I know, I know, this isn't exactly new news, but I can't very well call myself a rally journalist without discussing the biggest story in the WRC right now. After four seasons and four world championships, Volkswagen have decided to pull out, with most people putting it down to the ongoing drama of dieselgate.
I was actually quite deliberate in how I wrote the teaser for this post, I don't know if you noticed. There is no doubt that VW have to be very careful about their image right now but, as that teaser line suggested, I can't help but think that this whole story is as much about the advertising value of the WRC as it is VW worrying about dirty diesels.
Volkswagen have won pretty much everything since joining the WRC but it wasn't enough to save the team from the chop.
There's also been a lot of slightly vomit-inducing tributes floating about since the official announcement, suggesting that many people seem to have forgotten some of the mad schemes that Jost Capito tried to implement - schemes that would have torn out the very soul of the sport I love. There's no doubt that they did a great job of winning and tried pretty hard to raise the profile of the WRC, but I'm not sure they were quite the messiah that some people seem to be making out now they're going.
The thing is, since joining, it's been a clean sweep of driver and manufacturer titles, so what else is there left to prove? What does being in the WRC actually do for VW? How many Polos are they shifting off the back of it? The WRC is hardly a PR goldmine; most people don't even know it exists. The budget of the team is pocket money in the grand scheme of things, especially compared to what dieselgate might end up costing. However, small budget or not, the big wigs at VW aren't going to spend the money if they aren't getting a good return on their investment.
The Polo R WRC has been one of the most successful rally cars of all time. Looked blinkin' good too.
VW themselves described the move as "realigning" their motorsport programme. This is partly down to their desire to promote polar bear-friendly hybrids and the like but, when reading the press release, I thought there was a rather obvious elephant in the room. Few people seem to have picked up on it but, when talking about their activity in the Global Rallycross series in the USA, the press release stated: "The brand will investigate the expansion of these activities on the strength of their existing experience in rallycross."
If that doesn't scream that they're going to join the FIA World Rallycross championship in the future, I don't know what does. It makes perfect sense; they've got the team, they've got the car, they've even got three out-of-work WRC drivers that might be grateful for some work if they can't get another WRC seat. They've already had some unofficial involvement and rallycross has seriously got its act together when it comes to promotion. Ford have seen the potential and put together a works team, so there's no way in hell that the VW heirachy won't have noticed.
I know some people might dismiss this as wild speculation and insist that it is purely a reaction to dieselgate, but I am really not convinced. Manufacturers invest in the sport that gives them the best PR bang for their buck. I think it's fair to say that there are serious questions surrounding the advertising value of the WRC right now and that many people are in denial about the state of things.
There is a lot of excitement about the 2017 cars and how they are going to save the day, but I would question whether it's the cars that are really where the problem lies. In fact, I will question it. In much more detail, in an upcoming feature. Stay tuned.