2003 WRC Season Commentary

2003 WRC Summary by Chris Biewer :

The points system is changed yet again. It is now extended from top6 to top8 in scores applied as 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1. The good point is that with the increased competition the lower teams have a much better chance to get a reward for their work. However it is much criticised that the top score stays at 10pts. Or more accurately that because of this the gap between 1st and 2nd is reduced to only 2pts. Never in WRC history has the reward for victory been that slim.

It is no secret that the manufacturers' priority is the makes title. But with only 2-car teams when 2 cars score points and with such tiny reward for victory, why would a team boss allow his drivers to attack?!

As well the calendar saw some spectacular changes. NZ has been moved forward again, as early as April and notably away again from it's logistical slot alongside Australia. At the same time Catalunya and Tour de Corse have been moved back once again into October. This means all the main asphalt events are together at the end of season, which makes it feel like there is a lack of variety until late in the season. And the Rally Turkey comes in as a new event.

The introduction of Turkey is in line with the most spectacular calendar change maybe even in history. Because Turkey replaced Safari! Apparently the dropping of the Safari was thanks to a combination of financial difficulties by the organisers as well as the event having lost its uniqueness. However the truth is far deeper than that. Financial: Kenya is not the richest country in the world but about the most enthusiastic when it comes to rally. In past years the organisers earned money and publically, together with the teams, made donations to local schools and hospitals. This opportunity has changed in modern WRC with its modern demands and WRC promoter charges, which is also why in 2005 the Rallye Deutschland was very nearly cancelled and why in 2006 the Western Australian government withdrew their support to host a WRC event. And the adventure aspect is down to the new event layout dictated to all WRC events. The Safari suffered much more from clover leaf and single service venue lay outs than Argentina (i.e. loss of the thin air Anden mountain stages), NZ (loss of Moto stage and vulcanic Rotorua region) or Rally GB did. Remember the old RAC with legs in English parks, Scotland, Kielder Forest, Lake District and Wales?
Imagine a rally held entirely on the outskirts of capital city Nairobi, is that a Safari adventure? It simply is not!

It must be said in this context, when you have seen the efforts of Mike Kirkland, Hayley Maxfield and gang to run a historic Safari Rally bi-annually since December 2003, it was not the Safari Rally but the WRC who was the big loser in this!

As a historical recall for new fans: To remove the Safari Rally from the premier rally series is a sin. We are talking a real Safari, before the event was confined to the outskirts of Kenya's capital city only by WRC rules. Yes, the Safari is very different to the European rallies, but it has such a variation of picturesque scenes and reflects so much adventure, it is the biggest challenge for driver and car and a firm favourite for the marketing departments. It is a unique adventure and the purest form of rallying. All that so much, it could be regarded as the first WRC event, or the event that started the whole WRC off. Indeed the Safari was always so famous, already in 1970, 3 years before the WRC started, the East African Safari was included to the European Rally Championship for makes and so was the first step to extend the premier series beyond Europe, into the World, WRC!

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On the drivers market 2003 was again a quieter season. In fact the main move was a swap between Ford and Citroën. Ford was facing a major investment on a heavily changed 03 evolution of their Focus and decided their drivers were too expensive, while Citroën was looking for a strong driver team in their first full season. So it came that Colin McRae and Carlos Sainz moved as a complete lead driver team from Ford to Citroën. Sainz was a late call in this, as Citroën had a very promising Sébastien Loeb and Ford wanted to have their own Markko Märtin as lead driver, Sainz very much looked without a drive until moments before close.

Like maybe in 1993, when the reigning World Champion driver (Sainz) in the reigning World Champion car (Lancia Delta) bitterly failed, this turned into another magic example how certain drivers get on better with the unique characteristics of a certain machine or not. Colin McRae was by all rights Ford's leading driver, while many judged Carlos Sainz as an old man. Citroën's Xsara appears a much more neutral racing line car than the Ford Focus and it was suddenly Colin to look pale in this comparison, while Carlos made everybody eat their words, the old man had his 2nd spring!

