WRC 2018 – Season Preview

The photo call ahead of the final round of last season…but who’s going to get their hands on the title this time around? (Photo Credit: wrc.com)

If the idea of cars driving around the same track for lap after lap has put you off motorsport in the past…then you could do a lot worse than take a look at this. Sure, you might hear people say that Formula One is the most spectacular and demanding form of racing in the world, but to be honest, I’d have to disagree with that – while the purpose-built circuits they race on are actually quite safe, what with their tyre barriers and run-off areas, there’s something that little bit more exciting about taking the sport out of its comfort zone and putting it right into the heart of nature, and really…it’s hard to think of any other series that provides the same kind of challenge as the FIA World Rally Championship.

BACKGROUND
Some championships have had me hooked pretty much from day one, but personally, I’ve had a bit of an on-off relationship with the WRC over the years. When I was younger, I used to really enjoy watching it, particularly in the early 2000s when the main British TV channels had reasonably good coverage, but, as the money dried up, the teams began to leave and the fans started to switch off…and I was one of them. However, after a few years of giving it a miss, I decided to give it another try a few years back when some new manufacturers entered the fray, and, although you might not think it if you were to look at the results, I’d argue that the WRC is in the best health it’s been in for quite some time.

I suspect, though, that some of you are probably now thinking that, if the outcome is so predictable, why should I bother watching it at all? Well, for one thing, compared to normal circuit racing – where the only major differences between each individual track are in either the types of corners or the length of the straights – there’s so much more variety when it comes to rallying, both in terms of the nature of the stages themselves and the surrounding environment. Despite the fact there’s only really three main surfaces – tarmac, gravel and snow – each one has its own unique challenges and traits, and it’s not unusual to see the fastest driver, team or car on one surface end up off the pace on another, which (in theory, at least) helps to keep the championship standings close. As well as this, the globetrotting nature of the WRC means it takes in some of the most stunning scenery anywhere in the world, which is definitely an added bonus, and, with each event also offering up its own distinct culture as well…you could hardly ask for much more, could you?

As far as the cars are concerned – well yes, they might be based on ordinary hatchbacks that you or I probably see day in, day out on the road, but, if you scratch beneath the surface, that really doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, the current spec machinery – which was only introduced ahead of the start of last season – is some of the most spectacular the WRC has produced for a long while, and has widely been compared to the now infamous (and, ultimately, far too dangerous) Group B regulations that dominated the sport in the early 1980s. Personally, I love the way these cars look and sound, with more powerful engines and dramatic looking aerodynamic packages making them noticeably quicker out on the stages, and, because the margin for error is smaller than it was in the previous generation of World Rally Cars, the crews have to drive on the limit pretty much all the time, which means there’s more chance of seeing some sizeable shunts, smashes and (on occasion) rolls when they push it that bit too far.


The dominant force of the previous set of regulations, the Volkswagen Polo R WRC, but if you think this looks good, think again…
(Photo Credit: wrc.com)

THE CALENDAR
Having got all that out of the way, it’s now time, really, to focus on the new season, and there’s no better place to start than with the calendar facing the teams in 2018. Despite strong rumours over the winter that new rallies in countries such as Croatia and Chile, as well as previous events in the likes of New Zealand and Japan, would be added to the schedule, there’s actually not been that many changes at all, with the season again comprising of 13 rallies across four different continents. As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t a bad thing for now – after all, there’s really no point bringing in new events before they’re ready to run, as was the case with Rally China a couple of seasons ago – but, if the rumours of shortening rallies from three days to two come to fruition (which I’m also not against), then I don’t see why there can’t be a few more events introduced in the near future.

Following the traditional curtain-raiser on the mountains of Monte Carlo at the end of January, the championship heads off to the snowy forests of Sweden before venturing across the Atlantic to take on the gravel of Mexico and then returning for the first tarmac event of the year in France (which actually takes place on the Mediterranean island of Corsica) at the beginning of April. From there, after making their annual trip to South America and Argentina, the crews face a run of three straight European gravel rallies in the middle part of the season, starting in Portugal in mid-May and taking in the Italian island of Sardinia before finishing on the fearsomely fast forest roads of Finland at the end of July. The final part of the season, though, sees perhaps the biggest changes, with the second true tarmac event in Germany – which has been relocated slightly for 2018 – being followed by a welcome return to the gravel of Turkey in mid-September (which takes the place of Poland on the calendar after the latter was removed on safety grounds), while the iconic Rally GB swaps places with the mixed-surface event in Spain before the year comes to a climax on the eastern coast of Australia in the middle of November.

