DRIVERS’ FUTURES WILL BE A HOT TOPIC AT RALLY AUSTRALIA

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DRIVERS’ FUTURES WILL BE A HOT TOPIC AT RALLY AUSTRALIA

PHOTO: Could 2011 Citroen WRC team member Sébastien Ogier be back in French colours in 2017? (Citroen pic)

THE 2017 prospects for Volkswagen Motorsport drivers Sébastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen will be a hot discussion topic when the FIA World Rally Championship arrives on the Coffs Coast for Kennards Hire Rally Australia on 17-20 November.

Volkswagen’s decision last week to sit out the 2017 season and return in 2018 as a supplier of Polo R5 customer cars eligible for WRC2 has kick-started fresh speculation about driver transfers after the market was thought to have been settled.

Volkswagen, Citroën and Hyundai had confirmed their line-ups for next year, WRC.com reports. Toyota had made the first of two expected appointments and guessing games over M-Sport’s strategy were close an end with an announcement expected this week before the WRC circus boarded flights from Europe and Britain to Australia.

Now speculation is rife about where the Volkswagen trio might go after the unexpected end to their Volkswagen tenure.

Competition will be hot for Ogier. With four world titles and a newly-born son at home, retirement is an option for the Frenchman. But his competitive desire still burns strongly and there is no doubt he would relish a chance to add a fifth title with another team.

The big money is on a return to Citroën, the team he left at the end of 2011 after a tense relationship with management and Sébastien Loeb. The French squad has already announced Kris Meeke, Craig Breen and Stephane Lefebvre, so is there room for Ogier?

Yes. The prospect of having a Frenchman starting 2017 in the new C3 WRC with No.1 on the side would have boss Yves Matton licking his lips.

Ogier’s other realistic option is M-Sport. With next year’s salary covered by Volkswagen, his signature would cost Malcolm Wilson far less than in normal circumstances and complete the circle that almost led to him moving to the British Ford squad after his Citroën departure five years ago.

Meeke and Ogier at Citroën would be an interesting partnership – the pair has crossed swords several times this year. Equally, Ogier at M-Sport alongside the soon-to-be confirmed Ott Tänak and Eric Camilli would be an appetising Fiesta line-up.

Toyota is the most likely home for Latvala, alongside the already-announced Juho Hänninen. Many believed he would go there in 2018 after Toyota’s first season back in WRC; these latest developments might hasten his arrival at the Finnish-based squad.

That could see countryman Esapekka Lappi, who was expected to be confirmed as Hänninen’s team-mate after Rally Australia, pushed down the order into the third Yaris WRC.

But, if Ogier ends up at Citroën, might Wilson turn to Latvala again? Jari-Matti won seven world rallies with Ford between 2008 and 2012 and despite a few metaphorical bumps along the way, this one could come together.

And Mikkelsen? It’s not hard to imagine the telephone lines out of Norway have been busy since last Wednesday. To France, England or Finland for sure, but possibly also to Germany where Korean manufacturer Hyundai is located.

One rumour gathering pace is Mikkelsen and Elfyn Evans in a two-car DMACK Fiesta team. Evans appeared to be staring into a cul-de-sac until talk in Britain last week indicated he had found a last-gasp reprieve. Could the Norwegian be joining him?