Editorial | Volkswagen to end World Rally Championship commitment

Another week, another Volkswagen Group motorsport project gets canned. After the end of Audi’s Le Mans campaign, now comes the closure of VW’s highly successful rally programme. ESM’s Editor reflects.

VW Polo R WRC

Just three days after winning the 2016 Rally GB, along with more World Championship titles, Volkswagen officially that there will be no 2017 WRC campaign. The official reason is that the brand must ‘realign’ priorities in the face of enormous challenges. Whilst the statement from Volkswagen is at pains to avoid any reference to last year’s emissions scandal, this is clearly a knock-on effect from dieselgate.

With litigation and product recalls requiring Volkswagen to set aside billions of euros, continuing an expensive motorsport campaign in the WRC becomes a difficult thing to justify. In addition, it may well be that the Volkswagen brand wants to keep a low profile until the fall-out from dieselgate is completely sorted. It’s worth noting that VW-branded cars didn’t appear in this year’s latest Forza Horizon 3 game on the Microsoft Xbox, due to undisclosed licensing issues. Having been paraded through the global media as a cheat, perhaps Volkswagen wants to avoid rubbing noses in the dirt. Literally.

VW Polo R WRC

What’s more depressing is that Volkswagen Motorsport’s campaign with the Polo R WRC has been nothing short of flawless. From entering in 2013, to now, Volkswagen has taken 42 rally wins from 51 entries – that’s more than 83%! It means the Polo R WRC has notched up four drivers’ titles with Sébastien Ogier, four co-drivers’ titles with Julien Ingrassia, and four Manufacturers’ championships. Whilst cynics and critics will point to contemporary WRC being at its lowest ebb in generations – they’re not wrong – it’s still an amazing performance.

But now all that is gone. Shelved. All the preparations for the new 2017 regulations wasted, with Volkswagen confirming on Twitter that they have no plans to offer 2017-spec WRC cars to customers. An R5 Polo customer programme will follow in 2018, whilst support for Global Rallycross and the Golf GTI TCR is unchanged. This does at least mean no job losses due to the rallying withdrawal – one scant positive.

As a Volkswagen Polo (GTI) owner, perhaps the saddest thing for me personally was the news that VW had planned to badge the 2017 rally car as a Polo GTI. It may have been in name only, but doing so would have helped forge that link between road and race even better. Now that won’t happen. Beyond the homologation special Polo WRC ‘Street’ version, Volkswagen has hardly done much to bring WRC technology to the Polo road car. The current Audi S1 perhaps comes closest, although VW did at least tease a 4WD Polo R back in 2014.

VW Polo R WRC

Again, this may have made the decision to cancel the WRC programme easier. Modern WRC does little to push the boundaries of road car development and is, in the purest sense, little more than marketing. Hyundai doesn’t offer a fire-spitting i20, and there was no AWD Ford Fiesta ST or Citroen DS3 the last time I checked, either.

Volkswagen’s entry into WRC always seemed slightly surprising, as a company that had generally shied away from top-level motorsport. Audi, Skoda, and SEAT had all ran global motorsport campaigns, but Volkswagen always seemed to be left on the sidelines. However, the Rally the World marketing campaign from VW has been brilliant, with videos and social media posts that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Losing that is real shame in itself.

VW Polo R WRC

Beyond those VW Motorsport employees who have kept their jobs, there are very few winners from this situation. The drivers and co-drivers who planned to compete in the WRC for VW in 2017 find themselves with limited time to find a seat. Rallying loses another big-name manufacturer, at a time when the series is hardly oversubscribed. Finally, millions of fans lose out the the chance to see and support Volkswagen on the WRC stage.

 

Thanks dieselgate. Thanks for nothing.

 

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