Volkswagen to stun World and slam brakes on rallying
It seems the rumours are about to become reality - Volkswagen will pull the plug on their hugely successful World Rally Championship campaign at the end of this season.
After four successive manufacturers' championships and four drivers' titles for Sebastien Ogier, the German manufacturer is about to walk away despite having developed a car to comply with the WRC's 2017 regulations.
Rallying, it seems, has become the latest casualty of Volkswagen's emissions scandal in the USA which is set to cost the VAG group up to $16bn and has already brought an end to sister company Audi's participation in the World Endurance sports car championship.
The rally decision, which will rock world motorsport, is believed to have been taken at a VW board meeting in Wolfsburg yesterday and although there has been no official announcement, publications in Germany and elsewhere insist Rally Australia later this month will be the team's final appearance.
If true, as seems the case, it throws up the question of what happens to Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen, drivers who were already under contract for next season.
Two other major teams, Citroen and Hyundai, have announced their 2017 line-ups with Kris Meeke and Craig Breen confirmed as Citroen drivers alongside young Frenchman Stephane Lefebvre while Hyundai will field Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo and Hayden Paddon.
World Championship returnees Toyota have yet to finalise their team and M-Sport Ford still have two places to fill alongside Eric Camilli. But do they have the budget to bring on board Ogier, the sport's biggest superstar? And would he be interested in joining either team?
Although only 32, the French ace has already achieved almost everything in rallying and has hinted in the recent past that he might walk away.
Citroen, where he began his career, and Hyundai could find the money for a driver of his status and, who knows, their lawyers may soon be asked to check the "get out" clauses in the contracts of their current crews.
Latvala would be an ideal fit for Toyota whose new Yaris is being developed under the direction of his fellow Finn Tomi Makinen and Mikkelsen could find a home at Malcolm Wilson's Ford team. There are also suggestions VW might switch their focus to another of their brands, Skoda, and return under the Czech name, the Polo and the Fabia sharing much in common.
But why have they chosen to quit when they were so far down the road with their plans for 2017 and the new VW Polo R, which will have cost millions of pounds to develop, was showing such impressive performance in testing?
The budget for running the rally team is estimated at around £50m a year, a drop in the ocean compared to the punitive fines and compensation payments to be handed over in America following the 'dieselgate' controversy.
But sales have been hit and there is talk that for the first time in Volkswagen's history the company may have to start laying off workers in Germany. Redundancy is common with almost all car manufacturers at some point but it has never happened at Volkswagen and it is believed doling out millions to a rally programme would not sit well in their factories or with the German public.
There is also the belief that their rallying aims have already been accomplished and they will look to promote their products in other areas. Audi, for instance, are turning their attention from their Le Mans-winning sports car to the new all-electric Formula E Championship which is on the rise.
Whatever the reasons, rallying will take some time to absorb the impact of the sport's biggest name quitting at such short notice. Some sources say more should have been read into the departure in mid-season of Jost Capito, the team director who had guided Volkswagen to their four World Championships. He left in August to join McLaren in Formula One.
Hindsight, they say, is an exact science.