2004 WRC Season Commentary

2004 WRC Summary by Chris Biewer :

For 2004 the calendar is extended to 16 rounds for the first time. For this Mexico and Japan are added to the calendar, while the Italian round changes location from San Remo to Sardinia. As well the Wales Rally GB changes date from their traditional end of season slot to September, to make the rally less muddy (less challenging), while the new end of season party is in Australia. Read more under point 3*, so the smaller silly changes don't go under here.

For the first time a system called SupeRally is disgusted, err discussed and tried. Read more under point 2*.

We return from 3-car-teams - best 2 score to 2-car teams. Read more under point 1*.

This is only minor stuff that went under between the other big changes, but goes nicely to show how senseless some of the changes are, like change for change sake: Navigator names disappear from the cars. Apparently it is too confusing for the casual fan to have a car in which 2 people are sitting displaying 2 names. Navigators feel disrespected, in Monte Carlo Ford and Subaru are told mid event to remove navigator names or they will be penalised, in a TV interview even FIA boss Max Mosley states he doesn't actually know what that rule change is for. Probably for the same reason, to reduce fan confusion, the entry numbers on the cars are reduced to stamp size, so one can't read them when the car flashes by.

There are a few more changes, too many to name without being sued. I.e. that the events are becoming ever shorter. In 2004 it is discussed to drop the Sunday leg, because there is no action on Sundays - no wonder when there is only 2 stages! For more action extend the leg, not drop it! On that theory we can soon drop whole events, because nothing is going to happen on 50km total. Or that it's decided that from 2005 we reduce the stage distance per event from 400km to 350km - we still have the full logistics for 16 events, but safe money for 30litres fuel and 1 set of tyres makes up for it?

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1*) I start with the 3-car teams, because that probably shows best the confusion this sport is put through. In 1995 for the first time a nomination system is introduced: each manufacturer can nominate 3 cars of which the best 2 results are counted. We stick to the best 2 results counted throughout, but from 1997 only 2 cars per make can be nominated, which is some kind of a U-turn. For a number of obvious reasons we return to 3-car teams in 2002, U-turn #2. And in 2004 it is 2-car teams again = U-turn of the U-turn of the U-turn!

Already the way this was introduced was a curiosity and had a major effect. There was some criticism that some teams may employ expensive drivers for all 3 cars. Mid 2003 it was announced that there would be rules imposed on the 3rd driver. Like a 3rd driver could not be one who had a WRC event podium finish within the last 3 years. This rule was confirmed and Peugeot and Citroën announced their driver line ups for 2004 accordingly, just before Australia 2003. Peugeot decided on a set up of 2 "medium" drivers to back up Grönholm, while Citroën employed a "weak" pay-driver alongside 2 stars, Loeb and Sainz. Within a week of Peugeot's announcement the FIA announced there was no 3rd driver any more. Therefore Citroën lost a sponsor and Peugeot now was stuck with 2 "weaker" drivers that were contracted following a firm rule confirmation!
It can be said that this scenario also lead to the withdrawal of the PSA teams. Peugeot only returned to the WRC in 1999 after the FIA had given them written confirmation there won't be such rule changes without consulting the manufacturers!
Another effect is lesser known: Renault was at that very time testing a Megane WRC with Francois Delecour. The project was stopped because Renault did not like how manufacturers were treated in this case.

All is ironic. If dropping 3rd drivers at all or if, as the original rule, 3rd drivers could only be who didn't have a top3 result in the past 3 seasons, it was long discussed and obvious that this was intended to hurt the French teams. The complaint was that the French teams had the most expensive 3rd drivers and therefore were dominating the WRC. The managers and fans of the 2 PSA teams in concern however claimed it was a combination of clever driver selection and especially extremely competitive cars. This claim was actually easy to prove: See 2000, Peugeot's #3 driver was Marcus Grönholm. In this case the #3 driver even became a strong WRChampion! However the original rule for 2004 would have allowed Grönholm to be a #3 driver, before his first championship winning year at Peugeot Grönholm has never ever finished in a WRC podium place in his entire career! Peugeot's #3 for 2001, Harri Rovanperä was not too far off the same mark either, same for Sébastien Loeb when hired by Citroën!

