Sporting historians will probably pinpoint VW’s shock departure from the WRC at the very end of the 2016 season as one of the key factors in this year’s championship being so unpredictable, and while there’s undoubtedly much truth in this, it’s also fair to say that the numerous other variables played just as much of a role. Make no mistake, the 2017 season has been one of the best in recent memory, with new winners, new teams, drivers in unfamiliar surroundings, dream debuts, and of course a raft of new WRC cars, machines which represent the biggest technical change in the WRC for 20 years. With this in mind, it’s time to look back on the teams and crews which shaped the 2017 season, and ultimately delivered some of the least predictable rallying the WRC has seen in a generation.
The more things change, the more they stay the same; a Frenchman called Sebastian is once again WRC Champion, the same French Seb who’s been crowned WRC champ every year since 2014. While the continuation of the status quo might’ve been enough to convince an outward observer that this year was dull and predictable, in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The sheer number of variables and myriad challenges associated with swapping teams at the last minute served to make Ogier’s 2017 triumph the hardest fought of his career, and his success was only put beyond doubt in the dying stages of the championship in Wales. In doing so he made M-Sport the first privateer outfit in WRC history to scoop both the Drivers’ and the Manufacturers’ titles, applying the icing to a cake the Cumbrian concern has been doggedly trying to bake for 21 years!
While it’s hard to overstate the role Ogier’s shock move from VW made in M-Sport’s mightily impressive year, much of the groundwork had already been put in place by Malcolm and his team, with the 2017 Fiesta WRC being a case in point. Nowhere is the gulf in resources between M-Sport and the rest of their works, fully OEM funded competitors more stark than when discussing car development, so that the former was able to build such a strong car (perhaps the best all rounder of them all) says much about the skills of all concerned.
The team went bold when it came to penning their new Fiesta and the car which emerged boasted one of the most extreme aero packages, second only to the Yaris in terms of outright aggression. The result was a car able to win everywhere, from the snow and tarmac of the Monte to the dust of Portugal and Sardinia, not forgetting the mud and grease of Wales. The Fiesta proved both rapid and reliable, able to shrug off the kind of blows which crippled the Hyundais, and largely free from the kind of engine issues which have blighted the Toyotas. It was also demonstrably easier to drive at the ragged edge than the Citroen C3, looking planted and better able to accommodate myriad setup changes depending on the man doing the driving. Not bad for a team with the most modest budget in the championship.
M-Sport’s car was only one element of its successful season though, with the other being the calibre of crews it was able to field. OK, so poaching Ogier from under the noses of its rivals was a massive coup, but let’s not forget that 2017 was also the season in which both Ott Tanak and Elfyn Evans came of age. The former pushed his illustrious team mate all the way and was able to mount an outside title challenge, one which no doubt played a part in his being signed by Toyota as it progressed! Along the way he won on both gravel and tarmac, the latter in Germany and against the toughest of opposition, his own team mate and a fully paid up sealed surface maestro.
Elfyn Evans has enjoyed an immense season of rallying and has been justly rewarded with a promotion to the main team for 2018. It’s a move as fitting as it is poignant, particularly when you recall the Welshman’s career to date, one defined by massive ups and downs and a relative lack of stability. The troubles of 2015 are now very much in the past though, and Elfyn can look ahead to a more stable future.
There’s no way of sugar coating the ugly truth lying at the heart of Hyundai’s season, and that’s that much of M-Sport’s success can be attributed to its failings as much as the Dovenby Hall crew’s undoubted strengths. There were many instances were fate conspired against the South Korean team, true, but there were many others were they effectively snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, either through mechanical frailty or, in the case of Thierry Neuville, driver error. While it’s tempting to put some of this down to poor luck and inexperience, doing so doesn’t reality stack up; Hyundai are no longer the WRC’s newest team and have now been competing at the top of the sport for 4 years.
There are positives to be taken from all this of course, not least the knowledge that Hyundai was able to commence and maintain a WRC title push over the course of a full season, a highly significant step for any team seeking to become the preeminent force in any form of motorsport. Suspension frailty aside (something which reputable service park rumor puts down to a batch of faulty components), the i20 Coupe WRC looked to be almost as good an all-rounder as the Fiesta, and almost certainly the most reliably quick of the 4 2017 WRC machines – Thierry Neuville used it to take double the victories of his nearest rival, remember. In doing so he proved that he’s more than able to challenge Ogier and anyone else, he just needs to keep a cool head when doing so.
While the Hyundai charge faltered as the season progressed it’s worth noting that it endured a remarkably ‘tops-turvy’ year, one which began in sad circumstances when Hayden Paddon was involved in a tragic accident with a spectator on the first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally. 2017 was supposed to be the year that Hayden Paddon came of age, but it never really worked out like that thanks to a mix of rotten luck and the odd clumsy error, while Dani Sordo was his dependable (if largely unspectacular) self.
