The Japanese brand was in fact just the latest in a long line of stalwarts from WRC’s modern era to sever ties with the world’s premier rallying series; think Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Škoda et al. This meant that the 2009 season got underway with just two factory teams in the service park; Ford and Citroën.
Unquestionably, the standard of driving and competition was as high as it had ever been. This was the era, remember, of Sébastien Loeb at his brilliant best as well as the season when young upstart Mikko Hirvonen came within a solitary point of dethroning the imperious Frenchman. Nevertheless, what does the presence of just two rival manufacturers really say about the kudos of the series in which they are competing? Cold, hard commercial reality states that more manufactures attract greater sponsorship and, in turn, sponsorship allows the sport’s global status to proliferate and its appeal to flourish accordingly. Naturally, the greater the series’ international standing, the bigger and juicier the dangling carrot of victory becomes, steadily prompting more and more manufacturers to enter the fray. Simply put, it’s a cycle that fuels its own success.
However, as harsh economic reality hit home in 09, forcing many teams to cut their losses, rallying programs were drastically scaled back or scrapped altogether. Rallying’s laudable core of die-hard fans remained, as ever, unwaveringly loyal to the cause. However, stripped of much of its very lifeblood and left with barley enough competitors to justify its credibility as a meaningful world rally championship, WRC’s global prestige as a motorsport had arguably hit rock bottom.
This, then, is precisely why the recent announcement of Japanese manufacture Toyota’s long awaited return to the sport is fantastic news for all concerned, even its immediate rivals.
For a variety of reasons, it is fanciful to think that WRC can ever triumphantly return to the glory days of Group B rallying, when the series was a genuine rival to Formula 1 in terms of its aura and international prestige. Firstly, WRC is commercially light-years behind its track-based counterpart. For better or worse, billions of pounds freely slosh around the F1 universe, making it an economic goliath of such epic proportions to which relative minnow WRC can only dream of aspiring. Secondly, and more immediately relevant, is the fact that, whichever way you spin it, today’s F1 cars are among the most technically advanced and complex pieces of machinery, never mind vehicles, on the planet. Meanwhile, WRC cars, under current regulations, are modified family hatchbacks.
Look at it from this angle; a good bout between two agile and technically excellent welterweight boxers can be an exciting and fascinating watch. But when push comes to shove, it’s the heavyweights; the Tysons, the Fraziers, the Alis who really bring in the crowds and whose legacies are remembered through the ages.
In a certain sense, Sébastien Loeb has been the chief victim of this inconvenient reality. Indisputably the greatest rally driver of all time, his achievements in the domain of WRC almost defy words. He could arguably stake a strong claim for being considered the greatest driver ever in any discipline of motorsport. Yet, in the UK at least, mention the name Loeb to a friend, even a sports-lover, and there is a fair chance that you will be met with an appropriately Gallic shrug of the shoulders.
Under Group B regulations, a man of Loeb’s success would have surly been transformed in to an international superstar well beyond his discipline, a household name to be mentioned in the same vein as the F1 champions of the day. A status he deserves. A status that, under WRC’s current restrictive regulations, he has been denied.
It is also true that, under Group B regulations, Sébastien Loeb may well have been dead long before his ninth world championship. The benefits that those almost mythical machines such as the Lancia Delta S4, the Audi Quattro S1 and the Metro 6R4 brought to the sport of rallying were tremendous, forging heroes out of the men who drove them and acquiring iconic status for themselves. However, such immensely powerful cars also had a nasty tendency to destroy the very heroes that they created, often in the most horrific ways imaginable. The pedigree of rallying had never been higher, but the costs were simply too great. Group B had to be banished, and away from the cutting-edge safety features of closed-track racing, such almighty power should never again be unleashed.
For this reason, WRC will continue to fight on its own self-imposed terms, at least for the foreseeable future. Over the last few years, the sport has gradually been dragging itself up and away from its 2009 nadir, chiefly thanks to the arrival of new manufactures. Volkswagen’s 2012 entry has proven an unparalleled success, if not for the quality of competition, then certainly for the commercial pulling power of the sport and, in turn, its global prestige and appeal. Hyundai’s subsequent return a year later only strengthened that notion and the further addition of a three-time constructors’ world champion and one of Asia’s biggest motoring powerhouses in the form of Toyota pushes the envelope still further. In real terms, it means more room for sponsors and more seats in which young, aspiring drivers can showcase their talents, both of which were in such dangerously short supply back in 09.
On the horizon, a big inroad into the as yet untapped Asian market could be in the offing. The return of Rally Japan, a reasonably well-established event already, would seem a more-than-likely proposition. Who knows, Toyota’s comeback could hint at an even more exciting future. The company’s well publicised testing of its GT86 sports car at various events last year was aimed at preparing it for entry in to the two-wheel drive WRC3 category. Would it be stretching the imagination too far to envisage a sports car such as the GT86 being fully WRC homologated in future? Sure, some kind of regulation change would be required to accommodate it. Nevertheless, it would certainly be a pretty mouth-watering prospect and a sure-fire head turner well beyond the confines of WRC’s traditional fan base.
Even for those of us who prefer not to indulge in such speculation, it is abundantly clear that, with the arrival of a fifth manufacturer in 2017, WRC’s global prestige is back on the up. The cycle of success is gradually clicking into motion and although the sport’s legendary 80s heyday will, and must, forever remain confined to the pages of history, there is now no reason why WRC cannot go on to flourish on the world stage over the coming years.