Full Calendar (including Rally HQ location)

  1. Rally Monte Carlo (22nd-25th January) – Gap
  2. Rally Sweden (15th-18th February) – Torsby
  3. Rally Mexico (8th-11th March) – Leon
  4. Tour de Corse/Rally France (5th-8th April) – Bastia
  5. Rally Argentina (26th-29th April) – Villa Carlos Paz
  6. Rally Portugal (17th-20th May) – Matosinhos
  7. Rally Italy/Sardinia (7th-10th June) – Alghero
  8. Rally Finland (26th-29th July) – Jyvaskyla
  9. Rally Germany (16th-19th August) – Bostalsee
  10. Rally Turkey (13th-16th September) – Marmaris
  11. Rally Great Britain (4th-7th October) – Deeside
  12. Rally Spain (25th-28th October) – Salou
  13. Rally Australia (15th-18th November) – Coffs Harbour

THE TEAMS AND DRIVERS
M-SPORT FORD WORLD RALLY TEAM (Ford Fiesta WRC)
For the second year in succession, there was huge speculation during the winter as to whether the defending champions would even be taking part this season, but Ford’s decision to commit more support to Malcolm Wilson’s team – albeit stopping short of a fully-fledged works operation – means the #1 is back on the side of the Fiesta for 2018, with all-conquering Frenchman Sebastien Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia going for a sixth straight drivers’ crown. After finally taking their first WRC victory on home soil last season, Welshman Elfyn Evans and co-driver Daniel Barritt have been retained for a second year back at the sport’s top level, with experienced Frenchman and Monte Carlo specialist Bryan Bouffier taking the wheel of the third car for the season opener alongside co-driver Jerome Degout before handing over to young Finn Teemu Suninen – widely regarded as one of the sport’s hottest young properties – and co-driver Mikko Markkula for the majority of the season as the pair step up from the feeder WRC2 category.


Ford Fiesta WRC – will Ogier and the Blue Oval be able to hold onto their crown in 2018?
(Photo Credit: wrc.com)

HYUNDAI SHELL MOBIS WORLD RALLY TEAM (Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC)
At times last year, it looked as though the Korean manufacturer had both the potential and the speed to pull the rug from under Ogier’s feet, and, despite ultimately coming up short in the final standings, it’s no surprise that Belgian star Thierry Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul – who won more rallies than anybody else in 2017 on their way to finishing runner-up in the championship – are back to lead their attack in the second year for the new i20 Coupe. After cobbling together a bit-part campaign of WRC2 outings and the odd appearance for Citroen before joining Hyundai for the final few events last season, Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen makes a welcome full-time return to the sport alongside co-driver Anders Jaeger, while the team’s third car will be shared equally between veteran Spaniard Dani Sordo – who reunites with former co-driver Carlos del Barrio for the first time since 2013 – and New Zealander Hayden Paddon and new co-driver Sebastian Marshall, although the team will expand to four cars in Portugal to allow both crews to compete.


Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC – can the Korean manufacturer go one better than they did last year?
(Photo Credit – wrc.com)

TOYOTA GAZOO RACING WORLD RALLY TEAM (Toyota Yaris WRC)
Having been absent from the stages since way back in 1999, it was a solid first season back at the top level for the Japanese marque, and, although the dramatic-looking Yaris wasn’t always bang on the pace on every event, it was a no-brainer for the team to retain the services and raw speed of team leader Jari-Matti Latvala and co-driver Mikka Anttila, with the pair now the most experienced crew in the WRC as they head into their 12th season at the top level. In what was arguably the biggest driver move of the off-season, Estonian Ott Tanak and co-driver Martin Jarveoja make the switch from being under Ogier’s shadow at M-Sport despite an impressive 2017 campaign that saw them finish third in the championship, finally breaking their duck in the process with victories in both Italy and Germany, while young Finn Esapekka Lappi – who stunned everyone when he took his maiden WRC win on home soil last year in what was just his fourth start in the main category after stepping up from WRC2 – returns to complete their line-up alongside regular co-driver Janne Ferm.


Toyota Yaris WRC – can the Japanese team become a real force in their second season back?
(Photo Credit – wrc.com)

CITROEN TOTAL ABU DHABI WORLD RALLY TEAM (Citroen C3 WRC)
For a team that’s enjoyed so much success in recent times in the sport, it’s fair to say last season was tough for the French manufacturer as they struggled to make their brand-new C3 competitive on a regular basis, but, having led much of the car’s development in 2016, it’s no surprise the team have continued with Northern Irishman Kris Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle for a fifth year, with the pair taking victories in both Mexico and Spain last season. However, perhaps the biggest story of the winter is the return of former nine-time world drivers’ champion Sebastien Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena, with the Frenchman schedule to take part in three rallies before handing the car over to Irishman Craig Breen and co-driver Scott Martin for the majority of the season, while, despite scaling back to just two full-time entries, Norwegian Mads Ostberg and new co-driver Torstein Eriksen will return to the team for the first time since 2015 for what is currently a one-off outing in Sweden, with more appearances possible for the pair during the season.


