The radical new Mitsubishi Lancer WRC for 2004
The fact that rally fans had to wait until the last round of the season before the drivers' and manufacturers' titles could be decided indicated the competitiveness of the WRC, something that is clearly pleasing spectators and TV viewers alike.
The big pulling point for both fans and competing manufacturers is that WRC cars look a lot like those which can be bought by the man-in-the-street.
Indeed, homologation rules ensure that in some classes at least, near-identical cars have to be made available to the public, and not just in tiny numbers either!
What's more, since the super rally cars such as the mighty Audi quattro and the purpose-built mid-engined Peugeot 205 were outlawed, competition has become much closer, and the numbers of drivers who could win wider.
The team to beat in 2003 was Peugeot, after winning three consecutive WRC titles from 2000 to 2002 inclusive, and for a time it looked as if the French manufacturer was going to make it a home run in 2003, too.
However, Peugeot suddenly came under pressure from, of all teams, Citroen, the company Peugeot is partnered with in the PSA Group in France, and despite some sterling early performances from reigning World Champion Marcus Gronholm in the Peugeot 206, the championship slipped through Peugeot's fingers.
Indeed, Citroën came through to claim the overall title in its first full season in the World Rally Championship, with the Citroen Xsara WRC the World Championship-winning car,
Part of the reason why Peugeot's reign came to an end was that the Peugeot 206 - arguably one of the most successful rally cars of its era - had reached its development ceiling, and indeed it is to be replaced in the upcoming season by the new and radical 307 WRC, based on the new 307 CC coupe/convertible.
The irony, though, is that the WRC driver champion didn't come from either French team - instead the points went to 555 Subaru World Rally Team driver Petter Solberg, who became the first Norwegian to win the FIA World Rally Championship for drivers.
In a spectacular finale to the 2003 WRC series, the 28-year-old won the final event of the year, the Wales Rally GB, by a margin of 43.6 seconds to collect the fifth WRC win of his career, his second consecutive victory in Wales, and secure the 2003 WRC Drivers' title.
The win marked the end of the most successful year of rally driving for Solberg and his Welsh co-driver Phil Mills, 40.
Unfortunately, like Formula 1 WRC has come in for some strange decisions from its governing body. For WRC it was a rule, announced halfway through the year, that a team's third driver for 2004 would not be allowed to compete if he had finished on a WRC podium during the past three years.
This put the cat among the pigeons as teams were forced to put extremely good drivers out to pasture, not least of these being Citroen's 1995 World Champion Colin McRae and his navigator Derrick Ringer.
However, in a bizarre twist of fate, Richard Burns, who was second driver for the Subaru team for 2004 with Solberg, was taken ill on the Wales GB Rally, and has announced he will not compete in 2004.
It was felt McRae would thus get the Subaru place - but that was not to be as the Japanese team announced that 23-year-old Finn that Mikko Hirvonen will join the team for 2004.
Where does this leave McRae? Well, he's signed to join the Nissan squad in the Dakar off-road race over the festive season, but little else is known at this stage.
Other teams which have already made their final decisions for 2004 are as follows:
- Ford has confirmed its participation in the FIA World Rally Championship for the 2004 season and so strengthened its relationship with Malcolm Wilson's M-Sport.
Ford will retain overall control of the programme while M-Sport, the British-based team that has successfully handled the Blue Oval's world rallying programme since 1997, will assume larger day-to-day responsibility in the title bid.
The driver lineup is Markko Märtin and François Duval, and they will drive the Ford Focus RS WRC.
- Mitsubishi Motors motor sports subsidiary, MMSP, has unveiled the car that will spearhead its 2004 FIA World Rally Championship campaign, the Mitsubishi Lancer WRC04.
A completely fresh design, the new car forms an integral part of a long-term plan to build on MMSP's distinguished record in the World Rally Championship. It will compete on all 16 rounds of the series.