You could call this ‘the calm before the storm’ – with 2017 signalling the dawn of a much-anticipated new era for the WRC, the new louder, angrier breed of cars gathered in Monte Carlo’s Casino Square ahead of the curtain-raiser…but who would be the one to strike first blood once they hit the stages?
Well, it’s certainly been a while in coming, but now (finally), it’s here…and it’s going to be something special. Of course, I realise that making statements like that at this stage means it could always come back and bite me in the weeks and months ahead, but, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no harm in being optimistic about something new, particularly when it has the potential to reshape the pecking order in such a big way. I mean, for all its plus points – and there’s plenty of those – certain championships in the world of motorsport can sometimes become a bit samey, and so, when the same driver keeps on winning time and time again, it’s not difficult to understand why things would need to change in order to shake things up, but, as shake-ups go…this is a pretty sizeable one, to say the least! The 2017 FIA World Rally Championship could well be the most open season for many years, and, given what we’ve seen in the recent past…I don’t think there’s many who’ll be complaining.
For the last four seasons, the top level of arguably the most spectacular form of racing anywhere in the world has been the exclusive property of the factory Volkswagen Motorsport outfit, with their Polo R WRCs consistently having the edge over their rivals on their way to picking up a simply staggering 43 overall victories out of a possible 53, taking four successive drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the process. Last year, however, there was a sense that the competition were starting to up their game and really begin to take the fight to the all-conquering German manufacturer, with no less than six different drivers able to stand on the top step of the podium at some point in 2016, but, ultimately, it made no difference at all in terms of the overall outcome of the championship, with the French pair of Sebastien Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia comfortably able to wrap up a fourth successive drivers’ crown in Spain with two rounds to go.
However, in the aftermath of their success, Volkswagen shocked the sport when they announced ahead of the final round in Australia that they would pull out of the sport after the rally – for me, this was massively disappointing, but, at the same time, not a huge surprise given the possible financial repercussions from the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal that the wider company found itself embroiled in – leaving Ogier, as well as stable-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen, out of contract and forcing them to scrabble around for a new drive. Eventually, the champion secured himself a new ride aboard the all-new M-Sport Ford Fiesta, but, with new technical regulations (including bigger aerodynamic packages and more power from the 2.0 litre turbocharged engines) and some strong competition from Hyundai, Citroen – who return full-time to the stages after a part-campaign last year that still produced two victories – and the long-awaited arrival of Toyota (with Finn Latvala signed up as their lead driver), it shouldn’t be quite such an easy ride for the Frenchman this time around as he goes for title number five.
As ever, the opening event of the year saw the crews head for perhaps the most iconic setting of them all, with the mountains of Monte Carlo providing fans with a first glimpse of the faster and louder machinery at full tilt. First run way back in 1911, the rally played host to the first-ever WRC event of the inaugural season in 1973, and, aside from a couple of years where it was dropped from the calendar as part of the controversial ‘rotation’ policy adopted by the FIA in the late 2000s, has remained a stalwart of the schedule ever since. Although technically run on tarmac, the event is also regarded as one of the most challenging in terms of car setup, with the mountainous nature often leaving the stages covered in a mixture of ice and snow that can catch out the unwary, meaning the crews’ choice of tyres for each loop is crucial to their chances of a good result.
When it comes to the route itself, many of the stages will be new for the teams – in fact, more than 85% of the 382 competitive kilometres (just shy of 240 miles) have been changed compared to the itinerary of 12 months ago – but some of the most famous parts of this great event have been maintained, most notably the pass over the top of the Col de Turini that will be tackled twice on the final day. In terms of signature stages, Friday’s action is predominantly made up by the two runs through the monster stage between Aspres-les-Corps and Chaillol – the longest test of the rally at just shy of 39 kilometres – while Saturday sees the crews take on the 31.17km between Lardier et Valenca and Oze before the fastest 60 entrants at the end of the day (following a tyre fitting service in Monaco itself) take on the Turini on Sunday, with the second pass through being run as the ‘Power Stage’ that, for the first time this season, will award bonus points to the fastest five cars through.