While the makes title is a clear affair between the two PSA sister brands, there probably has never been a drivers title won by so much luck. Solberg won the title by 1 single point ahead of Citroën's new star Séb Loeb. Solberg would not have won the title if:
- if Burns had not lost form inexplicably (at that point, see next chapter) on the last day in Finland, which gave Petter 2 extra points.
- if it wasn't for a mysterious Corsica win. The best Subaru was in 8th place after leg1. But in massive rain storms on leg2 Petter won stage after stage by 40secs each and more ahead of everybody except the only other Pirelli shod car - you could say Pirelli won that title.
- if in the penultimate rally, Catalunya, Loeb had not lost victory to Peugeot's Gilles Panizzi on the very last stage.
- if on the same penultimate rally, Catalunya, Sainz's Citroën had not stopped on the very last stage with a mysterious and rare electrical fault - Carlos dropped behind Petter in this incident, given Petter more extra points.
- if there wasn't a new generation of live cameras in the cars on the last rally of the season. The TV camera in Sainz's Citroën caught fire and caused his retirement, this freak luck leaving Citroën no option but place team orders on Loeb for Citroën's own title battle with Peugeot.

Most sad however is how the 2003 driver's title was lost by Richard Burns. If a personal note by the author is allowed, I firmly believe the 2003 titles would have been Burns' and Peugeot's, had it not been for following incident: It must be said the changes in the points system (no awards for wins and severe punishes for retirements) suited Richard very well. Richard also felt the fans that criticised his Peugeot performances misunderstood him. Sure Richard would have liked to win a few events in the 206. But for Richard rallying was always an endurance sport, always only the whole picture mattered to him. It is not without reason that the Safari was always Richard's favourite event by far, "The most complete and honest rally". In the new points system the 2003 title race has been dominated by Richard Burns, because in the first 10 rallies he had 9 finishes and 7 podiums! At this point, after 10 rallies 2003, Richard was 11pts up on his 2001 title winning overall score, he was 17pts ahead of Marcus Grönholm, the team mate that apparently put Richard in the shadow!
Round 9, Finland: It is true that Burns lost time for a technical problem on his 206. But he was still ahead of Solberg, two days he beat him stage after stage. Then on the last day Solberg beat Burns in a straight fight. Burns excused it with headache and lack of concentration, which led to bitter complaints by his team boss Corrado Provera. Of course nobody knew at this point what was really on.
Round 11, San Remo: Richard finishes a low 7th. A surprisingly bad performance, his last 17 finishes with the 206 were all inside the top5! Burns explained it with headache and lack of concentration.
Round 12, Corsica: Richard even finishes down in 8th! He was better than that, but twice on the last day Richard had to stop mid stage for "throwing up my breakfast". Nobody could explain.
Round 13, Catalunya: Richard crashes uncharacteristically in a moment of bad concentration.
Round 14, GB: Richard is hospitalised days before the event. Diagnosis: brain tumor. 18 months later Richard passes away as a result of this illness.

I so much wish Richard could have had this title! R.I.P. my friend!

Leaves a note to some changes at the teams. There may not have been too many changes on the drivers market for 2003, but interesting how sponsors and team names changed. Marlboro departs from Mitsubishi to join Peugeot. At the same time Andrew Cowan is thinking retirement and Mitsubishi drop their famous Ralli Art name for a confusing new team name: Mitsubishi Motors Motorsport". Confusion already 2002 at Subaru, when "555" returned again as part of the team name and such obviously as a sponsor, but on the cars there was no visible difference! Back to start 2003 and we have Martini disappear as a sponsor. Martini was the sponsor of the Lancia team for a full 10years in 1983-1992, then joined Ford with the launch of the Focus 1999-2002. Ford starts the 2003 season without title sponsor, but secures BP/Castrol from Acropolis Rally onwards. Accordingly Hyundai lost the Castrol sponsorship already with the start of the season.

And talking of Hyundai: Obviously Hyundai does not trust their own products! Hyundai can throw billions at soccer, but they are reluctant to invest in a sport that would publically show the performance of their products. In Sweden Hyundai bosses ask if the drivers couldn't sleep in tents. Later in the season Hyundai doesn't pay up the preparation business MSD, which leads to the team not turning up for the last 4 rounds and to the FIA fining Hyundai $1million.

Nevertheless, Hyundai promises to return to the WRC next year.
 

2003 WRC Factory Team and Driver Line Ups :
 

Citroën Citroën, 2003 - Citroën Sport : 1st on 160 points.
 

 

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Peugeot Peugeot, 2003 - Marlboro Peugeot Total : 2nd on 145 points.
 

 

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Subaru Subaru, 2003 - 555 Subaru World Rally Team : 3rd on 109 points.
 

 

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Ford Ford, 2003 - Ford RS Rallye Sport Team : 4th on 93 points.
 

 

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Skoda Skoda, 2003 - Skoda Motorsport World Rally Team : 5th on 23 points.
 

 

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Hyundai Hyundai, 2003 - Hyundai World Rally Team : 66th on 1 points.
 

 

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