Take a good look at the first image in this story. That's the official rendering of the 2017-spec Volkswagen Polo WRC car that got rallying fans collectively drooling. Not just at the more aggressive look promised for next year but also the performance gains due to an overhaul of the WRC's technical regulations. Twenty-five kilos less weight, wider track, over 60 horspepower more and other changes along with wheel arch flares and more striking aero promised not only the most dramatic cars of the WRC era of rallying but also the fastest ever. Record stage times are expected for next year but don't expect a Polo WRC to be the one doing so.
Media reports from Germany (with Autosport breaking the story) have revealed that the Volkswagen Group has decided to follow its axing of the Audi WEC LMP1 program last week by yanking sister brand Volkswagen out of the FIA World Rally Championship at the end of this year.
The VW Group board refused to even allow a one-year extension to put their 2017 car to use. Instead Volkswagen Motorsport will develop an R5-spec version of the Polo based on the unused WRC car that will be available to customers from 2018.
It was a shocking announcement not just because Volkswagen Motorsport were so far into testing and development of their 2017 WRC car but also because with Sebastien Ogier behind the wheel, they were unbeatable. Since their entry in 2013, Volkswagen have won the drivers' and manufacturers' title every single year. It catapulted them and Ogier into the stratosphere as far as stats are concerned with the Frenchman becoming the second most winningest driver in WRC history and only the fourth to win four titles or more.
Between it's main two driver team of Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala and the one-driver Volkswagen Motorsport II outfit with Andreas Mikkelsen, the Polo WRC claimed 44 wins in the 51 rallies held since the 2013 season opener until the most recently concluded Wales Rally GB.
Thirty-one of those wins went to Ogier alone. None stood a chance in the vacuum created by the retirement of Sebastien Loeb, who contested in just four rallies in 2013 before calling it quits. It not only robbed rally fans of a titanic season-long fight between Ogier and Loeb (former teammates at Citroen) but also left the door wide open for VW to stamp their authority on WRC.
So why would the VW group cancel such a successful and still developing program, which is unlikely to cause even a tiny dent in their bottom line? The diesel emissions scandal that has cost the VW Group 15 billion dollars in the United States alone (with bigger hits to come) is the likely cause with middle management executives doing whatever they can to show that they are fiscally responsible.
It's an explanation that fits perfectly, however, with Audi's WEC program that has been outgunned by LMP1-H rivals Porsche and Toyota and costs upwards of 250 million dollars a season. By comparison the factory VW program is believed to cost in the vicinity of 50 million dollars a season. A hefty sum but nowhere near that of Audi's sportscar program and far more successful in recent seasons.
WHAT NOW FOR WRC?
We could go back and forth over the 'why' for VW's move. Based on who you talk to the explanation vary from the straightforward to those fit for an Oliver Stone movie; one that would put even JFK to shame.
Instead let's take stock of the WRC itself. First of all, it is not all bad news as the departure of a major manufacturer is going to be offset by the arrival of another.
Toyota is returning as a factory team and has been testing extensively for almost two years with the expertise of former four-time champion Tommi Makkinen to guide them. They are all but certain to be a force but it depends on who will be driving for them. One could speculate that the Japanese giants could just snap up the entire VW driver line-up.
In fact that is one of the biggest talking points until the season ends in Australia. Behind the wheel of which WRC car will Sebastien Ogier find himself? Despite his frustrated outbursts over the rally start order rules - being forced to start first and clear gravel stages for his rivals - it is unlikely for the Frenchman to call it quits. In fact he even tweeted to his fans to not worry about him and that he will be seen again.
There is also the theory that he could return to Citroen, who had left at the end of 2011 on account of his displeasure over team orders that didn't allow him to challenge teammate Loeb for the WRC crown. Loeb is long gone now and a pairing with rising star Kris Meeke could prove to be a winning one for Citroen.
Hyundai and Ford look unlikely to change their current line-ups so it all comes down to Citroen and Toyota.
THEY'LL STILL BE FAST
And most important of all, the massive jump in speed and power we are expecting for next year? It's still coming. Even though Volkswagen won't be around one can expect Hyundai, Toyota, Ford and Citroen to pick up the slack and give fans their money's worth.
So for anyone who is still reeling; cheer up. Things like this happen in major motorsport, especially with manufacturers. One only need to look as far back as the end of the 2008 motorsport calendar when Japanese manufacturers acted upon or announced their withdrawal from major championships including F1 and WRC. Japan is slowly coming to the fore in both those series, which are expected to ramp up the speed next year.
And Volkswagen had been long missing from the WRC before its super-powered return in 2013. Such is life and motorsport. Ebb and flow. Best to go with the one that the WRC is in now. It still looks like a lot of fun.