WRC 2017 – Season Preview

WRC 2016
Compared to the machines of 2016 (seen here at the ceremonial start in Monte Carlo’s Casino Square 12 months ago), there’ll be a very different look to the WRC this time around, as well as a very different outcome…but who’s going to emerge on top?

Sitting comfortably, are we? All I’ll say is don’t get too used to it, because this is going to be one hell of a wild ride – sure, whichever way you look at it, motorsport as a whole is a pretty extreme discipline, but, while it’s all well and good watching it take place within the controlled environment of a purpose-built circuit, there’s something that bit more spectacular about taking the same concept out “into the wild”, so to speak…and this is, without doubt, the toughest test of them all. I mean, just think about it for a second – some of the world’s most talented drivers, behind the wheel of some incredible machinery, negotiating their way down essentially closed public roads at insane speeds, with hidden hazards just waiting to trip them up if they get it even slightly wrong and the added bonus of some stunning backdrops…sound good, does it? Well, in that case, strap yourselves in for a whirlwind worldwide adventure – the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship is about to burst into life, and, for once, it doesn’t seem to be anything like a foregone conclusion.

THE BASICS
Before we go any further, though, for those of you that are coming to the WRC for the first time, and don’t really know what it’s all about, here’s a quick guide to some of the main features, as well as a (brief) description of what’s changed in terms of the cars for this season:

1) Rather than being in one place for the entire event – as would be the case with a circuit race – the rallies themselves are instead broken down into shorter stretches of road known as ‘stages’, with generally between 15 and 25 stages (normally totalling around 300 competitive kilometres over three or four days) making up a complete rally.
2) However, the teams are based in one particular location in what is known as the ‘service park’ – the equivalent of the pits on a circuit – where repairs and general maintenance to the cars can be carried out.
3) Each driver is joined in the car by a navigator or ‘co-driver’, who read out a set of incredibly detailed pace notes (developed prior to the rally and then tested on a ‘shakedown’ stage at full speed) in order to both direct the driver through the stages and warn them of any potential hazards on the road.
4) Points are awarded in accordance with the FIA’s global scoring system, with the winner receiving 25 points, then 18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2 and down to 1 point for the crew finishing in tenth. Bonus points are also handed out for the fastest times on the concluding stage of a rally (known as the ‘Power Stage’), which, for the first time in 2017, will reward the quickest five drivers on a scale of 5-4-3-2-1.
5) The cars are released onto the stages individually, rather than the grid format that’s predominantly used in circuit racing, with the ‘running order’ determined now by the championship positions on the first day of a rally, then by the reverse positions in the event for the subsequent two days (this is a change from last year, where championship positions were used to set the running order for the first two days).

In terms of the technical regulations, the cars themselves are going to look even more spectacular than before in 2017 with the introduction of new aerodynamic packages (including longer splitters at the front, bigger wheel arches and a much taller rear wing), while the sound of the 2 litre turbocharged four-cylinder engines will also be more vicious because of a wider restrictor on the turbo, meaning power is up by nearly 20% from around 300 brake horsepower to nearly 380bhp.
Also new for this year is the return of what’s known as an ‘active centre differential’, which, in its most basic terms, allows the driver to tune the way the car handles to suit different conditions, rather than having to stick with a pre-determined setting from service.

THE CALENDAR
So, with all that out of the way, it’s time to focus on the year ahead, firstly by taking a look at the schedule for 2017, which, although still made up of the same 13 events that comprised last year’s calendar (an anticipated 14th in China being cancelled midway through 2016), does still have a couple of notable changes that will only add to the challenge.
It all starts off as before, with the iconic mountains of Monte Carlo and the snowy forests of Sweden playing host to the opening two events of the year before the championship heads off across the Atlantic to Central America and the first gravel event of 2017 in Mexico. From there, though, it’s back to Europe and the demanding tarmac roads of Corsica, with the event on the French island being moved forward to provide greater variety in terms of surfaces between events.
After the championship’s annual pilgrimage to South America and Argentina, European rallies then take over from mid-season onwards, with gravel events in Portugal, Italy and Poland being followed by a trip to the frighteningly fast forests of Finland before the cars venture back onto tarmac in Germany. The concluding segment of the year sees the only mixed surface event in Spain being followed by the historic (and often incredibly muddy) Wales Rally GB before the year draws to a close in the altogether sunnier conditions of Australia in November.

