SEASON REVIEW: 2019 FIA World Rally Championship – Terrific Tänak Takes Maiden Title

by Steven Batey

Ott Tänak won his first FIA World Rally Championship in 2019 after a stunning season saw the Estonian take six victories throughout the year.

The Toyota GAZOO Racing driver dominated throughout 2019 as he got the better of rivals Thierry Neuville and Sebastien Ogier and went on to claim the title.

Wins early in the year in Sweden and Chile proved that he was on a mission to make up for his tough 2018 season which only really got going in the second half of the season and Tänak would go on to take wins in Portugal, Finland, Germany, and Great Britain also to prove he was the man to beat during 2019.

Citroen Begin Well, but Things Go Badly Wrong

Photo Credit: Jaanus Ree/RedBull Content Pool

Coming into the season, the title race looked like it could any of a number of drivers. A pre-season move saw defending champion Ogier join his third WRC team in four years with the Frenchman moving to Citroen from M-Sport Ford while Tänak continued with Toyota and Thierry Neuville with Hyundai.

And early on, it looked as if his moved paid dividends having taken the first victory of the season on Rallye Monte-Carlo. Another win on round three on Rally Mexico again seemed to show that Ogier had made the right move, but a poor mid-season saw the Frenchman not claim another victory until Rally Turkey in September.

The six-time champion was joined by Tanak’s former teammate Esapekka Lappi who moved from Toyota, with the French team deciding to only run two cars compared to their rival manufacturers three.

Both drivers struggled in 2019. Photo Credit: Mahmut Cinci / Red Bull Content Pool

Despite a strong start to the season for the pair, both drivers complained regularly about a lack of pace from the C3 WRC with Lappi in particular struggling to show the pace he showed at his former team. The Finn did also start the season well, taking second in Sweden, but would only manage two more podium finishes throughout the remainder of the year.

The 2019 season would then later prove to be the French team’s last in the WRC after they announced their withdrawal from the sport with immediate effect in November and incredibly blamed the outgoing Ogier – who agreed a move to Toyota for 2020 – as one of the main reasons for their decision.  

Thierry Neuville kept the three-way championship fight alive throughout the season and the Belgian proved that consistency is key if you want to fight for a title. A double victory in Corsica – more on that later and Argentina added to with a late win in the year in Spain as Tanak claimed the title meant the Belgian ended up runner up in the title standings.

Best of the rest: Elfyn Evans (M-Sport Ford)

Elfyn Evans - M-Sport - FIA World Rally Championship
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool / Jaanus Ree

With the three leading drivers at Toyota, Hyundai and Citroen for 2019, this meant M-Sport Ford relied on Elfyn Evans and Teemu Suninen to continue the legacy left by Ogier who’d won the last two championships with the team.

Evans proved he is Mr. Consistent when it comes to the WRC and if not for a mid-season injury break could have quite easily been knocking on the door for a top three finish in the championship

The Welshman suffered more bad luck – he was robbed of a victory in Corsica where a puncture on the very last stage of the event gave Neuville the win and he could only salvage third, while an incident with a bank early on his home event on Rally GB left him wondering what might have been after he came back fighting winning several stages and powering back up through the leaderboard.

He ended up missing three events due to an injury suffered on the promotional Rally Estonia but went on to claim fifth in the Drivers Standings behind Andreas Mikkelsen and for 2020, he’ll step out of his comfort zone as he makes a shock move to Toyota to be reunited with Ogier and drive for a different team than M-Sport for the first time in his WRC career.

Hyundai’s Driver Merry-Go Round

Mikkelsen had a mixed 2019. Photo Credit: Jaanus Ree/RedBull Content Pool

Mikkelsen had been originally planned to complete a full season campaign but he’d see himself dropped for several events in 2019 by Hyundai as they chose to run a number of different drivers including nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb and Dani Sordo as well as Craig Breen who made a number of sporadic appearances as he drove for the team in Finland and on his home event, Wales Rally GB. 

Spaniard Sordo meanwhile, who along with Loeb has been confirmed again for another part time campaign in 2020, took a memorable win on Rally Italia Sardegna – his first since Rally Germany back in 2013 and was drafted in on events that the team hoped he’d be able to help championship challenger Neuville.  

Kris Meeke was a man who was seemingly on a mission to prove to Citroen what they were going to miss throughout 2019 after he teamed up with Seb Marshall and signed to drive the third Toyota Yaris alongside Jari-Matti Latvala and to-be champion Tänak, but a string of middle of the park finishes teamed with the signings of both Ogier and Evans means he won’t be returning to the championship next season.

The same can be said for his Toyota teammate Latvala, as he struggled to compete at the very top of the standings throughout the season. The Finn hasn’t ruled out returning at all during 2020 and if rumours are to believed, could be behind the wheel of a Yaris on several events in a part-time campaign.

Suninen had a tough start to 2019, but gradually improved. Photo Credit: M-Sport

Teemu Suninen meanwhile in the second M-Sport Ford had a tough start to the year with several disappointing results including a big crash on Rally Mexico but the young Finn constantly improved throughout the remainder of the year with the highlight being a run of four top five finishes in five events including a second-place result on Rally Italia Sardegna. 

