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Why it's still too early to get excited about a potential Subaru WRC return

OPINION: Its storied history in rallying meant news of Subaru's reported interest in rejoining the world championship was well-received by rally fans. But plenty still has to develop before the Japanese manufacturer's return can be taken as read

Petter Solberg/Philip Mills (Subaru Impreza WRC 2003), action

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

There’s no hiding from the fact that the World Rally Championship is entering a crucial phase as it wishes to establish its future, improve its appeal and attract more manufacturers. And last weekend’s Acropolis Rally gave both the series and the FIA every incentive to ensure that its pathway is defined when the governing body’s president Mohammed Ben Sulayem uttered the words the majority of rally fans have been wishing to hear ever since 2008.

Speaking at a media round table in the build-up to the Greek event, Ben Sulayem revealed that Subaru is considering a return to the WRC.

The Japanese manufacturer is synonymous with rallying. Its Impreza helped to forge cult heroes Colin McRae, Richard Burns and Petter Solberg, who won drivers’ titles with the marque in 1995, 2001 and 2003 respectively to add to manufacturers’ crowns in 1995-97. But Subaru has been absent from rallying’s top tier since pulling out at the height of the global financial crisis in 2008.

“It’s not a secret I had a good meeting with Mr Akio Toyoda, and I asked him what we can do to attract manufacturers to the WRC and I listened to someone who is passionate – and he mentioned Subaru,” recounted Ben Sulayem of his chat with the Toyota chairman at the Le Mans 24 Hours in June.

“They [Toyota] own a percentage of Subaru and they are going to support an initiative of Subaru entering. And I feel someone like him, when he speaks, he speaks with confidence. I hope that some of that will come.”

Toyoda is a passionate supporter of the WRC and told Autosport at last month’s Rally Finland that he is actively trying to encourage more manufacturers to join a championship in which Toyota has become the benchmark team since its re-entry in 2017. The interesting twist to this is Ben Sulayem suggesting that Toyota could supply an engine to Subaru, which doesn’t have an eligible block in its range.

But expectations should be tempered at this point, and there’s a lot to play out before this dream ticket becomes reality.

FIA President Ben Sulayem revealed in Greece that his conversation with Toyoda had touched on Subaru

FIA President Ben Sulayem revealed in Greece that his conversation with Toyoda had touched on Subaru

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

Realistically it’s 2027, when the WRC is expected to launch new regulations, that would offer a window for Subaru should the project receive a green light. While those 2027 WRC regulations are yet to be revealed, Autosport has been told by the FIA that hybrid-powered cars using sustainable fuel will continue, with a move to full electric or hydrogen power expected to be ruled out.

Toyota issued the following statement to Autosport in response to Ben Sulayem’s comments: “It is not a secret that our chairman, with his profound passion for rallying, is eager to see more manufacturers entering the WRC. If Subaru were to return to the WRC it would bring back an iconic rallying brand for the championship’s modern era, and for us, to be joined by a fellow Japanese manufacturer would make the competition more exciting and stronger.

“Nevertheless, any such decision is for the Subaru board and president to make, naturally in discussion with relevant stakeholders.”

In my opinion, Ben Sulayem shouldn’t have dropped this bombshell just yet, but waited until the 2027 regulations have been formalised. This news will likely create even more pressure on Subaru to make this happen, and it could quite conceivably backfire, damaging any progress made so far.

Whatever happens, it’s all out in the open now. And Ben Sulayem’s words will sharpen the minds of the key stakeholders to ensure that the WRC has a clear pathway that maximises promotion and return on investment for manufacturers

There is of course the chance that the incredibly positive reaction from fans could be well received: Subaru topped an Autosport social media poll in May asking readers which marque they would like to see join the WRC. The rally community wants this.

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Whatever happens, it’s all out in the open now, and Ben Sulayem’s words will sharpen the minds of the key stakeholders to ensure that the WRC has a clear pathway that maximises promotion and return on investment for manufacturers. This will be crucial to not only entice Subaru and other marques but also keep Toyota, Hyundai and Ford (through M-Sport) in the championship.

This season the WRC and FIA have come in for criticism from drivers, teams and fans over a perceived diminishing appeal and lack of success of the Rally1 regulations introduced last year. There is no doubt that the WRC has huge potential: the Rally1 hybrid cars are incredible to watch, the competition is close, they are pioneering sustainable fuel technology, and they are much safer than their predecessors.

The WRC recognises that change is required to entice the likes of Subaru back in, particularly given the costs of the Rally1 cars

The WRC recognises that change is required to entice the likes of Subaru back in, particularly given the costs of the Rally1 cars

Photo by: Toyota Racing

But the FIA openly admits that the cars are too expensive, resulting in reduced entries. Ben Sulayem said himself that better promotion is key, and he is correct, with Formula 1’s recent boom being the best example.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. To their credit, WRC Promoter and the FIA have fronted up to this criticism and are taking action.

During the Acropolis Rally weekend, WRC Promoter revealed that, after consulting drivers and teams, a raft of changes to improve the championship’s appeal including event format changes will be discussed during a WRC Commission meeting next week. Likewise, the FIA is making progress on the technical regulations in an attempt to bring Rally1 costs down.

If these actions bear fruit, then the chances of a Subaru return can only increase.

A WRC return for Subaru would go down a treat, but there's a lot of work to be done first

A WRC return for Subaru would go down a treat, but there's a lot of work to be done first

Photo by: Sutton Images

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