Volkswagen’s shock withdrawal from the FIA World Rally Championship has kick-started an intriguing driver transfer market just when the seats for 2017 seemed to have settled.
Volkswagen, Citroën and Hyundai had all confirmed their line-ups for next year. Toyota was halfway there and the guessing games over M-Sport’s strategy were pretty much at an end with an announcement expected next week before everyone jumps on the plane to Australia.
Now speculation is rife as to where we might see Sébastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen as Volkswagen bids farewell to the WRC after Kennards Hire Rally Australia (17 - 20 November).
Let’s look at Ogier. With four world titles and a newly-born son at home, retirement is an option for the Frenchman. But the competitive desire still burns strongly within him and there is no doubt the chance to add a fifth title with another team is a challenge he would relish.
The big money is on a return to Citroën, the team he left at the end of 2011 after a tense relationship with management and Sébastien Loeb. The French squad has already announced Kris Meeke, Craig Breen and Stephane Lefebvre, so is there room for Ogier?
Sure there is. The prospect of having a Frenchman starting 2017 in the new C3 WRC with No.1 on the side would have boss Yves Matton licking his lips.
Ogier’s other realistic option is M-Sport. With next year’s salary covered by Volkswagen, Ogier’s signature would cost Malcolm Wilson far less than in normal circumstances and complete the circle that almost led to him moving to the British squad after his Citroën departure five years ago.
Meeke and Ogier at Citroën would be a tasty partnership – the pair have crossed swords several times this year. Equally, Ogier at M-Sport alongside the soon-to-be confirmed Ott Tänak and Eric Camilli would be an appetising Fiesta line-up.
On to Latvala. Toyota is the most likely home for him, alongside the already announced Juho Hänninen. Many believed he would go there in 2018 after Toyota’s first season back in WRC and these latest developments might just hasten his arrival at the Finnish-based squad.
If so, it could see Esapekka Lappi, who was expected to be confirmed as Hänninen’s team-mate after Rally Australia, pushed down the order into the third Yaris WRC.
But, if Ogier ends up at Citroën, might Wilson turn to Latvala again? Jari-Matti won seven world rallies with Ford between 2008 and 2012 and despite a few metaphorical bumps along the way, this one could come together.
And Mikkelsen (pictured below)? Well, it’s not hard to imagine the telephone lines out of Norway have been busy this week. To France, England and Finland for sure, but possibly also to Germany where Korean manufacturer Hyundai is located.
However, one rumour gathering pace is Mikkelsen and Elfyn Evans in a two-car DMACK Fiesta team. Evans appeared to be staring into a cul-de-sac until talk in Britain last week indicated he had found a last-gasp reprieve. Perhaps the Norwegian will be joining him?
If the excitement ahead of the new-generation World Rally Cars wasn’t enough, this week’s news has turned it up a further notch. An interesting few weeks ahead….