On the face of it, Sebastien Ogier winning a seventh FIA World Rally Championship is something that at the beginning of 2020 was feasible in most people’s eyes. However, the way in which the season unfolded nobody would have predicted.
As we all know, 2020 was a year we’ll never forget for various reasons. The WRC – along with every other motorsport series around the world – was affected in several ways, with multiple rounds postponed and cancelled, rallies introduced midway through the year and a rather remarkable season finale to top it all off.
But credit where credit’s due, the FIA and the championship’s promoter need to be praised as much as possible for all of their efforts throughout 2020.
To even get a season completed under unique circumstances was something incredible in itself, and it seemed fitting that the championship went down to the final event of the season to decide its champion.
2020 Part One…
It was nearly a year ago when I write this that the 2020 season got underway with the traditional Monte Carlo event. That will also be remembered especially for a mammoth shunt for Hyundai‘s new signing Ott Tänak, who after winning the 2019 title with Toyota made a shock over the off-season.
The Estonian walked away from the accident that destroyed the i20 Coupe WRC, proving just how strong the current generation of cars actually are.
First blood in the championship went to Tanak’s teammate Thierry Neuville, with Ogier taking a fine second on his first appearance for Toyota with teammate and fellow Yaris WRC debutant Elfyn Evans completing the podium.
Evans was another driver to make a surprise move over the winter, with the Welshman deciding to move to the Japanese manufacturer from M-Sport Ford where he’d spent all of his WRC career to date before 2020.
The move would go on to prove to be the right decision, with Evans eventually winning two of the seven events that took place throughout the disrupted season.
Round two of the year saw the crews head to Sweden, where bizarrely a lack of snow on the winter event caused disruption to the itinerary.
Only 11 stages took place across the weekend, including a cancellation on Sunday morning, but it still didn’t prevent the aforementioned Evans to take his first win of the season and just his second in the WRC.
The returning Tänak finally scored his first points for Hyundai by taking second, with Toyota’s third new signing Kalle Rovanperä completing the podium for the team.
The Young Finn proved just why Toyota signed him throughout the year and would regularly challenge both of his more experienced teammates, with him finishing in the top five on all but one of the events throughout 2020.
Things Begin to Change in Mexico…
I remember covering Rally Mexico back in March and it turned into something to be honest I’ll never forget.
When the news broke of the rallying being shortened so that it ended on the Saturday evening rather than the Sunday afternoon, you got the feeling something was happening; that something was changing – and as we all know now, that’s exactly what happened.
Ogier claimed his first win of the season on the shortened event, with the final day instead given to the teams to ensure they were able to return back to base before restrictions came into force.
The event will also be remembered for a severe fire that took hold of Esapekka Lappi‘s M-Sport Fiesta WRC.
The car was completely destroyed, which the team later admitting there’ll likely never be a clear picture about what caused the car to go up in flames.
Nearly Six Months and a Revamped Calendar Later…
As the pandemic began, nobody knew exactly when and if the championship would be able to resume.
Many of the planned events in 2020, including a return to Kenya and the Safari Rally, Rally New Zealand, and both rallies in Chile and Argentina were all eventually cancelled due to the crisis, despite the best efforts of both the FIA and the event organisers who hoped they could run later in the year.
More cancellations followed, with Rally Finland also later being joined by Rally Germany, Wales Rally GB, and Rally Japan on the list of events not taking place due to COVID-19.
The heavily depleted schedule meant some new events needed to be added to ensure the championship was worthy of being considered a ‘genuine’ season and the organisers did exactly that.
A new event in Estonia was first up on the revamped calendar, with the country hosting its maiden WRC event.
The gravel event had ran as a promotion event for the championship in 2019 but had been set to miss out on a full round of the season before the pandemic began.
But, with just a few weeks of planning and after the best efforts of everyone involved, the championship returned on the first weekend of September and it was home hero and reigning champion Tänak who took a memorable win on the event.
The Estonian’s win also meant he was proving not to write him out of the title race just yet, especially baring in mind that due to the pandemic every points scored was vital if he was to make it back-to-back titles.
It was a Hyundai one-two in Tanak’s homeland too, as Craig Breen took his best result of the season behind his teammate.
The Irishman was one of the busiest drivers in the WRC paddock throughout the year, as he contested both selected events in the championship while sharing the third car with Dani Sordo and Loeb, while also contesting a full European Rally program in a MRF Tyres backed Hyundai R5 machine.
A Crazy Event in Turkey…
Round five of the rejigged calendar saw the crews head to Turkey and a frankly bonkers event paved the way for Elfyn Evans to take charge of the title race.