So, here’s a look at the calendar in a bit more detail, with the places after each event signifying where the service park is going to be based for the duration of the rally:

  1. Monte Carlo (19th-22nd January) – Gap
  2. Sweden (9th-12th February) – Torsby
  3. Mexico (9th-12th March) – Leon
  4. France (Corsica) (6th-9th April) – Bastia
  5. Argentina (27th-30th April) – Villa Carlos Paz
  6. Portugal (18th-21st May) – Matosinhos
  7. Italy (Sardinia) (8th-11th June) – Alghero
  8. Poland (29th June-2nd July) – Mikolajki
  9. Finland (27th-30th July) – Jyvaskyla
  10. Germany (17th-20th August) – Bostalsee
  11. Spain (5th-8th October) – Salou
  12. Great Britain (Wales) (26th-29th October) – Deeside
  13. Australia (16th-19th November) – Coffs Harbour

THE TEAMS AND DRIVERS
There’s a very different look to the top flight of the WRC this season, with a couple of welcome manufacturer returnees bolstering the ranks, but perhaps the biggest story in terms of the line-up this year is the absence of one major name following the shock withdrawal of the all-conquering Volkswagen Motorsport factory outfit at the end of 2016 (although there is still a slim chance we may see their 2017-spec Polo R on the stages later this year in private hands).
In a way, this was entirely understandable given the furore that continues to shadow the wider company following the ‘Dieselgate’ emissions scandal that erupted a couple of years ago – a multi-million pound motorsport programme just wouldn’t have made sense with potentially multi-billion pound lawsuits hanging over their head – but, from a fan’s perspective, it was equally disappointing not to be able to see how the recent dominant force in the sport would cope against one of the most competitive fields for a good few years.
However, this does mean there’s an open goal for one of the teams to fill, so, with that in mind, here’s a run-down of the main runners and riders for the new season…

FORD (M-SPORT) – Fiesta WRC
Ford Fiesta WRC
It’s a new look and a new challenge for the reigning drivers’ champion, so can Ogier pick up where he left off with VW in an attempt to net title number five?

This is arguably the biggest season for Malcolm Wilson’s team in a long while, not least because they’ll have the #1 adorning the side of their brand-new Fiesta having secured the services of Frenchman Sebastien Ogier – now the reigning four-time world champion – and long-standing co-driver Julien Ingrassia after they lost their seats as a consequence of VW’s surprise pull-out. Alongside them this year will be the impressive Ott Tanak, who makes his return to the team after a strong year in the privateer DMACK Fiesta last year that saw him cruelly robbed of a maiden WRC victory in Poland, along with new co-driver Martin Jarveoja, with the Estonian’s vacant slot at DMACK being taken up by reigning British Rally champion Elfyn Evans as the Welshman – who was also in contention for the WRC2 title last season before eventually having to settle for third – re-establishes his partnership with previous co-driver Daniel Barritt for his full-time return to the premier class as M-Sport’s third points-scoring car.

HYUNDAI – i20 Coupe WRC
Hyundai i20 WRC
The Korean marque has always been in the mix over recent years, taking a couple of notable wins in the process, but will the introduction of the new i20 Coupe yield a first world title for Hyundai?

It’s very much a case of ‘as you were’ for Hyundai as they enter 2017 with the only completely unchanged driver line-up of the main contenders, led by Belgian ace Thierry Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul after they bounced back superbly from a distinctly below-par first half of the year to surge through with a phenomenal run of results and snatch the runners-up spot in the championship at the final round in Australia. Remaining alongside them will be Spaniard Dani Sordo – now one of the veterans of the WRC, having made his debut back in 2006 – and co-driver Marc Marti, while, after making a real breakthrough last season that saw him hold off Ogier for a stunning first victory in the sport in Argentina, young New Zealander Hayden Paddon will be looking to continue his remarkable rise through the ranks alongside vastly experienced co-driver John Kennard.

CITROEN – C3 WRC
Citroen C3 WRC
Their bit-part campaign last year was full of flashes of promise, so, having switching solely back to rallying now, will the French manufacturer be able to hit the ground running with the new C3?

