Volkswagen has promised to do its bit to help to reinvigorate the World Rally Championship with 'fresh ideas' following the announcement that it will join the fray in 2013 with its aggressive new Polo R WRC – a car that has been described as 'the hottest Polo ever'.
Volkswagen officially confirmed the move on the eve of last weekend's Rally Italia Sardegna with a lavish and well-attended media launch in the port of Olbia, in the presence of two of the company's ambassadors – motorsport legends Jacky Ickx and Carlos Sainz, with the latter set to play an integral role in the development of the new Polo R WRC [see separate story – click here
] – and 2011 Dakar Rally winner Nasser Al-Attiyah, who was presented with a baby-size race suit in celebration of the recent birth of his son.
It was, indeed, a very special and emotional day for Volkswagen all-round, as the German manufacturer reflected upon its long and successful history and tradition in motorsport, evidenced most recently, of course, by its tremendous undefeated run of three consecutive Dakar victories with the Touareg stretching back to 2009.
Not only is rallying therefore a perfectly natural fit for the marque, but Sardinia, too, was an entirely apt backdrop, being the same location as had staged the international launch of the current road-going Polo 6R two years ago. Such symbolism was not lost on marketing director Luca de Meo.
“The World Rally Championship is for sure one of the most important global platforms, which is a very important reason why we – from a marketing point-of-view – support this project,” underlined the Italian, calling VW's new WRC entry 'the hottest Polo ever' and quipping that there are 'a lot of motorsport freaks' in his department of the company. “There are 13 events over four continents – just think of the enormous media impact from that. More than five million people are enthusiastic about the WRC.
“Rallying is real. The drivers are accessible, and they are the virtuosos of driving, the artists. Our customers can make the connection between the rally car and the showroom car. This gives us chance to make innovations. Motorsport is about the future, and we think we have the chance from a marketing point-of-view to use this to make something new. We will do our part to promote this discipline with fresh ideas.”
Those sentiments were echoed by prominent VW management board member Dr. Ullrich Hackenberg – another self-confessed 'petrol head'. With the firm aim that of making the Polo the most successful small car in world, the German confessed that after it was prestigiously named 'Car of the Year' in 2010, 'we are hoping this is something we will also be seeing in the WRC in the foreseeable future'.
“Our results in South America (on the Dakar Rally) are a demonstration of Volkswagen's performance in motorsport,” he underlined. “In the past, we celebrated our success in motorsport in the desert, and in 2009, we became the first manufacturer to win the Dakar with a diesel engine. In the future, we want to try to be successful not only on sand.
“Due to the changes made to the [WRC] regulations in recent years, we are finding challenges in this motorsport environment which we have to tackle on the production side as well. They have given us the opportunity to compete with the Polo R WRC. We will be entering a car that can be recognised as a Polo even in rally trim, where the relationship between motorsport and the production vehicle is still evident.
“The task at-hand is to properly prepare for the task ahead. We need to learn a whole new discipline of the sport. Whilst building the Polo R WRC, we will be working very quickly and thoroughly, since we are not deluding ourselves in thinking our rivals will stop their development to wait for us. I look forward to the sporting competition with our competitors – Citroën, Ford and MINI.”
Volkswagen motorsport director Kris Nissen offered more insights into the exciting new initiative, endeavouring to shed some light upon recent speculation about the budget being apportioned to it, revealing that the new Polo will take limited inspiration from the current SWRC-spec Skoda Fabia S2000 and seeking to stress that none of the drivers who have been mentioned in connection with the project so far have yet been contacted.
Assuring that 'one day we will also find a good young German driver', he underlined that for the time being, the priority is to secure the services of the best available competitor, with speed rather than nationality the principal criterion.
“Our rally programme is a five-year programme,” explained the former touring car star. “We are spending the next two years developing the engine, car and team, and then we will enter the World Rally Championship with the Polo from 2013 to 2015 – but that does not mean we will stop after that. Volkswagen have a lot of ideas, and I think it's very strong that we can be here and commit to five years.
“Motorsport costs money and there have been some rumours about an incredible amount of money, but these are not true. We are definitely able to run under the new regulations on the technical side and logistics side for the same amount of money as we have spent on the Dakar.
“We will be able to run a car by the end of this year, ahead of a full testing programme in 2012 – not only for the engine and car, but also for the team. We have a wonderful team, a fantastic team – to win the Dakar three times in a row is a big job – but still the team needs to adapt to the WRC. We have a good co-operation with Skoda, and will shadow them on some rallies this year and next year so that we are able to come to the first round in 2012 and start at a very high level.”
Nissen also reiterated that following 'a fantastic time' on the Dakar Rally over the past few years, there will categorically be no factory-supported Volkswagen entry on the gruelling, uniquely punishing event in 2012 – thereby making Al-Attiyah's 2011 triumph the official valedictory appearance – but he conceded that having received a number of approaches from interested parties, 'it looks very much like we might be able to set up a customer programme', even if no final decision has yet been taken.
Back on-topic, though, as VW prepares to return to the World Rally Championship for the first time in more than two decades – with its last victory having come courtesy of Kenneth Eriksson and Peter Diekmann with the Golf GTI 16V on the 1987 Rallye Côte d'Ivoire – one man with a clear 'passion' for the series is FIA President Jean Todt, who competed against the Wolfsburg-based manufacturer during his stint at the helm of Peugeot's WRC effort in the mid-1980s. The last word, then, goes to the Frenchman.
“You can be sure of my total commitment,” he urged, “and this announcement by Volkswagen is great news for all those who believe this sport has great potential. We are strongly committed to taking the WRC to be amongst the pinnacle of world motorsport, and I welcome the arrival of Volkswagen as a manufacturer with a history of great success in different categories of motorsport.
“I'm convinced Volkswagen will do everything in its power to make the WRC even more exciting, entertaining and world-class – and I wish the company the best of luck and success in its new adventure.”