FIA deputy president sport Robert Reid believes it’s still possible for a new manufacturer to be lured to the World Rally Championship during its current hybrid rules cycle, with Ford’s renewed commitment to the WRC this season evidence the ruleset is working.
M-Sport faced a tough financial outlook during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the de facto works Ford team reducing its entry from three to two cars during the 2021 season on cost grounds.
But with the introduction of hybrid to the WRC, Ford Performance has increased its level of support in developing the new Puma Rally1, which won its first outing with Sébastien Loeb on the Monte Carlo Rally.
That renewed commitment from Ford has given Reid reason to believe the new rules are sufficient to attract interest from new manufacturers, even if said entrants would be starting their Rally1 project a year or more after their rivals.
“I wouldn’t say that I can’t see it,” said Reid, when asked about the possibility of a fourth manufacturer during the current rules cycle.
“Ford is a good example; the regulations for this year have actually encouraged Ford to be more involved. I know a lot of people talk about two and a half manufacturers but it’s probably more [like] 2.7 or 2.8 now than it was previously.
“It’s very encouraging seeing all the manufacturers involved, embracing the opportunity of the new regulations and Ford, as a manufacturer, increasing their commitment because of it.
“You would certainly think from seeing that, that it would be attractive to other manufacturers.”
The last manufacturer to debut a WRC program is Toyota, which re-entered the championship in 2017 with the Yaris WRC. Its entry coincided with the beginning of the final set of World Rally Car technical regulations being implemented.
There’s no doubt being first to the races helps when going head-first into a new set of technical regulations. M-Sport has demonstrated that time and time again.
Firstly, the Focus WRC in 2006. Then the Fiesta RS WRC (a podium lock-out, no less) in 2011. Next, the Fiesta WRC in 2017. And now, the Puma Rally1 in 2022. M-Sport has perfected the formula of getting stuck in early and building a car that’s rapid out of the box. And on the evidence of Monte Carlo, it’s built an absolute corker once more.
Toyota’s GR Yaris is looking strong too. Both heavyweights looking mighty from the get-go could be a little intimidating for a new, untested entrant.
This presents a quandary. To build a car that’ll be competitive from the off, any potential new entrant would likely need at least a year or more to design, develop and test a Rally1 car. Six months won’t cut it. Appearing in 2023 might be a push.
There is no new manufacturer in 2021 but that doesn’t mean they should wait for a new set of regulations either
But consider this: we’re talking about a hypothetical manufacturer entry here. Not a privateer. And both the spaceframe chassis and hybrid units are spec components. Would a potential entrant be willing to spend money developing a Rally1 car, only to trash it a year or two later when new regulations are likely to show up in 2025?
Yes, absolutely. It’s been done before.
Hyundai rolled out the NG i20 WRC in 2016 knowing full well it had a single-year shelf life before new regulations would mothball it. It spent the money and resources regardless – the i20 road car had evolved and its rally equivalent needed an update to fall in line.
Similarly, Toyota had been gearing up to build and compete with a GR Yaris WRC during the 2021 season even though its original Yaris WRC was more than capable of lasting until the end of the World Rally Car era. While COVID-19 disruption put paid to that plan the objective was clear: Japan had poured money into launching the GR Yaris road car and wanted a rally car that matched its consumer product.
There is no new manufacturer on the start-line in 2021 but that doesn’t mean any potential new entrant will automatically feel they should wait for a new set of regulations either.
Honda’s recent engine program in Formula 1 – which began in 2015, a year after hybrid was introduced there – was plagued with technical gremlins to begin with. But that wasn’t because it was too late. It’s because it was early at the behest of Ron Dennis who had pushed Honda to take over as McLaren’s engine supplier a year earlier than Honda wanted to.
And as we saw last year, the Honda engine project came good in the end with Max Verstappen’s Red Bull being powered by the once-maligned engine. Mercedes had nailed it from day one in 2014 but even it was eventually slain. Not by Ferrari or Renault, who’d been there since day one along with Mercedes, but by the late starter.
Who’s to say it can’t happen in the WRC too?
– Alasdair Lindsay