Top 20 Stories of 2019
Top Stories of 2019, #7: Citroen quits amid WRC shake-up
In at number seven in our Top Stories countdown is Citroen's decision to quit the World Rally Championship, and the 2020 driver market madness that preceded its announcement.
There are no shortage of examples of champions at the highest levels of motorsport that end up attempting to defend their titles with a different team to that with which they won them in the first place. Some make a totally seamless transition (see Valentino Rossi, Eddie Lawson), some take a few years to add to their tally of crowns (Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost), and for others it can prove disastrous (Fernando Alonso, Damon Hill).
Over the coming years we'll see which of these categories Ott Tanak falls into, as he sets out to clinch a second WRC title with Hyundai, after becoming the first champion in the discipline not named 'Sebastien' in some 16 years while driving a Toyota Yaris WRC.
The last driver to take the number one plate elsewhere in rallying's elite category was Richard Burns, who after winning his sole title for Subaru in 2001 upped sticks and joined Peugeot in 2002, only to be soundly beaten by the team's established ace Marcus Gronholm.
Hoping to play the Gronholm role this time around will be Thierry Neuville, who found himself pipped to the post yet again this year but has the advantage of being the only one of the WRC's current 'big three' to be staying put in 2020. That's because Sebastien Ogier's return to Citroen ended in abrupt fashion, the Frenchman jumping on the chance to replace Tanak at Toyota.
Ogier had already made waves by declaring that the 2020 WRC season would be the last of an illustrious career that has so far yielded six straight titles between 2013 and 2018, but nobody expected that it would be at the wheel of anything other than a Citroen C3 WRC, a car that had at least gained some respectability with Ogier's drives at the start of the season.
But Tanak's gradual loss of patience with Toyota's failure to agree terms to a new contract and an audacious bid on the part of Hyundai for the Estonian driver's services gave Ogier a way out of a situation he had grown increasingly frustrated with.
Once it became clear Tanak was indeed Hyundai-bound, rumours abounded that Ogier was set to spearhead an all-new Toyota line-up. But effective confirmation of the move came from an unlikely source: a very brief communication from Citroen relaying its WRC exit.
The French marque in essence blamed Ogier's decision to leave it high and dry, claiming that a lack of available top-line talent for 2020 gave it no other option. Ogier described such reasoning as "disrespectful" to the other drivers on the market, adding: "Communication hasn't always been the strongest point for Citroen..."
A combination of Citroen's exit and Toyota's decision to jettison the remaining two-thirds of its 2019 line-up in favour of Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanpera has left plenty of talent on the sidelines for 2020, with only one seat at M-Sport left up for grabs alongside Teemu Suninen.
Kris Meeke, Jari-Matti Latvala, Andreas Mikkelsen, Mads Ostberg, Hayden Paddon, Craig Breen and Esapekka Lappi are all on the market, although recent speculation has favoured Lappi - Ogier's Citroen teammate this season - to land the M-Sport drive. The rest all face uncertain futures, with Meeke looking like he'll possibly call time on his rallying career altogether.
Despite the reduced field of top-line cars for 2020, the prospect of Tanak going toe-to-toe with Neuville in identical machinery, not to mention Ogier bidding for one last title to add to his collection in his fourth different car over the last five seasons, is a tantalising one.
And while losing a manufacturer is never a good thing for a world championship, equally a proper driver market mix-up is just the tonic needed to keep fan interest in the series strong - and perhaps just about makes up for the loss of two paid-for factory seats.
Click here to see the list of Top 20 stories so far.
Champion Ott Tänak, Toyota Gazoo Racing
Photo by: Toyota Racing
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