an i20. Another make or break season beckons in 2015.

Hayden Paddon

Age: 27

Nationality: New ZealanderPaddon SP

Co-driver: John Kennard

World Championships: 0

Career WRC wins: 0

2014 finish: 14th

Responsibility for leading Hyundai’s second-string “N” team once again falls to young Kiwi driver Hayden Paddon in 2015.The 2011 PWRC champion was picked up by the Korean outfit half way through the 2014 season and featured on six rounds of the championship, posting a best finish of sixth at Rally Australia and taking his first ever WRC stage win in Spain. This year, Paddon will get to sink his teeth into a practically full campaign in an identical i20 to those of the main team. Perform well and a bright future could be on the horizon for this Kiwi starlet.

The car:

i20 SPHyundai’s 2015 i20 is an evolution rather than a revolution of last season’s model, although the car that takes to the road in Monte Carlo this month will be a substantially developed version of that which debuted in the principality this time last year. The team have already spent four days putting the latest specification i20 through its paces on the Monte Carlo roads this winter. Meanwhile, an all-new model is due to enter service later this year.

 

New Regulations:

Two major new rules changes promise to shake up the world of WRC this season. Firstly, drivers will no longer be able to rely on receiving in-car split time updates during live stages. The impact of this will be most keenly felt amongst the leaders, who will no longer be afforded the luxury of keeping one eye on their closest rival’s performance mid-stage, thus leaving  tactical decisions on whether to play cautious or go for broke down to driver instinct alone. Only team officials back at the service park will have access to live split times.Cockpit SP

A further initiative aimed at levelling out the playing field in 2015 involves another tweak to the age old rallying conundrum of setting the running order. A qualifying-style format was tried several years ago but soon jettisoned and last year drivers began each event in championship order for day one and then in reverse rally classification order from then on. This year’s solution is to place drivers in championship order for Friday and Saturday’s stages and then in reverse classification order for Sunday only. Clearly this means more of the dreaded road-sweeping for the big guns on the gravel rallies. However, as we’ve seen in the past, it could prove to be a blessing in disguise in some of the more arid environments where dust kicked up by the early runners tends to make conditions for those behind akin to driving through soup.

 

2015 Calendar:

Rallye Monte Carlo 22.01. – 25.01.2015
Rally Sweden 12.02. – 15.02.2015
Rally Guanajuato México 05.03. – 08.03.2015
Rally Argentina 23.04. – 26.04.2015
 Rally de Portugal 21.05. – 24.05.2015
Rally Italia Sardegna 11.06. – 14.06.2015
 Rally Poland 02.07. – 05.07.2015
 Rally Finland 30.07. – 02.08.2015
 Rallye Deutschland 20.08. – 23.08.2015
 Rally Australia 10.09. – 13.09.2015
Rallye de France 01.10. – 04.10.2015
 Rally de Espana 22.10. – 25.10.2015
Wales Rally GB 12.11. – 15.11.2015

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