Last year, Ogier – then a three-time defending champion – immediately laid down a marker that he was again going to be the one to catch by producing a dominant display from the outset, although he was pushed hard in the early stages by Citroen’s Kris Meeke – the Northern Irishman even leading the event for a period on the first full day – before a violent impact with a rock on the second day broke the DS3’s suspension to put him out of contention. This left the Frenchman to cruise to his third successive Monte victory by the best part of 2 minutes over Norwegian team-mate Mikkelsen (who, having been unable to secure a top-flight drive after VW’s withdrawal, had to settle for a spot in the junior WRC2 category), with Belgian Thierry Neuville rounding out the rostrum in third for Hyundai.
So, at the start of the most open campaign in recent memory, would Ogier be able to pick up in the Fiesta where he left off in the Polo and show his rivals that they’re still going to have to go some way to catch him, or would the new regulations open the door for one of the other contenders to gain an early march on the defending champion? Well, it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the opening event of the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship, the iconic Rally Monte Carlo…
DAYS 1 AND 2 (SS1-SS8)
After the glitz and glamour of the ceremonial start in Monaco’s Casino Square, the action got underway on Thursday evening with a brace of night stages that would take the crews up to the service park at Gap, but, almost immediately, the fight for victory was put into sobering perspective following an incident on the very first stage involving Kiwi Hayden Paddon – the Hyundai man rolling his all-new i20 Coupe after losing control on a patch of ice close to the finish, blocking the road for those behind – that saw a spectator sustain injuries from which he sadly died later in hospital. Unsurprisingly, in the circumstances, the stage was quickly cancelled, and, although the car could easily have been repaired, Paddon and co-driver John Kennard – who both escaped unhurt from the incident – were withdrawn from the event as a mark of respect.
However, it wasn’t all bad news for the Korean manufacturer, as, after edging out Ogier to post the fastest time on the truncated opening test as one of only two cars to get through, Neuville underlined the early speed of his Hyundai by setting the pace once again through the 25.49km of SS2 to end the day with an advantage of 7.8s over the defending champion, while the returning Juho Hanninen profited from a later road position on his way to a surprise third in the second of the new Toyotas. Meeke led the charge for Citroen in fourth ahead of the second M-Sport Fiesta of Estonia’s Ott Tanak and the DMACK version of returning Welshman Elfyn Evans as they rounded out the top six, but it was something of a slow start for Latvala as he could only post the ninth fastest time in his Yaris, nearly half a minute off the pace.
The first full day of competition began in equally dramatic fashion for the defending champion, with Ogier compounding his early deficit by making an uncharacteristic mistake on SS3 and sliding off into a ditch on the outside of a tight right-hander, and, although spectators helped get the Fiesta going again, the Frenchman lost more than 40 seconds to drop down the order. It wasn’t all bad for M-Sport, though, as team-mate Tanak won the stage to move up to third behind Neuville and the Citroen of Meeke, but it all went wrong for the Northern Irishman on the very next test when he clattered a roadside bank and broke the steering on his brand-new C3 WRC to drop out of contention. After an encouraging start, Hanninen – who had moved up to third after Meeke’s demise – then crashed his Yaris into a tree on SS5 and, despite his attempts to limp back, was soon forced to park the Yaris further into the stage, but there were no such worries for Neuville, as the Hyundai won the two remaining morning stages to reach service with more than half a minute in hand over Tanak, while Ogier fought back after his early slip-up to move back into a potential podium position in third.
