Chaos in the WRC driver market
Never before has such uncertainty loomed over the World Rally Championship (WRC) drivers. Even those contracted for the 2020 season may find themselves on the side-line.
Ott Tanak defecting to rival Hyundai, in the immediate aftermath of his first world title with Toyota, has scrambled the 2020 driver market.
Tanak, rallying's hottest property, sat comfortably at number one on the shopping list of every team in the WRC. Therefore, the 2020 driver market remained in stalemate until the Estonian took his decision.
Most in the sport expected Tanak to stay put at the wheel of the Toyota Yaris WRC. For the last 18 months, Tanak and Toyota have been the class of the field. So, why move?
Financial reward may be a factor but it is hard to believe that Toyota wouldn't have the firepower to counter Hyundai’s big bucks. Tanak doesn’t strike me as an individual who cares much for financial gain either. He does however strike me as a character who bluntly refuses to accept failure.
An argument could be quickly constructed that Tanak might have won his first drivers crown in 2018 , if it weren’t for the fragility of his Yaris WRC machine. In 2019, a power steering failure in Sardinia on the final stage, robbed Tanak of a win. Shortly after, a terminal electrical failure in Turkey meant a vital no score as rival Sebastien Ogier romped to victory.
Thankfully, Estonia's finest outpaced the field all season, recovering the shortfalls in his Toyota's durability. Although, Ott was nearly robbed of another drivers title.
With Tanak off to Hyundai, a prime seat became available in, arguably, the fastest car in the WRC. However, recent reports intimate that perhaps more than one seat may be available for new recruits to Toyota's WRC squad.
Despite enjoying the luxury of two rally winners settled in the team, both desperate to stay in Tommi Makinen’s crew, the Finn is exploring all options for 2020. Kris Meeke and Jari-Matti Latvala looked to be fighting for a final berth at Toyota but recent reports suggest this fight may be in vain.
2017 Rally GB winner, Elfyn Evans, has been strongly linked with a move to Toyota, dumping his mentor Malcolm Wilson and plucky Cumbrian outfit, M Sport. Evans allegedly visited Toyota HQ in Finland to meet with team management. Team principal, Tommi Makinen has made no secret of his admiration for the Welshman.
If Evans were to defect to Toyota, questions may emerge of Malcolm Wilson’s motivation to continue M Sport's involvement in rallying’s top flight. Wilson has invested handsomely in Elfyn's career, guiding him to a home win on Rally GB and a key supporting role in Sebastien Ogier's 2018 world title assault. Providing an increasingly rare, full time WRC drive, cannot be ignored either.
Nevertheless, protégé’s will come and they will go. A look down Malcolm Wilson's mobile phone call history this week will likely include a long list of top level WRC drivers, looking for a 2020 drive.
Andreas Mikkelsen, Craig Breen, Hayden Paddon, Kris Meeke, Jari-Matti Latvala, Esapekka Lappi and even Sebastien Ogier will undoubtedly have contacted the Cumbrian entrepreneur.
Unlike Citroen, Hyundai and Toyota, M Sport are not a car manufacturer. M Sport develop, build and sell exceptional rally cars and sell these to ambitious privateers worldwide. Admittedly, M Sport receive modest support from Ford in return for running a Ford Fiesta in the WRC. However, take a walk around the WRC service park and observe the mammoth structures erected by their opposition. Quickly, it becomes clear the uphill battle M Sport face as a private team. Martini fuelled days of plenty , funding multi million pound salaries, are a distant memory.
Nevertheless, as M Sport are a private business, they will gladly support a willing customer. For years, M Sport have run WRC cars for anyone with budget to cover the cost.
In 2020, Malcolm Wilson's team could potentially be very busy indeed, preparing cars for well funded drivers. With so many drivers potentially out of a drive, a scramble to convince sponsors to back M Sport run Fiestas could be frantic.
So, where does 6 time champion, Sebastien Ogier, sit in the ever brewing storm that is the 2020 WRC driver market? In recent years, Ogier announcing his future plans, unlocked the rest of the field to begin falling into place behind the supreme Frenchman. Although, this privilege has passed on to Ott Tanak, Ogier still holds a strong hand in the market.
A potential, mid contract exit to Toyota could influence his current employers, Citroen, very involvement in the sport. Having dominated the 2000's, Citroen have failed to return to former glory following the departure of 9 time champion, Sebastien Loeb.
Powered by PSA group’s chequebook, Citroen poached Ogier from M Sport Ford in a straightforward financial arms race. Fed up with minimal success since returning to the WRC , Citroen employed Ogier to deliver a championship in 2019. However, due to a lack of pace in the fickle C3 WRC, this has not been forthcoming.
Nevertheless, in 2020, with Ogier at the wheel, Citroen have a strong chance of returning to the level of success they are accustomed to. However, without Ogier, Citroen are frankly making up the numbers.
In rocky times in the global automotive industry, there is little rationale for splashing millions of euros, just to make up the numbers.
If Citroen were to depart following the loss of their superstar Ogier, this would leave Esapekka Lappi in the ever growing WRC dole queue as well. Despite holding a firm contract for 2020.
Lappi’s performances at Citroen have been lacklustre. When interviewed at stage end, the Finn does little to hide his despondency with his performance. Lappi would be bitterly unlucky to fall victim of a premature Citroen dropout of the WRC. However, for me, the one time rally winner, has fallen short of showcasing enough to be picked up by another team.
We are embarking on tentative times in the WRC. In 2020, the sport faces a reality that just 5 full time drives may exist, 3 at Toyota and 2 at Hyundai. Worrying when team bosses have at least 10 rally winners to choose from before they even consider taking a punt on an unproven prospect.
Peter MacKay is the host of The Peter MacKay Motorsport Podcast. Subscribe via the link below for features on the WRC and many other motor sports.