Citroen C3 WRC – will the new season signal a return to form for the French manufacturer?
(Photo Credit: wrc.com)

Outside the main championship, there’s plenty of future stars to look out for in the equally competitive WRC2 category, which runs to the more standard Group R regulations – Swede Pontus Tidemand (who I think was incredibly unlucky to miss out on a promotion to the WRC this time around) returns to defend his title as part of a five car attack from Skoda with their Fabia R5, but with team-mates like talented Norwegian Ole Christian Veiby and 17 year-old Finnish sensation Kalle Rovanpera shaping up to try and depose him, it’s certainly not going to be easy. There’ll be plenty of Fords in the field, too, with former M-Sport WRC driver Eric Camilli and ex-Hyundai development driver Kevin Abbring likely to be competitive, as will Citroen’s young Frenchman Stephane Lefebvre as he steps back from the WRC to lead the development of the new C3 R5, while Hyundai, Proton and Volkswagen – the latter returning for the first time since the ‘Dieselgate’ emissions scandal forced the withdrawal of their championship-winning WRC team at the end of 2016 – all have new cars that are scheduled to join later in the year.

PREDICTIONS
Sure, you’ve got to go a fair way back in the archives to find the last time the drivers’ championship wasn’t won by a Frenchman called Sebastien – for the record, it was 14 years ago when Norwegian Petter Solberg claimed his only world title for Subaru back in 2003 before Loeb and then Ogier took over at the top – but, personally, I genuinely think this could be the year that run finally gets brought to an end.
From what I saw last season, the Hyundais looked as though they were the fastest package out there, and, with drivers of the calibre of Neuville and a refreshed and fired-up Mikkelsen – who I’m sure will be desperate to show other teams that they were wrong to overlook him after Volkswagen’s surprise exit saw him left out in the cold – in their corner, it wouldn’t be a surprise to me if either (or perhaps even both) managed to get the better of the reigning champion in 2018. However, although I’m far from Ogier’s biggest fan, it’s hard to argue with the fact that what he achieved last season after being almost forced into the Fiesta at the 11th hour showed just what a class act he is behind the wheel, and his combination of speed, consistency and championship-winning know-how means, even with the threat of the i20s, he probably still starts as slight favourite to take home that sixth successive title.

The Toyotas, too, are certainly going to be competitive, but, if you ask me, I’d say they’re still a season or two away from being able to mount a genuine title push – Latvala is undoubtedly quick, but his tendency to overdrive the car sometimes and push it beyond its limits could again be his Achilles heel that stops him winning the championship, while, despite pushing Ogier harder than many people expected at M-Sport in 2017, new stable-mate Tanak’s chances really depend on how quickly he can get up to speed with the Yaris. And what of Citroen? Well, they’re already at a bit of a disadvantage by running two full-time cars compared to three elsewhere, but I still think Meeke has the speed to force his way into contention if the team have been able to fix the gremlins that plagued their car for the majority of its first season, although, at the age of 38 and with his contract due to expire at the end of the year, this might be the Northern Irishman’s last chance of WRC glory.
Of the rest, Evans is probably the only other driver likely to have a genuine shot at the title, particularly after finally taking his first victory at the top level last year, but, with the defending champion as his team-mate, I can’t help but think that the Welshman may be forced into playing more of a supporting role for the team this time around rather than going for overall honours himself. Breen, too, might well be one to watch on his selected outings after what was a solid 2017 campaign with Citroen (if you ask me, he should be doing the full season rather than sharing his seat with Loeb); the shared entries, such as Sordo and Paddon’s at Hyundai, could be crucial in terms of the manufacturers’ title, while, for the likes of Lappi and Suninen, this is an ideal opportunity to show just how good they are and prove that they deserve a place in the WRC long-term.

So, that’s what I think, but I also want to hear from you as well, so feel free to comment either here or over on Facebook (search Straight from the Motormouth and give it a like) with your thoughts on how the season’s shaping up, or even cast a vote in the poll below as to who you think is going to be the champion. If you’ve stuck with this right the way through, thank you so much – although I’d like to say that my posts aren’t all going to be this long, I can’t promise anything! – and hopefully you like what you’ve read!

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