There’s still quite a bit of time before Rally Catalunya, so I thought it would be fun to speculate a bit on the WRC “silly season”. It’s that time of season when it seems everyone is looking over their shoulder. No matter whether you are a company board member, team director, or a driver everyone is watching and waiting to see who will end up where for the 2018 WRC season. It might be a stressful time for the stakeholders in the sport, but for the fans, it gives us plenty of stuff to talk about. To do this, I’m going to pose 4 questions, one for each team, that need to be answered before we move into the 2018 season.
M-Sport: Is it time to focus on the present, or the future?
Despite the incredible success that M-Sport is experiencing this season, the 2018 season places them in a bit of a dilemma. As he navigates the WRC “silly season”, Malcolm Wilson must decide whether he is going to focus on the present or the future for M-Sport. Here’s what I mean. Regardless of how the 2017 season finishes for the team, 2018 has a number of big question marks. As much as Malcolm wants Ford to come alongside of M-Sport to create a fully-fledged manufacturer team, it doesn’t appear likely at this moment. Sadly, M-Sport are the victims of their own success. The more they win this season, the less motivation Ford has to become more involved. It might not be right, but Ford is getting everything they need out of M-Sport without having to risk a lot of resources. If M-Sport is winning with a Ford badge on their cars, then they’re still getting good publicity without having to fully commit to the WRC.
Since more money from Ford is unlikely, Malcolm Wilson needs to weigh between the present and the future. If he wants to focus on the present in 2018, he will need to drop a TON of money to keep Sebastien Ogier within the team. He already did that this year, and even if M-Sport win the driver’s and constructor’s championships this season, it might be difficult to find the money to keep Ogier for another year. How much is Malcolm willing to risk financially to keep Seb in his team? However, even without Ogier, M-Sport find themselves in a good position if they choose to focus on the future. With Ott Tanak and Elfyn Evans, Malcolm has a really good 1-2 combination. It’s taken some time for these drivers to develop, but Malcolm Wilson’s patience with them is beginning to pay off. He could keep these two, and then use the money he would spend on Ogier to tie up Kalle Rovanperä and Teemu Suninen with long term contracts. These two drivers are no doubt the future stars of the WRC, and if Malcolm Wilson can catch them now, he could ensure years of success for the team. He might need to sacrifice the 2018 season, but the long-term payoff could be much better.
Hyundai WRT: Do we actually need to change anything?
The Hyundai World Rally Team finds itself in a bit of a difficult situation going into 2018. Despite rally-ending errors by its drivers, the new-generation i20 has looked really quick. It could be argued that the Hyundai is currently the weapon of choice in the WRC. Despite this, Hyundai find themselves lagging behind M-Sport in the constructor’s championship. As they move towards 2018, Michel Nandan is going to have to decide if Hyundai WRT needs a bit of tweaking or an entire reboot to win the championship next season. Hyundai has had this crew of 3 drivers for the past 4 seasons. They’ve tasted success with Neuville, Sordo, and Paddon, but not consistently enough to challenge VW and now M-Sport. Do they have enough trust in this lineup to give them another chance in 2018? Do they need to change anything at all?
My gut instinct is that they will hold station with the 3 drivers they have in 2018. Thierry Neuville is still improving, and even though he makes some mistakes, he has shown that he can rebound very quickly and doesn’t get stuck in a downward spiral. Dani Sordo just keeps chugging along putting out consistent finishes. No, he isn’t spectacular, and I would consider him as a long-shot to win a rally, but he is a safe pair of hands who is quick enough. He might be a 3rd driver at this point in his career, but he’s the fastest 3rd driver out there, and that makes him worth keeping. Hayden Paddon is the big question mark for Hyundai WRT. 2017 was supposed to be his break-out season. However, the tragic accident in Monte Carlo and his struggles with the active differential derailed him from the outset. Does Hyundai give him another chance in 2018? My bet is that 2018 will be the successful season that this year was supposed to be for Paddon. Circumstances outside of his control have delayed his progression, but he is still learning and growing. Hyundai would be wise to keep him for next year because he will break out of this funk, and when he does, they will want him in one of their cars.
Toyota Gazoo Racing: What’s the next step?