The Welshman was the first of only six WRC runners to finish the event, with several of his series rivals including Ogier and Tanak, suffer punctures and more significantly suspension damage that forced them out of the rally and crucially struggle to score points.
With Evans winning, the podium was completed by Hyundai duo Neuville and Loeb, with the event turning out to be the final rally the nine-time WRC champion would contest with the team before he left just weeks later.
Italy Shows Sordo’s Not Just a Tarmac Expert…
Italy was next up at the beginning of October following its postponement from its planned June date, with a long-standing competitor proving he’s still one of the best drivers in the championship.
Dani Sordo had taken a memorable win on the gravel event back in 2019 – only his second ever in the WRC – and this year repeated that result.
The Spaniard has in the past often been seen as someone who is more suited to asphalt action, but his fine win for the second year running on a gravel rally showed he’s capable of claiming results on a range of surfaces.
Perhaps that performance earned him a recall for 2021 alongside Breen…
Monza Becomes The Finale…
The championship was again affected by the pandemic in the autumn with further round changes being forced to take place.
Ypres had been added to the lineup in a similar fashion to Estonia earlier in the year, but a sharp rise in COVID cases in Belgium meant that event was later cancelled.
This meant that a new event – Rally Monza – would decided the winner of the 2020 championship after the event was chosen as the final event of the year.
Picked in a bid to ensure the event stayed as secure as possible by being based at the Italian circuit, the rally will definitely be remembered for deciding the winner of the series.
Coming into the event, Evans had a sizeable 14 point lead over his Toyota teammate Ogier and knew that he could drop a number of points to the Frenchman and still claim the championship.
However the penultimate day of action, which took place in the icy hills above the circuit, was when it all went wrong for the Welshman.
Having been one of the first cars through a particularly slippery section of mountain road, Evans ran wide after being unable to brake for a right hand turn and he ended up sliding down a bank and out of the rally.
This paved the way for Ogier to take the crown after leading the majority of the event and he did just that with a commanding victory on the final round of the year to secure his seventh title and his first with Toyota.
WRC2: Østberg Does Exactly What He Wanted…
Mads Østberg ensured that he did all he can in 2020 to show he’s worthy of a top-level WRC driver by taking the WRC2 crown in the Citroen Racing C3 R5.
2020 had seen the class feature a revamp in a bid to make it more competitive and appealing to potential drivers, teams and manufacturers, although still only featured single figure entry lists on each event throughout the year.
But a close battle got underway between the Norwegian and Swede Pontus Tidemand. Both drivers were regularly challenging at the front of the class on each even that they competed on, and Tidemand actually led the standings going to Monza.
Østberg however had the better results when drop scores were taken into account and would take the title ahead of his season long rival, and completed his championship victory with a class win on Rally Monza.
A noticeable mention also has to go to Adrien Fourmaux, who if I had such a thing would win my ‘most improved’ award.
After a tough start to the season, the Frenchman appeared to come back fighting after the lockdown enforced mid-season break and was consistently matching both Østberg and Tidemand at the top of the class standings.
WRC3: Huttunen Shows He Can Win on the World Stage…
Jari Huttunen is a driver to watch for the future for sure and in 2020 showed exactly what he is one of the hottest rallying talents around.
The young Finn is another driver to take full advantage of being able to enter events around the world in the same R5/Rally2 spec cars and in 2020 took both the WRC3 and Polish Rally Championship titles, proving that he is capable of winning at the sport’s highest level.
On the world stage, he took two victories across the season in both Sweden and Italy and was a regular podium finisher too.
This unusual season saw him compete against a range of drivers throughout the year, ranging from up and coming star Oliver Solberg to by the end of the season former Hyundai WRC driver Andreas Mikkeslsen.
Huttunen eventually won the class title by 13 points over Marco Bulacia Wilkinson, with Polish driver Kajetan Kajetanowicz completing the top three.
Junior WRC: Kristensson Takes The Big Prize…
Finally the FIA Junior WRC saw Swede Tom Kristensson take the championship win and with it, one of the biggest prizes in motorsport.
The youngster defeated season long rivals Sami Parjari and Martins Sesks to claim a brand-new M-Sport Ford prepared Fiesta R5 Mk2, along with 200 Pirelli tyres and five entries into the 2021 WRC3 class.
All three drivers had a mathematical chance of the title going to the rescheduled final round on Rally Monza, but it was the Swede who claimed the class win on the event to take the title win.
Kristensson won four of the five events throughout the 2020 season, with only Sesks being the only other driver to claim a victory on Rally Estonia.
Despite the 2020 season only ending in early December due to the pandemic, 2021’s action will get underway this weekend (January 21-24) with the annual Rallye Monte Carlo.