08 November 2016 ~ 0 Comments

Comment: Volkswagen exits the World Rally Championship

After the 2016 running of Rally Australia, the Polo R WRC will be no more. PoloDriver.com editor Rich Gooding celebrates the Polo R WRC’s rallying success and analyses what Volkswagen’s withdrawal from the World Rally Championship means for the series in 2017, and what motorsport arena the company could have success in next

2016 Volkswagen Polo R WRC, Rally Portugal: Latvala/Anttila

Even though Volkswagen’s exit from the World Rally Championship (WRC) from 2016 was officially confirmed last Wednesday, the shock announcement is still sinking in. Four-wheel drive, 318bhp rallying Polos have been part of my life for the past five years, since VW’s top-flight participation in one of the most exciting areas of motorsport was announced in Sardinia. It was then that the Polo R WRC concept car was also unveiled, signalling Volkswagen’s intent and desire to win.

Four-year dominance
And win it has. Massively so. It describes its four-year dominance of the sport as ‘four historically successful years’, and with twelve titles (Drivers’, Co-drivers’, and Manufacturers’ Championships) to its name since 2013, that’s quite a fitting description. Of the 51 international gravel and asphalt rallies the Polo R WRC had competed in, it took an amazing 42 wins with 621 best times from over 900 special stages. It remains the most successful car ever in the World Rally Championship.

Which makes the blow that there will not be a four-wheel drive super-Polo howling though the forests, sliding on the mud and dust-lined gravel tracks, and skimming across asphalt roads all the harder to take. It’s made all the regretful due to the fact that – at last – there may have been some road car correlation, too: the 2017 rally Polo was due to be badged ‘GTI’ or at least have the iconic three letters in its name.

Bulked-up looks, faster pace
With Audi’s withdrawal from the World Endurance Championship (WEC) racing series, the first seeds were planted for the cancellation of the WRC programme. But I for one, refused to believe it. The new Polo R WRC developed for 2017’s more exciting WRC regulations was far down the development road, even having been tested ahead of the 2016 Wales Rally GB just last month. Wrapped in its distinctive ‘zebra’ camouflage, its bulked-up looks, larger spoilers and faster pace promised so, so much.

2017 Volkswagen Polo R WRC

Criminally, that car will now (or at least for the foreseeable future) never be seen and never turn a wheel in anger in public. At least two prototypes had been built. I would guess that they are now either due to be destroyed, or, I hope, tucked away for posterity. Decades later they may be re-discovered as a ‘what might have been’ car, just as has been the case with Audi’s Group S prototype this year. Rumour has it that nine complete 2017-specification machines were in the pipeline for next year.

It’s not known what will happen to the ‘series’ Polo R WRCs, too, although as they have been seen balletically dancing through global rally stages in front of fans, I’m more confident in their hideaway and keepsake fate being safe. Sources state that around 34 cars have been built, along with three ‘mock-ups’ for motor show appearances: that’s a lot of metal and composite to destroy.

Giddy heights of success
But it’s not just the cars that I will miss. Volkswagen Motorsport ploughed cash not just into its rally effort to guarantee success, but also the promotion of the World Rally Championship series itself. While still far away from the giddy heights of its 1980s success – patchy TV coverage being just one questionable element – VW’s participation and promotion got me back into being a WRC and rallying fan after years away from the sport.

With clever and humorous promotion on social media platforms, Volkswagen gave the WRC a shot in the arm and once again put it in front of people. It made it exciting again, at least to me. Yes, there’s some ‘favouritism’ in there for sure, but it had the desired effect – I’ve watched every single event since the Polo R WRC rolled off the Monte-Carlo Rally start line back in January 2013. Will I continue to catch it once there are no Polos jumping and sliding through the stages? I’m not sure.

One thing Volkswagen’s untimely withdrawal does do is open up the field. With Citroën back for 2017 with its new C3-based car (which admittedly does look fantastic as does the standard car it’s based on), and Toyota rejoining the rally race with the Yaris WRC, it is shaping up to possibly be a landmark year for the sport.

