The FIA World Rally Championship returns this weekend with Rallye Monte-Carlo at the start of one of the most unpredictable seasons in its history.
Picking a winner not just on the Monte but also for the 2019 title is almost impossible, as all last season’s championship challengers return and the headline news being arguably defending and now six-time champion Sébastien Ogier moving to the Citroen Racing World Rally Team from M-Sport Ford.
Add in the Hyundai Shell MOBIS World Rally Team’s singing of former champion Sébastien Loeb in a part time programme, who with Ogier have won the last 15 drivers titles combined and the return of Kris Meeke, who gets a full season campaign with the Toyota GAZOO Racing World Rally Team, the 2019 WRC is very much up in the air with no clear favourite.
The season opener has 16 stages on its itinerary with a total of over 320km stage miles beginning with a pair of night stages on this evening before two full days of action on Friday and Saturday concluding with a final four stage race to the finish on Sunday morning.
Citroen over the winter have had a complete shake up in the driver department with Craig Breen, Mads Østberg and albeit after just a three round programme, Loeb all departing as well as Meeke who left midway through 2018 after a string of poor results.
Incoming are Ogier who returns to the team where he began his WRC career and Esapekka Lappi who moves from Toyota with the French manufacturer only running two C3 WRC’s in the 2019 championship. The young Finn has already said he wants to learn from his teammate and show that he can be just as competitive as the reigning champion this season.
Lappi’s former team sees both Jari-Matti Latvala and the stand out driver from the second half of last season, Ott Tänak , continue with them for this year. Both drivers are tipped for strong seasons in what many believe is now the strongest car in the WRC.
Irishman Meeke moves to the Finnish based team in a bid to finally show exactly what he can do over the course of a full season. He’s admitted to wanting a fresh start of the Monte and has chosen a new co-driver in the form of Seb Marshall ahead of the 2019 curtain raiser. Although it was only the shakedown on Thursday morning, he’s shown a clear sign of intent by topping the times on the warm-up stage.
Hyundai continue with second in the WRC Drivers standings for the last three seasons Thierry Neuville, as he aims to finally get the better of Ogier and win his first WRC title while Andreas Mikkelsen also returns and wanting to put a tough 2018 behind him.
Nine-time champion Loeb is confirmed in a part time programme in the third i20 Coupe WRC with the Frenchman being drafted in to try and help Hyundai win their first WRC Manufactures crown. He shares the car with former teammate at Citroen, Dani Sordo, with the Spaniard set for his first appearance later in the year on Rally Mexico.
M-Sport Ford also return in 2019 and with Ogier departing for Citroen, Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen are the two drivers set to compete for the Cumbrian team. Both drivers have shown pace in the past, with Evans’ dream Wales Rally GB 2017 win being the highlight, but the team realise how much of a task they have on their hands if they want to be battling at the top of the 2019 title standings.
The Welshman also has a new co-driver for 2019 with Scott Martin, who partnered Craig Breen last season, being in the passenger seat for Evans beginning this weekend.
Pontus Tidemand makes his current generation WRC debut in the third Ford Fiesta WRC in Monte Carlo. The former WRC2 champion chose not to continue with Skoda this season, so begins a limited programme with M-Sport in Monte with Rally Sweden also on his schedule.
A new era in WRC2
The new WRC2 PRO class appears to be equally as competitive as the WRC itself in 2019. The revised format sees Skoda Motorsport, Ford M-Sport and Citroen Total competing in a new manufacturer supported class where titles will be given to both the leading driver and manufacture at the end of the year.
Each team can enter up to two cars per event and each driver in WRC2 PRO must compete on at least seven rallies throughout the season including one non-European round.
As in the WRC, picking a winner is very hard to choose with the quality of drivers in the field. The Citroen entry sees ex-WRC man Østberg compete alongside Yoann Bonato. Ford M-Sport have Gus Greensmith and Lukasz Pieniazek in their two-car effort while Skoda field Kalle Rovanperä alongside defending WRC2 champion Jan Kopecký for the 2019 season. In Monte Carlo, Bonato, Greensmith and Rovanperä are on the entry list.
With the added ‘PRO’ class, this leaves WRC2 to be fought between privately entered drivers and teams. Seven drivers are registered for the opening event and include Ole Christian Veiby and Nicolas Ciamin in new Volkswagen Polo’s, while Rhys Yates graduates to WRC2 from the British and European championships he contested last season in his Skoda Fabia.
Italian Manuel Villa appears on the entry list in another Fabia with the class completed by Guilaume de Mevius in a Citroen C3, Massimo ‘Pedro’ Pedretti in a Hyundai i20 and Adrien Fourmaux in a Ford Fiesta.
The 2019 FIA World Rally Championship begins later this evening, with a pair of night stages set to get the season underway.