Representing 12 different countries from around the world, the young stars will begin their WRC Academy campaigns on Vodafone Rally de Portugal, which starts in the Portuguese capital later today, in identical Ford Fiesta R2s prepared by M-Sport and running on Pirelli control tyres.
They include the six Pirelli Star Drivers - Fredrik Ahlin, Craig Breen, Jan Cerny, Andrea Crugnola, Brendan Reeves and Molly Taylor - Calle Ward, who at 197cm in height is the tallest competitor in the field, 17-year-old Miko-Ove Niinemae, the Academy’s youngest driver, Sergey Karyakin, a former Russian snowmobile champion with experience of just three rallies, multiple Fiesta title-winner Alastair Fisher and Timo van der Marel, who is being supported by the Dutch motorsport federation.
“It’s great to finally be here and to put into practice everything we’ve learned so far,” said Molly Taylor. “We’ve worked as hard as we can to be ready and it’s a great opportunity I’m determined to make the most of.”
Alastair Fisher added: “It’s very special to be here and to be a part of the WRC. I can’t wait to get started although I know it’s not going to be easy.”
Several WRC luminaries attended the launch, held at the Centro Cultural de Belem in the Praca do Imperio in Lisbon. They included WRC manager and multiple WRC event winner Michele Mouton, Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team boss Malcolm Wilson and Jarmo Mahonen, the president of the WRC Commission.
“The WRC Academy is the ladder to get to the top of the sport and once the drivers are at the top they will be ready to respond to the teams, the manufacturers and the press in the right way,” said Mouton.
Malcolm Wilson said: “It’s great to know that young drivers can get the opportunity to go to the top of the sport in a Fiesta with the R2 model followed by the Super 2000 and World Rally Car versions.”
WRC Academy principal Marc de Jong said: “We wanted to make the first step on the WRC ladder achievable and affordable and we’ve done that with the WRC Academy, which is a great competition with education attached to it.”
Matteo Braga, Pirelli’s senior rally tyre engineer added: “A lot of young drivers have the possibility to learn the strategy of rallying using the same cars and tyres. It’s very exciting.”
Twenty drivers had registered for the WRC Academy although Frenchman Sebastien Chardonnet and German Philipp Knof have been forced to withdraw after encountering sponsorship difficulties.