The eagerly anticipated young driver training series, a joint initiative between the FIA, motorsport’s world governing body, and WRC promoter North One Sport, replaces the Junior World Rally Championship. But the WRC Academy’s revolutionary format means that this is no straightforward replacement.
Rather than being allowed to pick and choose their cars and teams as was the case with the JWRC, all 20 drivers currently registered for the WRC Academy will do so in identical Ford Fiesta R2s prepared by the British M-Sport organisation from a facility in Krakow, Poland, and run on Pirelli control tyres. This places the onus firmly on driving talent.
After two days of competitive action, drivers will spend the final day of each of the six rounds in a debrief session where they will get the chance to analyse their performances using data and on-board camera footage in order to make any necessary improvements for the next event. Other training days will be arranged during the course of the season with input from WRC legends past and present.
Only drivers born on or after January 1, 1986 are allowed to take part and their experience of world championship rallies must be limited to a handful of events to help create a level playing field among the competitors.
At the end of the season, the WRC Academy champion will be handed a cheque for 500,000 Euros to use in the main WRC the following year.
Fourteen different nationalities will be represented in the WRC Academy this season. However, with entries not closing until the end of March, this number could yet rise.
In terms of drivers, Sweden has the most representatives with three. They are Fredrik Ahlin, Victor Henriksson and Calle Ward who all have experience of driving Fiesta rally cars from previous competition programmes.
Ahlin is one of six Pirelli Star Drivers taking part in the WRC Academy this season after being selected by a panel of experts during an assessment in Spain last October. The scheme, which has been responsible for unearthing several talents, enters its third season this year. Pirelli and the FIA will underwrite his campaign and will do the same for fellow Pirelli Star Drivers Craig Breen (Ireland), Jan Cerny (Czech Republic), Andrea Crugnola (Italy), Brendan Reeves (Australia) and Molly Taylor (Australia).
Spain has two representatives in Jose Suarez and former JWRC campaigner Yeray Lemes, who will travel from the Canary Islands for each round of the series.
The two Estonians on the entry are Miko-Ove Niinemae and Egon Kaur, while Germany can count on Christian Riedemann and Philipp Knof.
Dutchman Timo van der Marel is one of several WRC Academy drivers with backing from his national motorsport federation.
Miguel Baldoni and Sergey Karavakin are the sole Argentinian and Russian representatives respectively, while Alastair Fisher - a multiple Fiesta one-make champion in the past - is the only British driver in action.
Italian Matteo Brunello has some previous WRC knowledge to call on, which isn’t the case for Frenchman Sebastien Chardonnet, who will be making his first start at world level in Portugal.
All WRC Academy drivers will undertake a four-hour test in Portugal tomorrow afternoon before they head to Lisbon on Thursday morning for the opening special stage.
In addition to Portugal, the inaugural WRC Academy will include rounds in Italy, Finland, Germany, France and Great Britain.
Follow this link for more information on each of the 2011 season WRC Academy drivers and co-drivers.