Motor World: Recapturing WRC’s lost magic

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Ken Block at the 2011 Rally Sweden

The last time someone other than Sebastian Loeb won the WRC driver’s title, 50 Cent was on top of the billboard charts with ‘In Da Club’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ was one of the biggest movies at the cinemas. Loeb, a former electrician has won 7 straight titles and is now gunning for his 8th. The French man’s domination of the sport is down to two things, his outright pace and Citroen’s ability to provide him with a competitive car year in year out.

If the Citroen C4 and the Citroen Xsara have given Loeb so much success, then they must be really good cars. They should be everywhere on our roads and boy racers should be crazy about them. Children should have posters of Citroens on their bedroom walls. But sadly though, this isn’t the case. This is because the race cars are ferocious machines and engineering masterpieces, but their road going versions are soft small family cars that soccer mums use to go shopping. Even if Loeb won 20 championships in a Citroen C4, I wouldn’t feel compelled to go out and buy one. This is because the magic in the rally car hasn’t been replicated in their road cars. Back in the day, if Collin McRae won a rally you could go out and buy a WRX; if you were a Tommi Makinnen fan you could go out and buy a Lancer Evolution. These cars made you feel like a racing driver because in essence the platform was the same, a two litre turbo charged car that was all wheel drive.

Right up until 1997, manufacturers were required to make homologation specials. In that if you wanted to rally a car, you would have to make and sell a minimum of 5000 cars of the model you want to rally. The platform and some of the components on the road car would have to be identical to the ones on the rally car. For instance the turbo charger had to be the same size as the one on the road car, the size of the wheels and wheel arches, the rear spoiler and so on and so forth. So the road car not only physically resembled the WRC car but it had a bit of the grant and fury. These homologation specials were basically detuned race cars. This meant that sales of the road car went through the roof if the race car was successful. That’s why we have so many Impreza STis and Lancer Evolutions on our roads today.

However after 1997 FIA changed the rules so manufacturers weren’t required to make homologation specials. This cut costs for manufacturer as they didn’t have to fit expensive parts to 5000 road cars such as Brembo brakes or Recaro bucket seats. So Citroen for example weren’t required to build a 2 litre turbo charged C4 with all-wheel drive. This meant that spending budgets could increase as no homologation specials were required. Spending went overboard and teams just couldn’t afford to operate any more. To put it in perspective an Impreza WRC rally car cost 850,000 Euros to build in 2006, so imagine having to make five or six cars to run the whole season, making truck loads of spare parts for them, paying engineers and so on, rally just became too expensive and teams started pulling out one by one until only 2 teams, Ford and Citroen remained as manufacturers in the WRC.

To rescue the situation in the WRC, FIA introduced new rules for the 2011 season. Cars would have a 1.6 litre direct injection engine, with a four wheel drive system, a sequential gear box but no paddle shifts; this significantly reduced the cost of rallying. A 2011 WRC rally car costs 200,000 Euros to build. These regulations are supposed to mirror the global trends in consumption and emissions. Citroen fielded the DS3 and Ford fielded the Fiesta. Apart from cost, these new regulations are meant to attract new teams and this is working quite well, MINI has fielded the Countryman to take part in select rounds of the WRC this season. This is the first time MINI made a car for the WRC since 1967. Apart from MINI, VW are entering the WRC in 2013 and Toyota is rumored to be working on either the Yaris/Vitz or the Auris to field in the WRC. Apart from new regulations, the WRC also has a power stage to boost viewership which has dropped significantly over the years. The power stage is a special stage that is televised live and the winner of the power stage gets an extra 3 points added to his championship points.

Some of the lost magic of the WRC is slowly coming back, the Citroen DS3 recently celebrated its 100,000th order and the Ford Fiesta was made ever so popular by action sports star Ken Block in his Gymkhana 3 video. So the future of the WRC looks bright. More teams are coming in, the fan base is increasing and most importantly the magic that the race cars have is slowly being replicated in the road cars.

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