The 2013-14 WRC driver merry-go-round has seemingly come to a halt as M-Sport, the last of the major world championship contenders yet to show it’s hand, has finally rubber-stamped its driver line-up for the coming season. As with rivals Citroën, who last week revealed a brand new squad for 2014, it’s all change at the British based team.
After losing the services of his two senior drivers, Thierry Neuville (to Hyundai) and Mads Østberg (to Citroën) over the winter break, team principle Malcolm Wilson has been forced in to a major reshuffle, which sees call-ups for Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen, Wales’ Elfyn Evans and Poland’s Robert Kubica.
Four times championship runner-up Hirvonen returns to the team he represented for six years previous to his 2012 switch to Citroën. He spent arguably the most successful years of his career to date under the tutorship of Wilson, finishing second overall in 2008, 2009 and 2011. In fact, 2009 saw the Fin come within one point of winning the title when he was agonisingly edged out at the final event by nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb. Hirvonen then went on to join forces with the great Frenchman at Citroën in 2012, finishing runner-up again that year. However his fortunes and those of the French manufacturer nose-dived last season as both were soundly beaten in the driver’s and manufacture’s standings, with Hirvonen himself frequently off the pace and far from his majestic best. On the back of his latest switch, all concerned will be hoping that, with a return to more familiar surroundings, the 33-year-old will be able to recapture his past form and lead M-Sport to success in 2014.
Moreover, 2014 will see WRC’s British contingent bolstered considerably, with the news that 2013 WRC 2 pilot Elfyn Evans has been rewarded for his efforts in the lower category with a full WRC program with M-Sport next term. The Welshman will join Citroën new boy Kris Meeke as the second UK representative in next year’s competition, the first time two British drivers have raced at the highest level of WRC since the glory days of Colin McRae and Richard Burns. This is obviously great news for British rallying as a whole and much credit must go to Wilson for showing faith in the raw but talented youngster. Evans, son of 1996 British Rally Champion Gwyndaf Evans, won the 2012 WRC Academy before progressing to WRC 2 where he impressed last year and is widely regarded as one of the sport’s brightest up-and-coming talents. The 24-year-old will be joined in the cockpit of the Fiesta RS WRC by co-driver Daniel Barritt for the 2014 campaign.
Finally, after failing to secure a seat at Citroën for 2014, Robert Kubica has confirmed he will be embarking on a full WRC program next year behind the wheel of a third M-Sport-backed Fiesta. Although his car will be run under the livery of independent sponsor Lotos oil and any points scored will not count towards the factory team’s total, Kubica will effectively be running as the squad’s third driver and will receive full technical and logistical support from M-Sport. The 2013 WRC 2 champion looked to be in the mix to secure a race seat with Citroën before a poor showing on his debut WRC event with the team at Wales Rally GB. However, it is likely that contract talks with both the French outfit and WRC new-comers Hyundai may have been impeded due to sponsorship complications between his own backers and Total and Shell, major supporters of Citroën and Hyundai respectively. The agreement with M-Sport means Kubica will benefit from a role slightly away from the spotlight, with Wilson wisely opting to limit the pressure on the Pole as he settles in to his maiden WRC season.
However, against the backdrop of anticipation, uncertainty still remains over the team’s financial backing for 2014. No official announcement has yet been made regarding the team’s title sponsor Qatar, nor has the man who brings the money, Nasser Al-Attiyah, been confirmed for a race program next season. Since new drivers have already been convinced to put pen to paper, the team must be fairly certain of renewed investment for the coming season, but the sooner any doubt is removed from the equation the better for all concerned.