x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'World rally will survive'

The World Rally Championship is not finished despite the loss of major teams, a senior racing chief says.

Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen of the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team during the Rally of New Zealand in August.
Mikko Hirvonen and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen of the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team during the Rally of New Zealand in August.

The Abu Dhabi-backed World Rally Championship is not finished despite the loss of two of its major manufacturing teams. That was the defiant message sent out yesterday, despite Subaru- the three-time former world champions - joining Suzuki in pulling out of next year's championship due to the global financial crisis. The decision leaves only the current world champions Citroen, owned by PSA Peugeot Citroen, and Ford of Europe - whose team are also sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) - competing for the manufacturers' title.

But Mohammed ben Sulayem, the 14-time Middle East rally champion and a vice-president of the FIA for Sport, motorsport's governing body, believes the WRC will survive and, just like Formula One, can be strong for the future. The FIA has been instrumental in the measures which aim to reduce costs and safeguard the future of F1 and world rally. And ben Sulayem said: "It's sad the two teams have withdrawn, but it's not a shock. It's not just the result of the current financial crisis, it's something that has been coming for a number of years because of overspending in motorsport.

"But this is not the end of the WRC, definitely not. It may have to take a different shape and there will have to be changes, but we're talking about the second biggest championship in the world behind Formula One and there is no way we can think of losing it. "The manufacturers and teams must work hand in hand with the FIA, and we've all got to be honest and realistic. "We need cost-cutting by the manufacturers, and by the organisers. We really need to tighten our belts and we have to look at every aspect of the sport."

The championship will become a Super 2000-based series from 2010 and the FIA will finalise an agreement in January to increase promotion for the championship from next year. "We need to promote the WRC in a more effective way," added ben Sulayem. "This is will lift us out of the situation we're in now, but it won't happen overnight. "You need stars and spectacular cars. Do you think someone will go at 5am to watch the rally in a normal car? He wants to see action.

"I hope and believe things will get better. Rallying is what created me, what created motorsport in the Middle East, not just the UAE. My heart is with rally, but my mind is with all motorsport now." Malcolm Wilson, team director of the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team, is also confident about the future and the challenges ahead. The ADTA has a sponsorship agreement with the team until 2011, and Ahmed Husein, deputy director general, tourism operations, says they remain committed to the WRC programme.

Wilson added: "It is crazy to say the economic situation has not had an effect, but if we can come out of this, I feel we will be stronger for the future. "Like everyone we are disappointed with the withdrawal of the two Japanese manufacturers, but these are still exciting times and I don't think this will affect the championship. "There are always setbacks in sport, but you have to look at things positively. Formula One has suffered, but it will be there next season, and so will rally.

"This is opportunity for more private teams to enter so that is a step forward and I think we will see the Subaru drivers, Chris Atkinson and Petter Solberg, coming back into the championship with another team. "Even if there are only two manufacturers, it does not devalue the competition. If you look back and people talk about the heyday in world rally, it was two teams, Fiat Lancia and Ford. "Will it go back to that? Who knows, but I believe with the new regulations and promotion from the FIA, we can all come back stronger.

"We have been fighting with Citreon for the titles or the past three years and there will be no real difference to us with the other teams pulling out. That is still our goal and we are looking forward to the challenge."