As Volkswagen considers whether to make a move in to the World Rally Championship, the manufacturer's motorsport director Kris Nissen talks about the ambition behind the plan and what it could mean for the sport overall.
Q. How interesting is WRC for VW?
Kris Nissen: There are a lot of possibilities. There is the Volkswagen Group and the brand Volkswagen. The Group is quite active in motorsport with Audi, Seat and Skoda and Volkswagen and we are covering quite a big area. When you start to analyze and say you don't want to compete against each other, and secondly, we want to go somewhere interesting – and if there is a clear reason to do something other than Dakar then it is to have more events, where we have more possibilities through the year. If we were to take a race like Le Mans, a well known worldwide and very known race, but it's once a year; the Dakar is three weeks one time per year. The most logical and best opportunity for the moment, we believe to be the World Rally Car.
Q. When is it possible to come in to the WRC?
KN: There are new regulations coming on the engine and the car. They are very good and the people in the sport have done a fantastic job. Looking into being able to be competitive and part of the game, we need to make a decision as soon as possible because we need two years to be there and we don't want to give the others too much possibility to learn too much about the new car. Otherwise, it's the FIA regulation with stable rules and there are new manufacturers coming, so even if we make the decision later it still would be the right thing to do, but it would be a little bit more difficult to be the top team and fighting for the win. With the new cars, if they drive with these cars for five years, it's more difficult for us. But at the end, we are not under pressure because we have a very, very good car for Dakar and for our other motorsport programs.
Q. How long would it take to make the engine?
KN: Probably Volkswagen Group has the best engines on the market for downsizing: 1.4, 1.6, 1.8 and to build an engine with the technology we have and what we know, and especially Audi winning Le Mans several times with a direct injection turbo engine, I'm not afraid at all that we can do it.
Like always, you need to make a good engine, you need eight or nine months to improve that engine on the dyno and in the car. Like I said many times, we need 22 or 24 months to put the package together. On the car side, I am also not worried, but the car is a little different than the road car because it's a 4x4 and very strict regulations where we fight for every kilo - and the other teams have a great deal of experience. You need to make a car that not only can drive but also has the right balance and grip.
If a company, which has had a long-term program with a car, has a good motorsports department with the right structure, quality control and everything, then they can do the next car quite well and quite safe. But if they change that program, then they face the new challenge. Prodrive and BMW and Mini can make [a WRC] car in much less time than we could, but if we were to make a new Race Touareg we would have a lot of know-how and a lot of things we could transfer and for sure we would have a better package, at the beginning, than somebody who has not done it. I'm not saying they are better than we are, but they are only doing another car and we are doing – if we do it – a completely new one.
Q. How long before Volkswagen might make a decision on the WRC?
KN: We will make a decision latest after the Dakar next year. It's even possible to do both. I would like to say again, we have a very good car and team for the Dakar and a good team. The budget for the Dakar itself is really reasonable, actually it's cheap compared with the benefit we get. If we did many events with the Dakar car the cost would be higher and the amount of manpower we'd need would make the company busy, but extending the [Dakar] program by one or two years is certainly possible. Really we can do this until somebody comes with a really good car and team and then you need to take a decision. What we are really strongly looking for is not to be one time each year in the spotlight.
Q. What about the Dakar series, would you like more of those events?
KN: Yes. We are very pleased with the work the ASO is working on this. Last year we were on the Silk Way and it was a fantastic event and we go again this year. But it would be nice to have two or three of these events.
Q. What car would you use in WRC, maybe a Golf, Polo or Scirocco?
KN: It would be a Volkswagen. Of course we have an idea, but first of all, the plan is to finish our total evaluation and have all the information and the second thing is to say is this something we want to do: yes or no? If the answer is yes, then when do we do it? It's too early to say right now what car, but I think it would be one of these three cars.
Q. One of your concerns about WRC had been the marketing and media side of the sport. How do you feel that has progressed?
KN: I think there's a lot of attention paid to it, but I cannot see the big improvement. I live in Germany and watch television in Germany. For the other countries, I cannot say, but for the [WRC] television [viewing] figures in Germany, on a piece of paper, which I do believe and must believe, they are growing. But I think the big push will come when you have more manufacturers looking after that. You must be aware that even in F1 you have to put money on the marketing; we do this in Dakar and Audi does it in Le Mans. With an extra one or two manufacturers in rally, there would be more to be done from the marketing side – it would do everybody good. I am not nervous at all. The same discussion we are having tonight, in three years we might be having saying why is it so much better?
Q. What do you think of the work FIA president Jean Todt is doing – and what about the potential future of rallies in the WRC?
KN: I think Jean Todt and the working groups and the manufacturers involved in rally are sitting together and finding good solutions. These solutions we will trust and follow if we enter. If we enter, we know this will not be in the next couple of years, and we know there will be time to look and see if the changes are good or not good. I feel confident on that side also.
Q. There is also a lot of debate on the control tire. Does a control tire mean less development and testing costs for a new manufacturer potentially coming in?
KN: I think the question must be put to Citroen or Ford. Having open tire regulations can many times give surprises and different winners. On the other side, having a more or less free [none control] tire are increasing the costs; there are costs for the tire manufacturer and the teams involved. In Dakar, it is a free tire competition, but we have a gentleman's agreement that we are all running the same and we are very pleased with that tire – it works well. We save a lot of money on the logistics side and a lot of stress with the drivers on what tire they're going to take.
Q. How much confidence does the Mini announcement give?
KN: Mini will not do this without the commitment from BMW and BMW has not been in the rally for many, many years and I think it's a fantastic thing, which is positive for everybody. Like I said before, if you have more than two manufacturers then that means three and that makes it easier for manufacturer number four to come and then number five. And if rallying ends up having three, four or five manufacturers and it is the strongest in the world, then that would make the interest go like a rocket in the right direction.
Q. How does motorsport development work in Volkswagen Group? Is it possible that you could take some of Audi's endurance development and use that in WRC?
KN: We have four brands doing motorsport and each has its own department and own motorsport director. We don't compete against each other, but where we can find some synergy we do it. For example, the Formula 3 engine is named Volkswagen, but it's a fantastic collaboration with Audi engineers and the Volkswagen engineers. That meant we were able to make a fantastic engine in one and a half years and win championships in two years. In the Volkswagen Group we have a lot of know-how and a lot of opportunities, and, for sure, we will sit together and discuss the major thing around the company. But in the end, each brand is responsible for making a success, but we help each other.
Q. With Skoda having a Super 2000 car already running, does that make things easier?
KN: I am sure that it would. But again, we are talking minimum two years and I don't know what will happen in two years. Today's Super 2000 car is not what we see in WRC in two years.
Q. If you came to the WRC, would you want a German driver, being a German manufacturer?
KN: I think any racing team with a target to win must look at the best driver and not look at the nationality.