There’s another caveat to the Hyundai season of course, and that’s the late-in-the-day signing of Andreas Mikkelsen, effectively poached from under the nose of a dawdling Citroen. While the Norwegian’s runs in Spain, Wales and Australia ultimately failed to yield victories, there was no denying that he looked comfortable in his new home, unnervingly comfortable from the perspective of rival teams. His decision to join the team means that Hyundai will begin its 2018 title assault with one of the most formidable lineups around
The WRC is almost unrecognizable from the sport Toyota left at the end of the 2000 season, so, in the run up to the 2017, there was much talk of the Tommi Mäkinen-run Gazoo Racing team having to ‘find its feet.’ That wasn’t really the case though, and while Jari-Matti Latvala’s triumph in Sweden just 2 rallies into the season probably raised expectations a tad prematurely, there’s no doubting that the Yaris was a contender for wins from almost the very beginning. Esapekka Lappi’s win on the flat-out crests of Finland wasn’t merely a home one for the team, it proved that it had a good eye for talent, with the young Finn competing in only his 3rd WRC event at the time.
That it was able to do this says much about the calibre of the team Mäkinen had assembled for the project, that and the exhaustive efforts it went to in order to properly develop the Yaris. It was easily the most extreme of the new machines in terms of aero, and (perhaps somewhat predictably when you realise it was honed in Finland) said package was at its most effective on high-speed events.
It wasn’t all easy-going though, and the Yaris suffered from a mid-season slump in reliability which effectively torpedoed Latvala’s title ambitions, while Toyota’s own manufactures aspirations weren’t helped by the sometimes patchy performances of its drivers, Hänninen in particular. The latter’s eviction from the team after Wales was perhaps a somewhat harsh way to end the career of an individual who had done so much to develop the Yaris WRC, but it’s also lays bare the sheer number of talented drivers now champing at the bit to compete. There can be little doubt that Ott Tanak will wring more from the little Toyota in 2018 than Hänninen could in 2017.
Reliability issues aside, there’s much for the Toyota WRC team to feel positive about as 2017 gives way to 2018. The Yaris looked fast on many of the gravel rounds which dominate the current WRC, and while there’s much work to be done before it’s a reliable challenger on tarmac (not to mention the mud and slime of Wales), its latent pace gives Mäkinen and the team a solid foundation on which to work from, especially now that their driver lineup has been bolstered by the fastest Estonian since Marko Martin.
It was all supposed to be so different for Citroen. 2017 was to be the year in which the Versailles outfit finally recaptured the form which saw it dominate much of the last decade, taking the fight to M-Sport, Hyundai and the fledgling Toyota outfit, while Kris Meeke made his much-anticipated reach for the drivers’ title. That this patently didn’t happen (nor even looked like happening) was galling enough for the embattled team, but what was probably even more damaging was the rift between key personnel that the C3 WRC’s poor performances engendered. This was at its most caustic in the middle of the season, when Kris Meeke was effectively made scapegoat for the team’s performances thus far and benched for the 8th round of the season, Rally Poland.
Much has been written about the root cause of Citroen’s woeful 2017 season, and while the true nature of the problem has yet to full come to light, one can theorise that a mixture of software and mechanical issues are to blame, particularly those governing the actuation of the active centre differential. It has made the C3 WRC by far the trickiest of the current crop of WRC machines to drive at the ragged edge, especially on low grip gravel conditions. The effect of this has been all too easy to see, with a number of truly alarming high-speed crashes (and a heart-in-mouth moment prior to Meeke’s first win of the season in Mexico), with those of Argentina and Spain being especially troubling.
Meeke must bare a portion of the blame for this seeing as he was largely in charge of the car’s development of course, but let’s not forget that he’s never been given this responsibility before. Factor in the weight of expectation placed upon the Northern Irishman, and it’s easy to see why it might well have become too much. It’s also worth recalling that the C3 WRC has always looked potent on sealed surface events, and that Meeke looked set to take a commanding win in France before his engine decided it’d rather do its best kettle impression.
It should also be noted that Citroen’s 2017 driver lineup was probably the weakest of them all. No disrespect to Craig Breen or Stephane Lefebvre, they’re both supremely talented drivers with huge potential for the future, but neither is in the position to be able to drive development of a new WRC car forward. It meant that the weight of responsibility was almost entirely on Meeke’s shoulders.
There is cause for cautious optimism looking ahead though, with Meeke’s emphatic victory in Spain providing the tonic the team no doubt needed, albeit one somewhat sullied by less stellar outings in Wales and Australia. Gravel, the most common surface in the WRC, remains the C3 WRC’s biggest weakness and an area the team will no doubt move earth (no pun intended) to rectify for next year. There’s no doubting that they have the experience to turn it around and to mount an effective challenge next years, though there have been rumours as to the team’s budget in the wake of Ogier’s decision not to return ‘home’ for 2018.