Toyota Gazoo Racing has been the pleasant surprise of the 2017 season. With no disrespect to them, we weren’t expecting much from a team entering into its very first WRC campaign. They could have been forgiven for shooting for 4th’s, 5th’s and 6th’s. However, with 2nd place in Monte Carlo and a win in Sweden right out of the gate, Toyota ratcheted up the expectations in a hurry. All of a sudden, they went from being an unknown quantity to a real threat for rally wins. Esapekka Lappi’s shock victory in Finland further cemented this reality. If you had offered Tommi Makinen two rally wins and 3rd in the constructor’s championship at the start of the season, I think he would have taken it with both hands. There is no doubt that Toyota is in a really good place. The question is, what’s the next step? How do they keep moving forward to keep up with the development curve of the other teams?
As far as Toyota’s driver line-up goes, the only big question is Juho Hanninen. He has certainly shown us more in the 2nd half of the season, but I’m not sure it’s been enough. If Lappi continues at his current meteoric pace and becomes a solid number 2 driver, then Hanninen is probably safe as an above average number 3, just like Dani Sordo. However, if Toyota is not willing to put that pressure on Lappi in 2018, then Hanninen may need to go. Who would replace him? If Sebastien Ogier doesn’t want to stay at M-Sport, he certainly is an option. However, we saw the effect that Seb had on Jari-Matti Latvala in their time together at VW and I am not sure that Tommi Makinen wants to risk this happening again. Jari-Matti has just gotten his mojo back as the team leader at Toyota so it wouldn’t make sense to undermine him by signing Ogier. For this reason, I think that Kris Meeke could be a great choice if Citroen dumps him. He is no doubt talented, but will be looking to rebuild his confidence just as Latvala was when he joined Toyota at the end of last year. As a number 2 driver to Latvala, Meeke wouldn’t have the pressure that he faced this year at Citroen, and Tommi Makinen might just be able to give him the “arm around the shoulder” that he isn’t getting at Citroen. It could be a really good thing for both parties.
Citroen WRT: When we need to change everything, can we salvage anything?
If Toyota has been the pleasant surprise of 2017, Citroen’s season has been a punch in the gut… or worse. The team that had the most time to prepare for this season came out of the gate stumbling and then fell on their face. OK… Meeke won in Mexico, but even that could have been a disaster. There is no denying that this is a team in crisis, and they need to fix things fast. There is no doubt that there are going to be some victims as a result of this nightmare season. It might sound like low hanging fruit, but I don’t see how Citroen can keep Kris Meeke for next season. Even if the team’s troubles haven’t been all his fault, Citroen needs to show that they are making big changes to turn things around in 2018. For Kris, it’s just a “wrong place, wrong time” thing, and I’m afraid that he is going to be a casualty.
The question for Citroen is what can they save from 2017. Do they completely blow things apart and start from scratch, or is there anything that they can salvage? Craig Breen might be the only bright spot from 2017 that Citroen can build from as they move towards next season. With Kris Meeke filling the highlight reels with spectacular crashes and having to answer the tough questions about what’s gone wrong, Craig has had the space to quietly go about his business. He seems to really like 5th place this season, but for a driver in his first full WRC season behind the wheel of a mishandling car, this is more than enough! He is the reason that Citroen still have a (very) slim chance of catching Toyota for 3rd in the constructor’s championship. With it looking more likely that Andreas Mikkelsen will join the team full-time in 2018, Craig Breen will be a fantastic wing-man who can keep the car safe and score solid points.
So… who takes Meeke’s spot? I’m going to put my money on Sebastien Ogier. If it wasn’t for his falling out with Sebastien Loeb, he might still be with Citroen right now. For both parties, it’s a “win-win”. For Seb, he’s getting the money he wants as well as a team with manufacturer support. For Citroen, they’re getting a proven champion and consummate professional who can help identify and rectify the C3’s problems. In addition, his presence in the team will aid with the development of Stephane Lefevbre and Craig Breen much like it has done for Ott Tanak and Elfyn Evans this year at M-Sport. Also, it seemed like at VW, he and Andreas Mikkelsen had a positive working relationship, so we wouldn’t expect anything different at Citroen.
So, that’s how I see this year’s “silly season”. What do you think? Any other names you want to throw into the ring?