Having spent most of 2016 on the sidelines while they developed their new car, Citroen make a welcome return to the championship as a full-blown works outfit with hopes of restoring their status as the dominant force of the WRC after four seasons without picking up either the drivers’ or manufacturers’ titles. Much will depend on the form of Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke, who, along with long-standing co-driver Paul Nagle, managed to pick up two victories in Portugal and Finland despite only contesting selected rounds last season, while young French prospect Stephane Lefebvre makes his full-time return to take the second C3 for the Monte after a nasty crash in Germany last year left both him and co-driver Gabin Moreau in hospital. Irishman Craig Breen – who netted his first WRC podium last year in Finland alongside co-driver Scott Martin – will drive an older-spec DS3 on the opening round and then alternate with Lefebvre until a third car becomes available, with Emirati driver Khalid Al Qassimi also pencilled in for outings this year in a fourth C3.

TOYOTA – Yaris WRC
Toyota Yaris WRC
Even with their much-anticipated return now a reality, Toyota are still very much an unknown quantity, so how long will it be before the new Yaris is battling at the front?

It’s taken them 18 long years to get round to it, but finally…Toyota are back in the WRC, but, despite the pedigree that saw them secure world titles for the likes of Carlos Sainz, Juha Kankkunen and Didier Auriol in the 1990s, expectations are being kept realistic as the team – led by another former world champion in Tommi Makinen – try to get up to speed with the new Yaris. Most of their hopes will fall on the shoulders of another VW refugee in Jari-Matti Latvala and co-driver Miikka Anttila, with the pair looking to bounce back from a hugely disappointing 2016 campaign that saw them finish back in sixth in the points, while, having conducted most of the development work on the new car, the experienced Juho Hanninen is rewarded with a full-time drive alongside veteran co-driver Kaj Lindstrom. The all-Finnish trio will be completed by rising star Esapekka Lappi and co-driver Janne Ferm later in 2017, although the reigning WRC2 champion’s campaign will consist only of selected rounds later in 2017 once a third car is made available.

MY THOUGHTS
In the recent past, unless you were French and your name was Sebastien, you had next to no chance of taking the drivers’ title, but, for once, it’s actually really difficult to call who’s going to be champion before a wheel is turned in anger with these brand new cars. Obviously, Ogier is still going to be many people’s tip, but I guess it depends on how quickly he can start producing the goods in a new car and – to be honest – whether he can fend off the threat from a couple of hungry young guns (namely Tanak and Evans) in his own team, but I still think he’s just about the man to beat over the full year.
However, he’s going to have his work cut out from elsewhere if he wants title number five – Hyundai are very much a force to be reckoned with, particularly if Neuville can maintain his excellent late-season form from 2016 and hit the ground running, while Sordo and Paddon will definitely score consistently for the team without, in my eyes at least, being able to sustain a championship push. At Citroen, Meeke is probably going to be Ogier’s nearest contender after showing he could match the Frenchman’s pace last season in a car that wasn’t quite on the same level, and, with the amount of time he’s spent testing the C3, it would be no surprise to me to see him have the edge early in the season, while I wouldn’t rule out one or two surprise results as well from both Lefebvre and Breen.
And what of Toyota? Well, they’re a little behind the curve in terms of outright car performance (as was apparently the opinion of Ogier when he tested the Yaris prior to signing with M-Sport), and so it might take them a little bit of time to get close to front-running pace, but, with a proven winner in Latvala in their corner, while a championship push is unlikely, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s picked up a win or two before the year is out. Of his team-mates, Hanninen is solid if unspectacular, but Lappi is one of the many young talents emerging at the minute from the junior categories, and he’s well capable of delivering some good results as well once he properly finds his feet in a WRC car.

One name unfortunately missing from the main category this year, despite having only just missed out on finishing second overall in 2016 is Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen, but the other ex-VW driver will still be on the Monte behind the wheel of a Skoda Fabia R5 as part of a highly competitive WRC2 contingent containing yet more rising stars of the future, with the likes of Finnish youngster Teemu Suninen in an M-Sport Fiesta R5 alongside their 2016 WRC driver Eric Camilli, Sweden’s Pontus Tidemand (also behind the wheel of a Skoda) and Frenchman Quentin Gilbert – who was given his debut in a WRC car last season in Spain – in another Fiesta R5 likely to be the ones to watch here.
That’s as much as I can do for the moment, so it’s now over to you as to who you think is likely to be the one walking off with the title at the end of the year – will you go for one of the familiar and, in all honesty, predictable names, or do you think that the fact everyone is starting on a level playing field with the new cars might open the door for one or two surprise packages? Comment with your thoughts either here, on Facebook at Straight from the Motormouth or have your say by voting in the poll below, but now all we can do is wait. Next stop, Monte Carlo…

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