It might feel like mere weeks ago that Sebastian Ogier and the rest of the boys completed the final few KM of Rally Australia (largely because it was), and yet already we’re staring down the barrel of another WRC season, with Monte Carlo scheduled to begin on the 25 January. It’s a punishing schedule for both teams and crews, and one which leaves no spare time when it comes to development, an already crucial factor lent yet more significance by the increased reliance on advanced aero in the wake of last year’s rule revisions. With the season fast approaching and with a raft of new and exciting changes afoot, here are 5 things to watch out for in the opening plays of the 2018 Championship.
Perhaps the biggest unknown in the run up to the end of last year was the final destination of the Sebastian Ogier. The Frenchman has done more than any other to carve his place into the annals of rallying history in recent years, and his prodigious skill is accompanied by another, equally significant character trait – he knows his worth. This meant that Ogier’s salary negotiations with Malcolm Wilson were protracted (though by all accounts cordial, the pair have a healthy mutual respect) and far from clear-cut.
The upside is that Ogier’s talent, ‘star power’ and PR clout, combined with M-Sport’s exemplary track record of course, convinced Ford to open its coffers and once again dip a toe into the WRC waters. It marks the first time ‘the blue oval’ has been officially involved in the sport since 2012, albeit at a reduced level from the one seen in the recent past. As David Evans of Autosport put it recently, “The fact that M-Sport remains ahead of Ford in the new name is a nod to where the main financial burden still falls.”
Still, the news that one of the biggest OEMs in the world (not to mention one with a glorious rallying history) has opted to come on board is fantastic news for both M-Sport and the future of the WRC. Detroit money will enable M-Sport to better develop its 2018 Fiesta, has allowed it to retain the services of the WRC’s most complete driver, and underlines the relative heath of the WRC as a sport.
Ott Tanak At Toyota
Ott Tanak’s decision to sign for Toyota from 2018 was a constant topic of conversation in both the Spanish and the Welsh forests last October, with many quick to voice their opinion on the Estonian’s move. On the face of it, it appears to be an obvious move and an intelligent one to boot; Tanak goes from a team with a surplus of heart but a dearth of financial resources, to one with far deeper, Toyota-filled coffers – and this remains the case even with increased support from Detroit. Doomed F1 project aside, Toyota has proven its willingness to stick with its motorsport endeavors through the thick and thin, so one can also assume (well, hope) that Tanak has joined an outfit in it for the long haul.
Dig deeper though, and Tanak’s move is not without risk. He’ll now be under immense pressure to establish himself within the team, one which has thus far been built around its star driver, Jari-Matti Latvala. Many folk, myself included, think that he’ll ultimately manage this and that he’ll go onto lead the team. That’s nothing against Latvala of course – the likable Finn has lost none of the raw pace which made him one of the most exciting prospects throughout the last decade, rather it’s a reflection of Tanak’s position as one of the WRC’s ‘coming men.’ There’s a very good chance that we’ll look back on his 2017 season in the manner we do Colin McRae’s 1994 or Sebastian Loeb’s 2003, seasons which effectively established said drivers as WRC champions in waiting. Latvala will have to bring the form of his career if he is to maintain his position as undisputed team leader – and that’s before we’ve even considered the other ungodly talented young man in Toyota overalls, Esapekka Lappi!
Hyundai’s Desire To Right The Wrongs of 2017
It’s fair to say that a mixture of poor luck, component failure and a certain amount of ‘brain fade’ on the part of Thierry Neuville kept Hyundai from winning the 2017 title, and the Korean concern will move earth to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Its commitment in this respect has already been underscored, with the addition of Andreas Mikkelsen serving to make the Hyundai driver lineup one of the most potent and best rounded in the championship, just as at home on the loose as it is tarmac.
There’s another way of looking at the signing of Mikkelsen though, and that’s a tacit acknowledgement that Neuville’s performance wasn’t quite up to scratch. There were a number of instances last year when the Belgian showed a degree of emotional frailty, with his retirements from all-but-certain victories in the Monte and Sweden the two most obvious examples. Much like Latvala, Neuville will be under no illusions that his position as team leader is no longer certain, and also that he’ll have to drive in a more complete manner if he is to remain Hyundai’s ‘go to guy’ in the coming months and years. Watching the incumbent Belgian battling the incoming Norwegian will be one of the standout stories of 2018, mark my word.
Lastly, Hyundai will need to have overcome the i20 WRC’s weak points, most obviously its suspension. It was this which robbed Neuville of a strong result in Germany, and also this which sidelined both Dani Sordo and Mikkelsen in Spain, points which could and would have made all the difference in the team’s fight with M-Sport. There’s little doubt that the i20 WRC is backed up by one of the best funded development programmes in the sport, so everyone associated with the team will hope to do better in 2018.
Citroen C3 Development
Much has been written of Citroen and its commitment to the WRC in recent years, but they’re still here, still competitive, and they remain one of the most experienced outfits in rallying history. As I’ve said previously, that the C3 WRC was able to win at all last year proves that it is fundamentally a decent rally car, it just needs to be rendered a simpler prospect to drive at the ragged edge.
The revised C3 WRC must be a better realised machine with a wider operating window than the one which Kris Meeke and co wrestled with throughout last year, and one can assume that Sebastian Loeb will be instrumental in achieving this.
Pace on the Monte should be a given considering the C3 looked utterly at home on tarmac in 2017, but key question marks remain over its ability to perform on gravel. Much focus will therefore fall on the first loose surface event of the year, Mexico.
New cars aside, last year was defined by the emergence of a healthy crop of young drivers seeking to make their mark in the WRC. Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi led the charge in this respect, the Finn’s scintillating pace from the moment he jumped into a current WRC machine serving to set paddock tongues wagging. Lappi won every round of his native championship back in 2012 so perhaps his speed shouldn’t have been a surprise, but the manner and ease with which he adapted to the new era WRC cars certainly was. The poor fortune of his team mate no doubt played a role in Lappi’s win in Finland, but that shouldn’t take away from what was a stunning result, one he’ll look to repeat in 2018.
Another young driver we’ll hopefully see much more of in 2018 is Teemu Suninen, also a Finn, also scintillatingly fast on his native WRC round last year. Suninen’s performance in Rally Finland was only overshadowed by that of Lappi, and while there are a few rough edges yet to be smoothed out and softened, there can be no doubting his latent speed or spellbinding car control. It really does look like Malcolm Wilson has once again managed to unearth the next big thing in WRC driver terms, and (with a bit of luck) we can look forward to seeing Suninen behind the wheel of the 2018 Fiesta WRC at key rounds this year.
Of course this doesn’t even begin to touch upon that other pool of up-and-coming talent, WRC2. 2017 saw some of the fiercest competition the category has ever served up, and while it’s a little troubling that incumbent champ Pontus Tidemund hasn’t been able to secure a WRC berth in 2018, it does mean that we get to see him defending his title. The calibre of the WRC2 field means that he’ll have to work hard to do so, with the likes of Stéphane Lefebvre (with a point to prove and out to emulate Elfyn Evans’ successful step down a category in 2016), Eric Camilli, Jan Kopecky, Ole Christian Veiby, Pierre-Louis Loubet and Kalle Rovenpera all seeking to depose the young Swede.
The best news of all? The start of the 2018 Monte Carlo Rally is less than a month away. Bring on the tyre lottery!