In a shock move, Volkswagen has ‘reliagned’ its motorsport programme and pulled out of all future commitment to the World Rally Championship (WRC). Rumours started to circulate at the start of the week, ahead of a company board meeting yesterday. And today came the official announcement of the news we’d been dreading. After the final round of the 2016 season – Rally Australia – later this month, the Polo R WRC is no more.
‘Four historically successful years’
The company states that, ‘From 2017, Volkswagen will focus on new technologies and customer sport’, and that its involvement with top-level rallying will come to an end after ‘four historically successful years’. And what a ‘historical successful’ quartet of years it was: Volkswagen Motorsport and the Polo R WRC won twelve titles (Drivers’, Co-drivers’, and Manufacturers’ Championships) from 2013 to 2016, and have dominated the sport since the super-Polo first turned a wheel in anger at the 2013 Monte-Carlo Rally.
Talk about leaving on a high, though. The 318bhp four-wheel drive version of the German supermini competed in 51 international gravel and asphalt rallies and had an amazing 42 wins with 621 best times from over 900 special stages – a truly impressive feat making it the most successful car ever in the World Rally Championship. Just last weekend Volkswagen Motorsport scooped its fourth manufacturers’ title* at the 2016 running of Wales Rally GB.
New WRC technical regulations
Why a shock move? The motorsport outfit from Hannover had been quite far down the development road of the 2017 Polo R WRC, which would have been more powerful and more wildly-styled than the current car due to new technical regulations in the championship which come into force next year. Rumour has it that car will now be mothballed or crushed – we hope some examples of both it and the 2013 to 2016 machine are kept for historical purposes.
In front of 200 Volkswagen Motorsport employees in Hannover, Frank Welsch, Member of the Board of Management responsible for Technical Development said: ‘The Volkswagen brand is facing enormous challenges. With the upcoming expansion in electrification of our vehicle range we must focus all our efforts on important future technologies. We far exceeded our sporting goals in the WRC, now we are realigning Volkswagen Motorsport and moving the vehicle technology of the future more starkly into focus’. All employees’ jobs are guaranteed to be safe.
‘R5’-specification Polo in 2018
However, while the Polo R WRC is a sad and unfortunate casualty of today’s announcement, there is hope. Volkswagen Motorsport will refocus on customer racing, primarily with the Golf GTI TCR touring car racer and the Global Rallycross Championship Beetle. But, a new, less powerful, customer-focused rallying Polo is on the cards, too. The ‘R5’-specification Polo will be available for teams to buy in 2018 and will be based on the new sixth-generation car expected to be launched next year. It is said that the new car will benefit from the experience gained by the Polo R WRC’s dominance.
Volkswagen Motorsport Director Sven Smeets commented: ‘Of course, we regret the departure from the WRC very much – as this was the most successful chapter in the Volkswagen brand’s motorsport history. The team has done great things. At the same time, our vision is firmly ahead, because we are aware of the challenges facing the entire company. We want our realignment to contribute to the success of the Volkswagen brand. From now on, the focus is on upcoming technologies in motorsport and on our customer sports range, where we will position ourselves more broadly and attractively.’
*Subject to ratification of the results by the FIA.