Generally it must be said the 3-car teams is the best layout for a number of reasons (hence there was a reason for U-turn #2 in 2002). And all manufacturers publically agreed to that, even Subaru and Skoda. Not to forget Hyundai employed 3rd drivers, often as pay-drivers (Stohl, Dale, Valimäki, Kuchar), and nobody objected to Hyundai giving us more of Juha Kankkunen. And so did Ford i.e. with Mikko Hirvonen in 2003. So it is not necessarily costing the teams more money. As well the logistics are there, you don't need an extra motorhome, an extra chef, extra car development, if you run 3 cars instead of 2 per event! Returning to 2-car teams in the current points and nomination system has 2 main effects:
There is less room for drivers, there are not enough cars. OK, Colin McRae lost his Citroën drive because of the original 3rd driver announcement to Simon Jean-Joseph anyway, but his chances to find a drive elsewhere were much slimmer now. But clearly with 2-car teams, when there is already a lack of teams, the number of works cars is reduced too much. There is definitely the chance gone for new up and coming drivers or local stars to find a home, like i.e. Skoda ran Gabriel Pozzo in Argentina and Matthias Kahle in Deutschland and Ford ran Mark Higgins in GB.
The other is that teams can't play jokers. We have 8 cars altogether with points for top8, means obviously every single retirement is a loss in makes points. Combined with a gap of only 2pts between 1st & 2nd overall, you can easily lose everything for the sake of 2pts. A team manager would be utterly insane to allow his driver to attack for victory! With 3-car teams it was more like if the lead car crashes out, there still is a 3rd car for damage limitation. Let alone you give a new/local talent like i.e. Higgins a chance, you have your McRae crash and the "little boy" coming in to resque points, what a way to turn a star!

2*) SupeRally. Shall I even write much? This is utterly against the spirit of rallying. OK, so it would be nice to see as many cars as possible on the last day. I agree, the system has its potential. Let's have a marathon rally and a lead driver have a silly error. I am thinking of i.e. Marcus Grönholm leading in Australia 2003 after 2 stages, then in SS3 he cuts a hairpin a little too much, the rear slips down the inside and a perfectly intact car is grounded and Marcus and all points opportunities have left the frame. What a shame!

However what we have got now is a system that is hugely confusing and doesn't take into account severeness of error and damage. You can go off violently in the last stage and come away with 2nd place (see Loeb Monte 2006) or you can have a scratched door handle in SS1 and take 6x 5min penalty and you can basically pack up and go home. Where is that better than Grönholm beaching his 206 in Australia? I have had so many people asking what is going on, I have heard/read so many TV commentators and journalists fail explaining it. I feel sorry for the ISC having to market this. Because as a potential new fan or casual viewer, you don't understand the sport you are watching, you are not going to tune in again, simple!

3*) To extend the calendar to 16 rounds was an attempt to extend marketing opportunities. However quite the opposite is the case, since all the events itself have lost marketing value. Partly for the shortening of events, partly for the choice of events, the events itself have lost character and have become too similar to each other. As well the calendar is cramped. It happens ever again that one event finishes Sunday and the recce to the next event starts 36hrs later on Tuesday.

I feel it as a fan that I am not looking forward to events any more and I lose track as to when the next event is due. And if the die hard fan can't keep track, how can a casual viewer or potential new fan? And I am convinced this is not just me getting old. All manufacturers complained about the packed calendar and choice of locations too. Ford's Malcolm Wilson also points out that in the old days he could remember all results from his head, now he can't even tell the order of the events in the previous year. In 2005 Malcolm Wilson has published calculations that proved that Rally Cyprus and Rally Japan cost each the equivalent of 3 central European WRC events, while Ford has neither a market in tiny Cyprus, nor in Japan.

If budget and value for money are all part of the calculations, it must be said that the meassures of dropping 3rd cars and shortening the events don't equal the added costs for the extended calendar. It's logical, for a glas of juice you still have to take a glas from the shelf, the juice from the fridge and unscrew the bottle if you fill the glas half or full. Same applies to the logistics, preparing and engineering for 16 events, if each event is 350 or 400km and if you take 2 cars or 3. Only you get less value from the same effort. Or more accurately, now a manufacturer has 16 times the effort, 16 times the bills, but there is no room any more for challenging, classic and adventurous goodies like El Condor (Anden Mountains), Moto (Rotorua vulcano area), Sweet Lamb, Kielder Forest, Rift Valley, Black Cotton stages, etc..

