The events of last Thursday night ensured that the 2017 Monte Carlo Rally was always going to be a mixed bag of a rally, one that no amount of on stage drama or close competition would ever be able to completely nullify. Everyone involved with or who follows the championship knew the potentially devastating implications of the tragic death of a spectator mere miles into the start of the opening round of the WRC’s new era, and this was compounded by the fact that Hayden Paddon‘s accident, a slow speed slide on an icy left-hander, could’ve happened to anyone and in any rallying era.
Crowd control has always been one of the biggest challenges facing any rally organiser, and the Monte has long suffered from more than its fair share of spectator related issues and misdemeanors. We could argue until the cows come home, doze off and are then sent right back out again as to the potential fallout of this tragic event, but there’s little point. The FIA will do as it sees fit, and all we can do is hope for the best and that any action it does take isn’t a knee-jerk one. We should also remember that a fellow rally fan died in deeply traumatic circumstances on last Thursday evening, and his being in a poor choice of spot doesn’t diminish the scale of the tragedy. Motorsport is dangerous, true, but it needn’t be malicious or cruel.
Luckily for all concerned, Friday morning onwards brought some of the finest and most visually exciting rally action seen in many years. We always knew that the wider, louder and far faster 2017 WRC cars would be spectacular to watch, but few predicted the differences in terms of both sound and looks that the 4 works teams would represent. It’s a highly subjective thing of course, but we found the marked differences between the Citroen C3 (the oddest looking), M-Sport Fiesta (the wildest looking), the Hyundai i20 (probably the most conventional of the 4) and the Toyota Yaris (the angriest sounding) one of the most compelling aspects of the 2017 Monte Carlo Rally. It brought to mind the early years of the WRC era, a period when it was all too easy to differentiate between the noises generated by the likes of the Impreza, the Evo and the Corolla, and this can only be a good thing.
Not only did the 4 works offerings look and sound different, they were (by and large) on the pace and competitive with each other from the start. Granted, Kris Meeke‘s utter turd of an event, one which saw him comprehensively test the strength of his right-rear suspension on Friday morning, then go on to endure a litany of engine gremlins before retiring on a road section, served to shade Citroen’s true potential, but Yves Matton and the gang will no doubt be comforted by Stéphane Lefebvre‘s pace on Sunday morning, and by Craig Breen‘s confidence behind the wheel of the 2016 DS3. The latter fought a highly entertaining rear-guard action with the Hyundai of Dani Sordo, managing to keep the 2017 spec i20 at bay for most of the rally – no mean feat with a 70bhp or so power disadvantage! Few would bet against Meeke, Lefebvre and Breen collecting a far more respectably haul of points in Sweden next month, but they leave the Monte licking their wounds and with their pride a little bruised.
It’s fair to say that M-Sport hogged the majority of the winter headlines, probably something to do with Malcolm having bagged the driving services of Sebastien Ogier and the support of a certain, Austrian fizzy drink company. All the headlines and predictions in the world couldn’t prepare us for the sheer spectacle of the new Fiesta WRC in action though, and the M-Sport team were on the pace right of the bat, the Cumbrian concern’s charge initially spearheaded by Ott Tanak. Tanak’s career has been marked by highs and crushing lows (this is his 3rd stint as an M-Sport driver), so we’re sure we speak for everyone when we say how pleased we are that he appears to have gelled so well with the new car. His 3rd spot would’ve been 2nd had his EcoBoost not decided it would rather run on two cylinders for most of Sunday, and only a banzai of a blast down the Col de Turini denied the charging Hyundai of Dani Sordo a podium spot.
Sebastian Ogier did exactly what he’s done for much of his career, driven in a cool and calculated manner to take a convincing victory, with bursts of mind-bending speed as and when required. He was unfazed by Thierry Neuville’s pace on Thursday or Friday, and was well placed to inherit first place when the Belgian was cruelly punished for a small error on Saturday. Imperiously fast he may have been, yet Ogier’s driver was punctuated by a smattering of smallish errors, any one of which could’ve ended his rally if luck (and a band of eager French spectators) hadn’t intervened.
Elfyn Evans proved that he’s lost none of his raw speed with a stunning drive to 6th place, one made all the more convincing for including a trio of fastest stage times on Saturday. He was the highest placed Brit, and all were impressed by both his confidence and consistency on the unpredictable tarmac stages.
Hyundai will look back on this event with mixed emotions, understandable given Thierry Neuville‘s pace and the lead he’d managed to build up by Saturday morning. In many ways the Belgian had already done the hard work by the time of his suspension failure midway through SS13 on Saturday: he’d kept Ogier and the rest more than honest, and had managed to pick his way through the black ice, snow and odd splodge of dry tarmac that characterised the majority the morning stages. The 5 points banked for winning the power stage will be scant consolation for Neuville, but he and Hyundai will no doubt find comfort in the i20’s speed and reliability, as will Sordo after a confidence-sapping Friday and Saturday gave way to a far more promising Sunday. The Spaniard ultimately finished the rally in 4th, the highest placed Korean car.
Expectations surrounding Toyota’s return to the top step of the WRC were high, granted, yet very few would or could have predicted the team’s 2nd place overall, a full 18 years since TTE bowed out. The misfortune of others undoubtedly played a part in Jari-Matti Latvala‘s podium as we’re sure Ott Tanak would agree, but the Finn’s measured and mature drive meant he was well placed to capitalise upon the inevitable Monte mishaps. Tommi Mäkinen and the rest of the team will no doubt draw further comfort from Juho Hanninen’s speed on a surface not completely to his taste, and all will be eagerly anticipating the arrival of Esapekka Lappi in a 3rd Yaris later in the season.
It’s worth noting that spellbinding drives weren’t merely restricted to the WRC guys, the R5 collective were every bit as spectacular to watch, Andreas Mikkelsen in particular. It speaks volumes about the Norwegian’s maturity that he was able to put aside the disappointment he must have felt upon learning that he’d be the one left out in the cold by VW’s sudden departure, and his drive to 7th overall in his R5 Fabia will have done his career prospects no harm whatsoever. The likes of Evans, Lappi, Breen and Lefebvre simply cannot afford to rest on their laurels, not with Mikkelsen, a proven rally winner and the last man to take victory in a Polo WRC let’s not forget, waiting in the wings.
Again, the 2017 Monte was a mixed bag. Organisers of all WRC events must learn lessons from this opening round and crowd control should be considered of paramount importance, especially as the spectacle of the new era cars will no doubt draw larger crowds, not all of them seasoned veterans. Thursday aside, the rally was a joy to behold, a classic Monte with scintillatingly quick stages and treacherous conditions, one that served to whet the sporting world’s appetite for more. Roll on Sweden!