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Special feature

Top Stories of 2016, #16: Volkswagen exit rocks WRC

At number 16 in our countdown of the biggest motorsport stories of the year comes Volkswagen's shock pull-out from the World Rally Championship - and Sebastien Ogier's subsequent switch to M-Sport.

Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport

Top 20 Stories of 2016

Check out Motorsport.com's countdown of the biggest stories in racing this year.

Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Volkswagen Motorsport
2017 Ford Fiesta WRC
Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
 Citroën C3 WRC Concept car
2017 Ford Fiesta WRC

After four seasons of Volkswagen hegemony, it’s almost hard to remember a time Sebastien Ogier and the Polo R WRC weren’t rallying's dominant force.

The stats speak for themselves: from 2013 to 2016, in the 52 events it entered, the Hannover marque secured no fewer than 43 wins – all but 12 of which were scored by Ogier – and failed to get car on the podium just three times. Of 980 special stages, a VW driver won 622 times.

That the 2016 campaign was statistically the least impressive of VW’s four seasons owes much to this year’s running order rules, which forced the points leader (i.e. Ogier) to sweep the road for two days instead of one. It certainly succeeded in its goal of producing a greater variety of winners, but not in reducing the scale of Ogier and VW domination.

But, long before the full ramifications of what we know now as ‘dieselgate’ were known, there were signs that VW was not entirely happy with its WRC programme.

As long ago as October 2014, team boss Jost Capito (now part of the McLaren F1 team) spoke about the manufacturer’s return on its investment being “unsustainable” – perhaps evidence that VW, a bit like Citroen in the WTCC, was ironically doing such a good job, and crushing the opposition to such an extent, that the fans were losing interest.

That, combined with an annual budget said to be greater than 100m euros annually, will have made WRC something of a soft target when it came to the task of cutting expenditure in the wake of the billion-dollar fines incurred once the full extent of the VW emissions scandal became clear.

The confirmation arrived just after Wales Rally GB, where Ogier secured what would prove to be his last win in a Polo, before Andreas Mikkelsen delivered a farewell win for the German brand in Australia.

Ogier goes from favourite to underdog

While the initial reaction among the WRC fraternity was one of disbelief and mourning at the loss of one of the sport’s staunchest supporters of recent years, that soon gave way to intrigue and excitement as three highly-qualified drivers suddenly became available on the driver market.

And once the news broke that Ogier had put his trust in M-Sport – a team that hasn’t won a rally since 2012 – for his assault on a fifth straight title, most were left wondering whether VW’s exit was such a bad thing after all.

For the departure of the German brand leaves rallying fans with the tantalising prospect of a four-way fight between M-Sport, Citroen, Hyundai and returnee Toyota, arguably without a clear favourite and as many as half a dozen serious victory contenders. And that’s before you factor in the possibility of the 2017 Polos appearing in some guise with backing from the Qatar sovereign wealth fund.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that next year’s campaign could end up being the most open in over a decade. The overwhelming favourite of the past four years has suddenly been transformed into the rather unfamiliar role of the plucky underdog, and will no doubt have significantly more people cheering him on next season than at any point during his time at Volkswagen.

And if Ogier manages to pull off a victory at the Monte-Carlo next month on his M-Sport debut, it will be lauded more greatly than any of his 31 wins at Volkswagen. Thanks to the German manufacturer’s withdrawal, an exciting and unpredictable new chapter in WRC history awaits.

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