Part of the problem is that it was claimed asphalt rallies are not interesting for TV. That is not true. But more importantly, here is the word of Citroën's Guy Fréquelin: Citroën try to sell a Xsara to a public road user, not an off road vehicle! Therefore the move of the Italian round from traditional San Remo to Sardinia is questionable. A potential Citroën customer living anywhere in Italy probably dreams of a holiday in the Ligurian Alps or in Tuscany, both traditional Rallye San Remo territory, but he will never wish to take his car to a rock field on a Sardinian military base next to a prison!

Another problem is that Rallye Sardinia is way too similar to Rally Turkey, Rally Cyprus and Rally Acropolis. We often had these 4 events close together and they are so similar that from pictures even a die hard fan can hardly tell the difference. This is not about my dislike to rough lottery gravel. In the old days I was looking forward to Rally Acropolis. Because it was a once in a season unique affair and it was a real test. Not only because in the 1980s the Acropolis had a far larger variety of entries and the winner's overall time was in the 13hrs bracket! In Acropolis 1980 the best Lancia Stratos came 9th, the best Peugeot 504 Coupé V6 came 10th, the best Mercedes 450SLC came 14th, nowadays you have a serious chance to reach the top10 with a groupN! But the main problem is that in today's calendar an event like Acropolis does not stand out any more.

Or that a 1980s Acropolis had a winner's time in the 13hrs bracket. I am not asking to be silly again, but a 1980s Acropolis was a 4days affair. The Acropolis 1980 had 56 stages covering 766km - that is more than twice a modern Acropolis, when the event only took 1day longer! Basically saying the modern single service park and clover leaf format doesn't help the character and adventure that made each event stick out uniquely.

Or what a crime to replace the Safari for Turkey. Turkey is just another Acropolis or Cyprus, same look, same area. So this is not a preach against rough events, because Safari wasn't exactly a piece of cake. But what was Safari? A huge adventure, photos with wildlife, amazing nature and landscapes. Only let me say it this way: Safari was such an adventure that year in year out magazines and daily papers (so not even speaking specialist press, but terrestrial, daily papers) had page filling adverts of whichever make won this huge adventure that year! Safari, that meant something to the general public. Safari, a victory here had real marketing value. When have you last seen a manufacturer advertising a single event victory?

Single events don't mean anything any more. But we insist on Cyprus, we insist on teams travelling to all 16 events. Now think again, why did 4 out of 6 manufacturers leave at the end of 2005?

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The season itself is quickly explained. Citroën and Séb Loeb dominate the show.

The brand new Peugeot 307 WRC shows promise, but is maybe launched a bit hastily. Peugeot in cooperation with Hewland develops a brand new quick-shift-double-clutch gearbox, which however plays up with the hydraulic systems in the car. In Monte, Sweden, Mexico and NZ Peugeot starts with a 307 minus active differentials but with a visco 4x4 system that basically comes from a 15 years old 405 road car. And they still lead Monte until Grönholm crashes, Sweden until Grönholm spins and in NZ they miss victory by 5.9s despite Grönholm rolling! In Cyprus the 307 takes its maiden win, only to be disqualified for a plastic water pump wheel that is a standard part on the 405 T16 road car but not on the according XU8 base engine. Grönholm also complains about the 4-speed gearbox. For Rallye Deutschland Peugeot fits a 5-speed box, but Grönholm crashes out before he can ever select 5th gear! Still, the new 307 leads 4 of its first 5 events - what a promising debut, what little result in return. The might of the Citroën-Loeb combo and being stuck with 2 "weaker" driver for the 3rd-car rule mess all contribute to Peugeot failing to profit on the promise.

Hyundai promises to return to the WRC next year.
 

2004 WRC Factory Team and Driver Line Ups :
 

Citroën Citroën, 2004 - Citroën Sport : 1st on 194 points.
 

 

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Ford Ford, 2004 - BP-Ford RS Rallye Sport Team : 2nd on 143 points.
 

 

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Subaru Subaru, 2004 - 555 Subaru World Rally Team : 3rd on 122 points.
 

 

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Peugeot Peugeot, 2004 - Marlboro Peugeot Total : 4th on 101 points.
 

 

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Mitsubishi Mitsubishi, 2004 - Mitsubishi Motors Motorsport : 5th on 17 points.
 

 

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