David Richards is optimistic that the World Rally Championship is on the way back to full strength, though he feels it is still early days in the series' recovery.
Citroen and Ford have been the only manufacturers participating in the WRC for the past two seasons, and interest in the championship has waned in many countries after a surge in rallying's popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, Mini has now committed to the WRC with Richards' Prodrive organization, and there have been rumors of several other car makers showing an interest in the series.
Asked if he felt the WRC's glory days were returning, Richards replied: "It's early to say that yet. But there's certainly now light at the end of the tunnel. It's been through a difficult period – as have so many other sports."
He is confident the Volkswagen will soon announce a WRC program, though he doubts that any further manufacturers will commit.
"It's very clear that Volkswagen are about to announce their return to the World Rally Championship as well – and under the Volkswagen brand rather than Skoda," said Richards. "Four manufacturers...frankly it's difficult to attract many more – there's not enough prizes to go round."
Richards believes that Sebastien Loeb's domination of the last seven seasons has harmed the WRC's profile, but believes that a new generation of drivers, including Mini's Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke, challenging the French legend will spur fresh interest in the sport.
"He's been there for a little while and it's a bit like the Formula 1 days when Michael Schumacher was the dominant force. If you remember, interest tailed off during that period," said Richards. "And that's what's been happening in the World Rally Championship. There are a few people knocking on the door and I certainly hope our two drivers this year will be two of them."
The WRC is adopting new technical regulations, based on enhanced Super 2000 specifications, this year, with cutting costs a key aim of the revamp. Richards believes this will be a major boost to the championship, and cited strong interest in customer Mini WRC cars as evidence that top-class entries would soon increase.
"The cars are not going to be much slower than last year's cars. They're quick, but they are more affordable for private competitors," he said. "This is the first time I can remember for a long time that the private teams, private customers buying the Mini will have an identical car in every respect to the ones Dani and Kris are going to be driving.
"We've got cars going all over the world now. We've had orders from Brazil, Australia, the Middle East, the Far East, all across Europe, so you'll see the Mini out there very quickly."