MINI's return will be a boost for world rallying
The worst-kept secret in rallying has finally been revealed with MINI's announcement that it will be returning to the top level of international rallying, the World Rally Championship, in 2011.
Fans and the FIA alike will be delighted at the news especially as a once-thriving WRC has in recent years become a two-horse race between Ford and Citroen, with the latter taking nearly all of the honours thanks to the most successful rally driver in history, Sebastien Loeb.
Within the past 10 years, marques including Subaru, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Peugeot, Hyundai and Skoda have all abandoned the WRC with the problem exacerbated by the fast rise of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, a series that has offered more in terms of competition and excitement. That MINI has not chosen the IRC option is a coup for the WRC, particularly as the Monte Carlo Rally - the scene of MINI's greatest victory in 1964 with Paddy Hopkirk at the wheel - is part of the IRC.
It may have been MINI's partner, Prodrive, that bore some influence with that decision. After all, this is a company with a rich rallying history; owner Dave Richards co-drove Ari Vatanen to the world title in 1981 before founding the organisation that became synonymous with Subaru and bred cult heroes such as Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Petter Solberg. Prodrive's HQ just off the M40 remains a mecca for Subaru fans, still mourning the loss of the marque to the WRC.
Whether or not Prodrive can turn MINI into a similar success story remains to be seen but the brand has a certain cache and for Richards it is a reunion with MINI's parent company, BMW, with whom he first collaborated in motorsport in the late 1980s. Also, since Subaru pulled out of rallying at the end of 2008 Prodrive have kept much of their motorsport talent, including technical director David Lapworth, and are as well-placed as anyone to take the challenge to Ford and Citroen.
Attention will quickly to turn to drivers. With such a dearth of factory seats on offer in the WRC, there's not exactly a shortage of talent out there. One name already being bandied about by the specialist press is former double world champion, Marcus Gronholm. The one man that Loeb saw as a real threat to his success retired in 2007 but has made the odd reappearance, including a drive for Prodrive and Subaru on Rally Portugal in 2009.
However, Gronholm will be 43 in 2011 and Prodrive has a long tradition of blooding young drivers - Solberg, Mikko Hirvonen and Chris Atkinson all passed through Prodrive's doors early in their careers - and there are some young Brits waiting for their chance on the WRC stage. The reigning IRC champion, Kris Meeke, although very much part of PSA Citroen Peugeot, would be a popular choice as would close rival Guy Wilks but if Prodrive really wanted to look to the future, the promising young teenager Tom Cave could be one to consider.
Rallying has a huge following in the UK and fans have been crying out for a British success story since the late Richard Burns became world champion in 2001. For all his efforts, Ford's Matthew Wilson, has yet to fulfil his early promise while the likes of Meeke and Wilks could bring a buzz back to a sport that's been sadly lacking for too long.