Maybe not quite the Group B-like frenzy it’s been built up to be – that era is well and truly over – but a shake-up and reshaping for sure. The M-Sport Ford team must not be forgotten, too, and neither must second-place manufacturer Hyundai: testament to its success this year, only a fool would bet against it being in the running to snatch Volkswagen’s WRC winner’s crown.

2016 Citroën C3 WRC concept

Strong competitive desire
And then of course there are the three Volkswagen driver crews, who have been left car-less for 2017. Rumours abound that Ogier might retire from the sport completely, his four world championships being reward enough. However, he has a severely strong competitive desire and surely craves at least one more crack of the WRC whip. A past Citroën driver supporting Sébastien Loeb, it could well be the French manufacturer he returns to. Past run-ins with the French team’s Kris Meeke notwithstanding of course.

Jari-Matti Latvala is an ex-Ford driver, so could gravitate ‘home’ towards M-Sport. He deserves success – with a patchy success record while at Volkswagen, it was always frustrating as a spectator to see the Finn as the bridesmaid to Ogier’s bride. And then there’s Andreas Mikkelsen who has shown great promise while driving for VW. Both fast and consistent, it has been a pleasure to watch the Norwegian blossom under Volkswagen’s stewardship.

It was Mikkelsen who put it most eloquently – and voiced the sentiments of many fans – when the official announcement was released last week: ‘Wow, what can I say. This is heart breaking. The last couple of days have been very hard and very emotional. To learn that Volkswagen is stopping our highly successful program that we all have worked so hard for came as a shock’. Rumours persist that he could go to independent team DMACK, but with the drivers’ market opened up again with VW’s decision, it will surely restart the drivers’ signing merry-go-round.

Electrified rallycross
The official Volkswagen announcement cites a focus on ‘important future technologies’, and while a more cost-effective Polo R5-specification car is coming for customer rallying programmes, I wonder if electrification forms part of the Volkswagen Group’s future motorsport plans. Reports circulated last week about both Audi and Volkswagen being interested in supporting an electrified rallycross programme, as the pair of manufacturers currently feature in the FIA World Rallycross Championship with 600bhp A1 and Polo models respectively.

2016 Volkswagen Polo RX, World RX of Sweden: Marklund

As far back as March, Frank Welsch, Member of the Board of Management responsible for Technical Development, was reported as stating that an electrified rallycross championship would be ‘perfect’ for Volkswagen.

And while Audi’s involvement is limited to the support of the Swedish independent EKS team, the Ingolstadt firm has also mooted that an electrified series would be of interest. Tying in with the Volkswagen Group’s new, post-‘Dieselgate’ push for electrified model ranges, an all-electric rallycross series would directly mirror the new plans. Audi has already confirmed it will contest the Formula E series now it will longer focus on the WEC.

PoloDriver.com content
And finally, what will it mean for PoloDriver.com? While I’ll miss reporting on Volkswagen Motorsport’s progress in the World Rally Championship, the reports do take a sizeable amount of time to prepare, and this time can now be given over to compiling more features on the Polo’s heritage, special models, owners’ cars, as well as reverting back to covering some of the less major country-specific Polo motorsport series.

But there will be undoubtedly be a Polo R WRC hole in the site from 2017, and fans can only hope that one day, the super-Polos will be back once again in the forests, on the ice, and scything through the dust and snow, all to the soundtrack of Two Steps From Hell.

For now, though, I’ll gaze at the various scale models of the 2013-2016 Polo R WRC on my desk an on shelves on my home office wall and ponder how its and Volkswagen’s rallying programme would have progressed after this season’s final round in Australia. And neither can I deny that there won’t be a Polo R WRC-based feature or two pop up in the next few months…

With much promise still to come, now sadly all we have is memories – but what high-flying reminisces. Its international rallying career may have been cruelly cut short, but the Polo R WRC took the car this website is all about to one of the most gruelling motorsport disciplines there is and gave it a spectacular outing. And for that, we have to at least be thankful.

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