2019 saw the one-rally return of legend Marcos Gronholm, with the Finn running in a Yaris WRC on Rally Sweden. The appearance didn’t go to plan though, and he’d end up having several problems and ending the event 38th overall while Toyota development driver Takamoto Katsuta also got his first taste of WRC action in another Yaris with entries in both Germany and Spain. The Japanese driver will get more action next season too, as he has been confirmed to be entering eight events with the team.

It was a case of what might have been for Hayden Paddon after the New Zeleand man’s scheduled two rounds with M-Sport didn’t work out the way he wanted. Just days before Rally Finland, a large testing crash meant he had to sit out his scheduled return to the series after leaving Hyundai at the end of 2018 while another planned event, this time in Australia, didn’t take place at all due to the huge bushfires still effecting the country.

WRC2 PRO: Rovanperä Masterclass Proves He’s Ready for Next Step

The young Finn dominated in WRC2PRO. Photo Credit; Jaanus Ree/RedBull Content Pool

2019 was the year Kalle Rovanperä proved to the world he’s the sports hottest young prodigy after a dominating season saw him take a crushing win in the WRC2 PRO championship.

Revamped for 2019, the class had been designed for manufacturer backed teams such as Skoda, Citroen and M-Sport to compete away from the privately entered WRC2 machinery, but a low turnout of entries, added to by the fact that each driver only had to enter a few events across the season, means the class structure will again change next year.

But in 2019 it was Rovanperä who was the shining light after beating former Citroen WRC man Mads Østberg and M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith to the title. A total of five wins, four of which came in a row for the Finn, proved just how dominant he became, and will next season get the chance to prove himself at the highest level after singing for Toyota alongside Ogier and Evans in a full-time drive. 

No one in the class was seemingly able to match his consistent pace and raw speed and his title challenge was also helped because of M-Sport deciding to give Greensmith the chance to prove himself in a WRC machine after Evans’ injury during the middle of the season.

The 2020 season looks however short in both numbers of drivers and manufactuers. As well as Rovanpera and now Greensmith moving on to Toyota and M-Sport respectively in the WRC, Skoda announced they would not compete in a fully pledged factory team after the end of 2019. This leaves new M-Sport signing Adrien Fourmaux and another second Fiesta driver the only two so far officially announced drivers in the renamed WRC2 class next season.

WRC2: Loubet Claims Narrow Title Win

Loubet won a hotly contested WRC2 class. Photo Credit: Jaanus Ree/RedBull Content Pool

The 2019 WRC2 championship (and what will next season be called WRC3) went right down to the final round of the year in Spain as Pierre Louis Loubet defeated Kajetan Kajetanowicz to claim the title.

The duo, along with Benito Guerra and Nikolay Gryazin were the leading lights during 2019 and all four would battle at the top of the standings across the year. Successive victories in Portugal and Italy, as well as a runners up spot on Wales Rally GB gave the French driver a narrow 3 point win due to Rally Australia, the final round of the season, being cancelled.

Petter Solberg took a memorable win on his final World Rallying event. Photo Creidt: Jaanus Ree/RedBull Content Pool

Rally GB in particular will be one to remember in WRC2 for the final event of 2003 WRC champion Petter Solberg’s illustrious career. The Norwegian competed in a one-off outing alongside son Oliver and he went on to claim a fantastic final victory on the same rally he clinched his WRC title 16 years ago.

The privately entered runners in the class were the standout of the season when it comes to entry numbers, with several European events featuring a huge list of drivers that regularly included a third Solberg in the form of Henning, British driver Rhys Yates, who concentrated on a WRC2 effort for the first time and up and coming prospect Marco Bulacia Wilkinson.

Brit Yates moved to the world stage after campaigns in both Britain and Europe in recent seasons and would achieve a season-best fourth place on the opening round of the season in Monte-Carlo before going on to end the year in 16th.

FIA Junior WRC – 3 Way fight sees Solans Come Out on Top

Solans took a double points win on Wales Rally GB as he went on to claim the JWRC title. Photo Credit: Jannus Ree/RedBull Content Pool

The 2019 FIA Junior World Rally Championship saw a two way battle at the top of the championship go all the way to the final round but it was Jan Solans who become the champion of the series.

A win in Italy, as well as a double points victory on the final round of the season in Wales saw the young Spaniard follow in his older brother Nil’s steps and take the JWRC title over Tom Kristensson and Denis Randstorm who completed the top three.

All three drivers had a mathematical chance of winning the title going into the final event, but ultimately it was more of a two-horse race after ERC Junior graduate Kristensson regularly matched Solans pace throughout the year.

Solans is certainly a man to watch for 2020 and beyond. With the title already secured, he entered what would eventually be the final round of the 2019 WRC2 season in Fiesta R5 MK2, finishing tenth in class in his maiden appearance in a four-wheel drive car.

Other noticeable entries in the 2019 JWRC included Tom Williams, with the Brit having two top five finishes in the five events, American driver Sean Johnston, who took a season best 3rd on the final round of the season and finished fourth in the championship standings and young German Julius Tannert who was the only driver apart from Solans and Kristensson to win a round of the championship.

2020 will see the FIA World Rally Championship make several changes to its calendar, with Japan, New Zealand and a return to Kenya all planned while Rally Spain, Corsica and Australia all don’t feature.

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