It was more of the same initially on the afternoon loop as the Belgian made it five stage wins – including the truncated SS1 – by setting the pace once more on the second pass through the 24.63km of Agnieres en Devoluy, but Ogier was beginning to claw his way back into the reckoning, and took the final two stage wins of the day – his first in the new Fiesta – to edge back in front of new team-mate Tanak in their battle for second (the margin between the pair a mere 0.3s), but Neuville maintained his tremendous pace out front to establish a lead of 45 seconds by the end of Friday’s action. Despite a few minor issues, Latvala managed to keep the remaining Toyota on the road in an impressive fourth ahead of the second remaining Hyundai of Dani Sordo, with the Spaniard only ahead of the older-spec Citroen DS3 of Irishman Craig Breen by 6.3s in their fight for fifth. Behind, WRC2 leader Mikkelsen enjoyed a dominant day in class in his Skoda to sit seventh overall ahead of the anonymous DMACK Fiesta of Evans in eighth, with Swedish star Pontus Tidemand and experienced Czech driver Jan Kopecky completing the top 10 in their Skoda Fabia R5s.
Thierry Neuville (BEL) – #5 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
LEADERBOARD AFTER DAY 2:
1. Neuville (Hyundai)
2. Ogier (Ford) +45.1s
3. Tanak (Ford) +45.4s
4. Latvala (Toyota) +2:09.7s
5. Sordo (Hyundai) +2:57.8s
6. Breen (Citroen) +3:04.1s
7. Mikkelsen (Skoda – 1st in WRC2) +5:50.8s
8. Evans (Ford) +8:12.1s
9. Tidemand (Skoda) +8:22.4s
10. Kopecky (Skoda – 2nd in WRC2) +8:38.2s
DAYS 3 AND 4 (SS9-SS17)
The beginning of Day 3 saw Neuville waste no time in reasserting his dominance out front, with the Hyundai man taking the opening stage win of the day to further extend his advantage over Ogier as the Frenchman made use of his better road position – a result of the changes to the running order rules for 2017 – to move clear of Tanak and consolidate his position in second, although the Estonian was still equally comfortable in third. Behind, Sordo and Breen continued to fight it out for fifth, with the Citroen youngster moving ahead on SS9 before the Hyundai driver hit back on the next test to retake the position, but, with the tarmac stages becoming ever drier, the man on the charge was Evans, with the Welshman – who had been nowhere on Friday – picking up his first stage win of the season on SS10 to close on WRC2 leader Mikkelsen in seventh.
Having restarted under the Rally2 rules, there was yet more Monte woe for Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle as their repaired car ground to a halt midway through SS10 – later found to be because of a spark plug problem – and, although they did eventually make it through to the finish, a loss of more than 24 minutes left them well and truly out of the running. Back up front, Ogier managed to pull back a few seconds on Neuville by taking the stage win on the second pass through the 31.17km between Lardier et Valenca and Oze, with Tanak being cut adrift a little more in third having reported power steering and gearbox issues on the morning loop, while Evans underlined the pace of the DMACK tyres on the drying tarmac to take a second stage win of the day and move back up to seventh.
The big drama, though, was saved up for the final stage of the day – a repeat of SS2 between Bayons and Breziers that had been run on the opening night – as, having looked in complete control, Neuville hit a bank on the outside of a left-hander that deranged the i20 Coupe’s rear suspension, forcing him and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul to conduct repairs at the roadside before limping through the remainder of the stage. This handed the lead on a plate to Ogier – the Frenchman now enjoying a 47 second lead over team-mate Tanak – while, behind the two M-Sport cars, Neuville’s incident meant Latvala was elevated into a potential podium on the debut for the brand-new Toyota in third. Behind, Breen benefitted from power steering problems for nearest rival Sordo to move his 2016-spec Citroen up into an incredible fourth overall, while yet another stage win for Evans saw the Welshman move into the top six by the end of the day.
