A NEW-look FIA World Rally Championship, including Rally Australia next September, is around the corner after French legend Sebastien Loeb capped his reign of unprecedented dominance with victory in the Rally de Espana, then retired from full-time driving.
Leading since the second of three days around the Spanish coastal city of Salou, Loeb on Sunday cruised to the end of the 2012 final round, having claimed a record nine straight championships and 76 event wins with co-driver Daniel Elena in Citroen cars.
He finished the rally just seven seconds ahead of Ford driver Jari Matti Latvala, who also marked a red-letter day in his career. Loeb’s teammate Mikko Hirvonen came third.
Both Loeb and Latvala are embarking on new directions that will re-shape the WRC, which returns to the New South Wales Coffs Coast for the 22nd Rally Australia on 12-15 September.
While Loeb will be back for the Rallye Monte-Carlo opening round on 16 January, it will be as only a part-time driver for the Citroen factory squad and its new partner, Abu Dhabi.
Periodic absences of the most successful driver in WRC history are expected to open the competition to established senior rivals and ambitious young newcomers alike.
Latavala is ending five years as a Ford works pilot to join the new Volkswagen factory team. Driving the Polo R WRC car, the 27-year-old Finn hopes to boost his chances of a long-awaited championship.
Several other teams and drivers also are in a state of change.
Latvala’s former M-Sport outfit is working on a replacement for not only him but also the manufacturer sponsorship of Ford, which had supported it since 1997.
Citroen will name a replacement for Loeb alongside Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen – third in Spain and now promoted to team leader – while the direction of MINI in the WRC is yet to be clarified after parent company BMW said it would pass the baton to its privateer teams next year.
And adding temptingly to this re-mix is Korean giant Hyundai, which has announced plans to return to the WRC after a nine-year break. It is expected to contest selected events next year before tackling a full campaign from 2014.
The prospect of up to five competing makes and reinvigorated driver lineups will not be the only attraction for WRC followers in Australia.
Australian drivers Chris Atkinson (Mini), Brendan Reeves (Ford) and Molly Taylor (Citroen) all have made impressive appearances in WRC rounds at varying levels this season and will be looking to continue their progress in 2013.
Reeves said recently: “I would most like to win Rally Australia to give the fans back home something to really cheer about. Competing in Europe is amazing, but to win on home soil would be fantastic and give my sponsors great value.”
Rally Australia is well under way with preparations including community consultations, recruitment of volunteer officials and the review of potential competition stages.
Fans everywhere are set to enjoy greater access to the WRC with the appointment of the Sportsman Media Group and Red Bull Media House as global promoter.
The consortium will focus on developing live television coverage of WRC rounds and an innovative digital media strategy, aimed at introducing the world’s most challenging motorsport championship to a new army of followers.
About Rally Australia
Rally Australia on 12-15 September 2013 will be the 22nd WRC event in Australia and the third since it moved to New South Wales from Western Australia. The 2011 rally attracted more than 13,000 visitors to the Coffs Coast, generating more than 64,000 bed nights and a net economic impact of more than $12 million for the region, according to Destination NSW. The shire and forestry roads of the Coffs Harbour, Nambucca, Bellingen and Clarence Valley local government areas provide a true challenge for the WRC drivers against a magnificent backdrop of subtropical coastal and hinterland scenery.
About the FIA World Rally Championship
The FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) is widely regarded as the world’s most challenging motorsport championship. Rounds in 13 countries pit drivers in highly-modified versions of popular production cars over a series of timed “special stages” on surfaces varying from gravel and asphalt to snow and ice. Started in 1973, the WRC over the years has been a battleground for makes including Toyota, Subaru, Ford, Citroen, Fiat, Audi, Mitsubishi, Mini and Peugeot. Volkswagen and Hyundai are poised to join the series, which attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators in some countries and a huge global television audience. The WRC is regulated and controlled by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body for motorsport worldwide.
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