Rally ‘round the checkered flag: Volkswagen recruits young drivers for the World Rally Championship

For years, rally racing has been the soccer of motorsports: insanely popular everywhere except the US. But now, that’s all changing. With a growing fan base and an increase in television coverage of rally events, it’s clear that there’s room for more than one European sport to catch on in America. (Editor’s note: Sorry, cricket. Maybe next year.)

Since its inception in 1973, the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) has evolved to become what is considered by many to be the world’s most challenging racing series. Drivers in WRC events routinely hit speeds in excess of 130 mph, but they’re not going in circles on a closed track—they’re driving over everything from packed ice to loose gravel on paths barely wider than their car. They occasionally race on asphalt roads, too, just for the sake of variety.

In 2013, VW will begin competing in the series with the Volkswagen Polo R WRC. Development is underway on a 300-horsepower rally car based on the Polo for the WRC, but in the interim, VW is competing in selected rallies using the all-wheel drive S2000 by Skoda, a company owned by the Volkswagen Group.

As part of this initiative, Volkswagen is also giving young drivers the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to compete as part of the VW Motorsport Team for a 2013 WRC cockpit in the Polo R WRC. “In addition to a few top-caliber rally racers, we want to present top talents in our 2013 driver lineup,” says Volkswagen Motorsport Director Kris Nissen. “Therefore, we will be giving young racers in particular an opportunity to show their skills at our runs in competitive conditions. This is the best way to see who is doing a good job of driving and would fit into the Volkswagen rally team.”

VW recently reached out to two young drivers—Andreas Mikkelsen, 22, of Norway, and Joonas Lindroos, 26, of Finland—to compete in the Neste Oil Rally in Finland, which took place July 28-31. Despite making strong showings, both drivers had to retire before completing the grueling course due to accidents. “Despite the two retirements, the rally was a successful start for the entire team,” says Nissen. “Andreas Mikkelsen and his co-driver Ola Floene were particularly impressive and showed flashes of brilliance.”

At the next WRC event, the ADAC Rallye Deutschland in Trier, Germany, the team fared much better. The event, which took place August 19-21, saw junior drivers Hans Weijs, Jr. of the Netherlands and Christian Riedemann of Germany place second and third, respectively. In addition to their podium placements, the young drivers also earned kudos from Nissen, who said that they “perfectly gelled with the team and did an outstanding job of achieving our aim of finishing the event with both cars.”

It’s easy to see why the rest of the world loves the WRC. America is a nation of passionate drivers, so it’s only a matter of time before it catches on here, too. In fact, there’s already a burgeoning grassroots American rally scene filled with young talent. Do your part to help spread World Rally Championship fever by tuning in to Discovery HD Theater on Sunday, September 4th starting at 10:30 am for extensive coverage of the 2011 WRC Germany, and stay tuned to this blog for VW WRC updates.

Tell us: which rally event are you most excited about?

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