Even with only around 53km left on Sunday, new leader Ogier was leaving nothing to chance as he continued to push on the opening stage – the 5.5km sprint from Luceram to Col St Roch – and only finished 1.4s behind surprise pace-setter Sordo in his Hyundai, but there were problems for the second M-Sport Fiesta as Tanak began to suffer with a down-on-power engine that was reduced to running on just two of its four cylinders, and, despite hanging on through SS14, a loss of more than a minute on the first pass over the Col de Turini forced him to concede second place to Latvala, with French youngster Stephane Lefebvre – who had stopped on Thursday’s night stages with a mechanical problem on the second of the brand-new Citroen C3s – finally giving the team something to smile about as he took their first stage win of the weekend.
With SS16 having to be cancelled on safety grounds owing to the volume of spectators, the only remaining issue outstanding was the destination of the Power Stage bonus, and, with snow beginning to fall, the earlier runners were able to capitalise on the better road conditions, with former leader Neuville taking the maximum five extra points ahead of Lefebvre’s Citroen and Hanninen’s Toyota to salvage something from an event that promised so much more. However, nothing was going to derail Ogier, with the champion taking it easy through the final test to secure a fourth successive victory on the Monte and a first win on his debut for M-Sport by more than 2 minutes ahead of former team-mate Latvala as the Finn secured a magnificent maiden podium for the Toyota team, while Tanak defied his ailing engine with a banzai run over the Col to hang on for third. Behind, Sordo upheld Hyundai’s honour as he held off the mightily impressive Breen for fourth, with Evans rounding out the top six for DMACK, while WRC2 winner Mikkelsen and Skoda team-mate Kopecky secured overall points in seventh and eighth respectively ahead of a recovering Lefebvre in ninth and Frenchman Bryan Bouffier – who came home third in WRC2 – in his Ford Fiesta R5.
Power Stage – Top 5:
1. Neuville (Hyundai) 14:14.4s (+5pts)
2. Lefebvre (Citroen) +30.1s (+4pts)
3. Hanninen (Toyota) +55.0s (+3pts)
4. Evans (Ford) +1:13.7s (+2pts)
5. Sordo (Hyundai) +1:42.8s (+1pt)
Sebastien Ogier (FRA) – #1 M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC
1. Ogier (Ford)
2. Latvala (Toyota) +2:15.0s
3. Tanak (Ford) +2:57.8s
4. Sordo (Hyundai) +3:35.8s
5. Breen (Citroen) +3:47.8s
6. Evans (Ford) +6:45.0s
7. Mikkelsen (Skoda – 1st in WRC2) +9:32.7s
8. Kopecky (Skoda – 2nd in WRC2) +12:58.1s
9. Lefebvre (Citroen) +14:43.8s
10. Bouffier (Ford – 3rd in WRC2) +16:09.4s
WRC2 – TOP 5:
1.  Andreas Mikkelsen (Skoda)
2.  Jan Kopecky (Skoda) +3:25.4s
3.  Bryan Bouffier (Ford) +6:36.7s
4.  Eric Camilli (Ford) +9:55.8s
5.  Quentin Gilbert (Ford) +11:36.8s
WRC3 – TOP 4:
1.  Raphael Astier (Peugeot)
2.  Luca Panzani (Renault) +9:22.5s
3.  Charles Martin (Renault) +10:00.0s
4.  Surhayen Pernia (Renault) +11:49.6s
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Ogier (Ford) – 25pts
2. Latvala (Toyota) – 18pts
3. Tanak (Ford) – 15pts
4. Sordo (Hyundai) – 13pts (12+1 PS)
5. Breen (Citroen) – 10pts
6. Evans (Ford) – 10pts (8+2 PS)
7. Mikkelsen (Skoda) – 6pts
8. Lefebvre (Citroen) – 6pts (2+4 PS)
9. Neuville (Hyundai) – 5pts (0+5 PS)
10. Kopecky (Skoda) – 4pts
Manufacturers – Top 4:
1. M-Sport World Rally Team – 40pts
2. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC – 24pts
3. Hyundai Motorsport – 20pts
4. Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT – 10pts