Christian Loriaux, the man responsible for Ford's rally cars these days, is not one for mincing his words. So when he gets around to explaining why the machines at the heart of the sport's new era are all the better for being tougher to drive, he doesn't hold back from accusing the top World Rally Championship racers of being a bit, well, soft.
“Look at it this way,” he opines. “Previously, at the start of a special stage, the driver pushed a button that operated the clutch and the launch control. Now it's down to the guy behind the wheel to judge traction, the operation of the clutch and the manual gear change in order to leave the start.
“It means they have more to do, and that's a good thing. If a driver wants to be World Champion, then he needs to be capable of moving the car from a standing start without technology doing it for him.”
Ouch. But a good point, well made.
World rallying, you see, has been spoiling its stars – and, you could argue, its own core values – through technology for the best part of a decade. Sure, the basic principle has stayed the same – 2.0 liters, turbocharging and four-wheel drive – but elements like electronics, transmissions and suspension have leaped forward. Speeds have improved; the spectacle has not. This trend should end now, though, because in 2011 teams and drivers will have to cope with the biggest technical shake-up since World Rally Cars revolutionized the sport in 1997.
Gone are cars like the Focus and C4, replaced by smaller models – Ford Fiesta (which won the opening round in Sweden in the hands of Mikko Hirvonen (LEFT), Citroen DS3 and, on a part-time basis this year ahead of a full campaign in 2012, Mini Countryman. The engine size falls from 2.0 liters to 1.6. There's a smaller air restrictor to reduce power and, in particular, torque. Sophisticated “active” center differentials are banned, as are trick paddle-shift gearboxes (there's a mechanically linked sequential shifter instead). Specified common parts will make it harder for anyone to gain a real technical advantage.
The sum total of all this, the groundswell of opinion suggests, is a lineup of machines that will need to be pushed harder, and closer to the edge, than any rally cars we've seen for 20 years. They could even go sideways once in a while.
Take the view of Sebastien Loeb, seven times a champion, the dominant driver of the 2.0-liter World Rally Car era and the man whose neat, precise driving style revolutionized the sport: “The DS3 reacts quicker than our older car [the C4],” he says. “It's shorter and feels lighter to drive, more reactive. That's good in some cases, such as on twisty gravel roads, but on a fast, flowing stage where grip levels are changing, it's more nervous. You have to fight more, basically.”
It's fun, though, right? “Yes, for sure.”
Ford's Mikko Hirvonen agrees. “The biggest difference is really the engine,” he says. “There's less torque, so you need to keep the motor at higher revs and that demands a different driving style. You need a more aggressive approach, especially in slower corners, where you need to take command and attack, rather than letting the car do the work.”Loeb's Citroen teammate, Sebastien Ogier, has driven the normally aspirated S2000 cars on which the new WRC rules are based. He says drivers could be caught out. “When it's going well in these cars, it will feel great,” he says, “but if you suddenly need to brake and go down a couple of gears, there could be some interesting moments.”
This all sounds like a formula that should benefit spectators – and it is. But the reasoning behind it is not one of how good the cars are to watch, but how many of them there are, period. Broadly speaking, each 2.0-liter World Rally Car is an investment of around $730,000 – so the final bill for anywhere from 12 to 14 events, plus testing, can up around $50 million. That's peanuts compared with Formula 1, but then F1 gets hours of live television coverage instead of being squeezed onto satellite channels.
By contrast, a 2011-spec World Rally Car should trim around $160,000 from the initial cost and be much cheaper to run, with key components – engine and gearbox, mainly – designed to contest five or six events without the need for major rebuilds.
That, in turn, could bring fresh manufacturer interest to a series that has, frankly, been limping badly since the disappearance of names like Subaru, Mitsubishi and Seat over the past decade. Mini is the first step, and Volkswagen is widely tipped to be preparing a car.
A quartet of teams still doesn't sound like much – but then most pundits believe that four factory operations is about as much as the WRC can support in its current form. Even in the seven-brand heyday of the World Rally Car, the likes of Skoda and Hyundai never had more than bit parts.
Citroen actually started work on its DS3 before the new rules were formulated, as a proposed replacement for the C4. But that didn't necessarily mean it was well prepared for the switch. “It is a completely new sheet of paper,” says the team's technical director, Xavier Mestelan-Pinon. “We were able to do some running with a 2.0-liter engine, de-tuned slightly, but things like suspension and transmission setup changed as soon as we went to the smaller motor.
“For an engineer, the biggest change is probably in the handling. The car is smaller, so it has less inertia and is more agile. But we also have to make it driveable, and the simpler center differential is not such a big help in this as it used to be. It's a different sort of compromise than we've seen recently. The drivers might have to accept a car that's a little more difficult to drive, but faster.”
Problems remain. TV coverage of the WRC is limited to satellite channels in Europe and the UK, while in the U.S. it has gone from limited to non-existent, at least for now: Discovery Channel's HD Theater, which carried WRC highlights last year, says it has no current plans to air rally events this season, despite the presence of American interest in the form of Ken Block. The loss of iconic events such as the Monte Carlo and Safari rallies from the calendar has also robbed the series of some of its adventurous spirit.
And there's still a split in the approaches of some of the teams. The Fiestas and Minis are run by private companies M Sport and Prodrive, both of whom want to sell cars as well as claim victories. (Prodrive estimates it could sell 100 Mini WRCs over the next four years.) Citroen Racing, on the other hand, exists to win the WRC, so profit and loss there is less of a concern.
Still, 2011 could be a fresh start. And if the new cars do spice things up, Loeb could finally lay to rest the accusation that his dominance has been in some way undermined by a paucity of strong opposition. An eighth crown, scored genuinely against the odds, would be an astonishing achievement. It sounds like he wants the challenge.
“When the regs don't change, and you have one car stronger than the others, then you can see how the start of each season would not be so different to the ones that have just happened,” he admits. “But now a lot of things are changing. We have no point of comparison here, so I think there will be a few surprises.”
That could be precisely what's needed.