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GP Week : Issue 145
The good news is that rallying is now as exciting as ever; the bad news is that the past three months have been surely the most turbulent in the 100 years history of rally sport! The North One Sport Promoter crisis, created when the Russian investor in world championship promotion struck trouble, has been well documented. Trouble had been on the horizon well before the Lithuanian court issued its international arrest warrant for the banker Vladimir Antonov. However, the big worry at the end of the 2011 WRC season was that world championship rallying was about to implode for other reasons, notably that both Ford and Mini had no assurance that they would be able to fund their championship programmes in 2012. This served as a direct threat to the confidence of Citroen, who had no wish to win any more titles if there was no effective competition. The first bit of good news came when a deal was finally struck at Ford. The delays meant they lost the chance to retain their number one driver Mikko Hirvonen, who went to Citroen to replace Sebastien Ogier, for whom life at Citroen had become increasingly stressful. Ford then offered a seat to the former world champion Petter Solberg , who had already decided that his three years running a top level private team was more than he was prepared to continue. This in itself was great news for everyone who admired his determination to continue in the sport. The problem at Mini, however, was less easy to solve. FIA rules stated that no private team can register for the Makes' championship on their own account if there was no official manufacturers' team registered to contest (in Mini's case) 12 of the 13 events in the series with the same make of car. The initial support and development arrangement between Prodrive and the official Mini manufacturer, BMW, had expired and had to be renegotiated – firstly to signify BMW's continued approval to an official programme being run with their Group's product, and secondly to handle ongoing homologation procedures, which onward development and the interests of private customers demanded. BMW were willing to give their approval if Prodrive accepted financial responsibility for running the team, and the FIA were happy if a requisite number of events would be entered by the official team. Then Prodrive announced that the money to do the rallies was not there. It was all back to the BMW board. BMW did not want to let their rally customers down nor harm their good name at the FIA. The Board did not meet until February 3, after the season opened at Monte Carlo. Monte Carlo for Mini was a promotionally vital occasion, and Prodrive did them proud with Sordo finishing second overall, and three Minis in the top 10. The eventual resolution to the problem was complex. The Motorsport Italia customer teams, who were eventually financially able to enter all the necessary events, would become one official manufacturer team, and this fixed the problem. The Prodrive team would be relieved of an obligation to compete on rallies even though they had contracted their drivers for this purpose. The downside is that no Mini teams will score Makes championship points this year, and Prodrive's contracted drivers Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke won’t know when their next rally will be and how much of a season they will contest. As if the FIA was not busy enough, the Mini drama came at the same time as the Promoter crisis. After the collapse of the Russian CSI company, North One Sport filed for bankruptcy and the FIA cancelled their defunct Promoter contract. This led to two immediate crises. Most immediate was the need to find ways to provide television coverage for the Monte Carlo Rally, which the event organisers were able to arrange through Eurosport. The FIA told the remaining events that they would have to arrange their own coverage and distribution of images themselves. Second crisis was to find ways in which Stage1Tec, the timing and tracking operation run by North One Sport, could continue. The Monte Carlo organisers had to do this work themselves, but S1T was back in time for round 2, Sweden. As for resolution of the promoter issue nothing has yet happened. Talks with Eurosport Events looked promising but then broke down. Teams became restless. They had secured corporate approval to enter the championship on the basis the sport would be professionally promoted – a nightmare for the FIA, who having approved North One Sport's association with CSI in the first place, knew they had an obligation which was moral if not legal, to sort out. The season, amazingly, started in fine form. Because of the extra involvement on events from Proton and VW, there were now five manufacturers giving their name to entries on the first round of the season this year. Last year there were only two. Monte Carlo Rally was back in the calendar, after the FIA had agreed to some compromise solutions required by the unique format of the event, to universal delight. There were 80% more entrants than when it was last in the WRC calendar (in 2008). And there was a promise that VW would enter the series in full force in 2013, using 2012 to learn the events with Skoda cars and to trial prospective future drivers. Up at the front the Ford cars, which in 2011 had been close to the performance of their Citroen rivals, were even closer, with Jari-Matti Latvala showing the speed of a future world champion. He won the second round of the championship (Sweden) but crashed when leading Monte Carlo by a considerable margin in the early stages. He was delayed in Mexico when he hit an unavoidable rock in the road, again when leading, and then crashed heavily at the place where a fellow Ford driver had also just crashed. The WRC is back again – more dramatic and exciting than ever! WRC >>> FEATURE Sordo's second at Monaco could not have come at a better time for Mini ... 32 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: