January is a bleak month at the best of times. Fortunately for rallying, there is one event that provides an annual relief from the realities of a long winter.
But as we move ever closer to the World Rally Championship’s curtain-raiser whether it actually runs remains anyone’s guess.
And with Covid-19 threatening the WRC’s most cherished event, it is beginning to feel like rallying’s current predicament is getting worse rather than better.
Now that I have offloaded the dark shadows creating this tunnel-like atmosphere I’ll get to what I originally meant to write about. Could 2021 be the most exciting season the WRC has had in 20 years?
When you turn the lights off on possible disruptions “the virus” might bring, this year has all the ingredients for a perfect championship recipe.
New rounds; four, no, five championship contenders; and two heavily invested teams, ready to face-off for the manufacturers’ crown.
After all, what more could one want?
One thing we learned from 2020 was just how much value previously untouched rallies can bring to the world championship. While Rally Estonia proved to be much more than a Rally Finland warm-up, Rally Monza disproved many doubters with its season-ending thriller.
This year, Estonia is joined by Croatia, Kenya, Japan, possibly Lapland, and the recently announced, Ypres Rally.
If Estonia and Monza were the basis of resurrecting last year’s championship, its successor with potentially five fresh rally routes will lift the challenge to towering heights.
Croatia, Japan, and Ypres would add a taste of asphalt to WRC’s gravel-based calendar. All three would test the top crews in their own way.
The long-awaited return to Kenya’s Safari Rally will be another step into the unknown for competitors. Plus an Arctic Lapland Rally finally offers those perfect winter conditions.
The potential of five new rallies in a 12-round championship brings a completely new element to the WRC. It reduces the advantage that any of the longest-serving crews have and levels the playing field for budding superstars like Kalle Rovanpera.
Or does the experience gained by the well-travelled always shine through in the end? After all, Sebastien Ogier once again landed on his feet during the unknowns of Rally Monza.
Either way, there will be a few spare pencils required for the co-drivers in 2021. Those recces will be busy and the spectacles and storylines will be all the better for it.
Rally fans have been blessed over the past four years. At the start of each season, there have been at least three genuine title contenders.
12 months ago, 2020 was going to be another showdown between Ogier, Ott Tanak, and Thierry Neuville. Then, Elfyn Evans shimmied himself right into the mix. Only for a treacherous afternoon of winter driving in northern Italy, the Welshman could have easily been tackling this year’s Monte-Carlo Rally with the number one on his door.
We were spoiled with three championship challengers, now we have four. And it is completely possible we’ll be looking back in six months with five drivers gunning for the WRC crown.
I eluded to the fifth earlier, Rovanpera, who finished his debut WRC season just seven points behind fourth-placed Neuville.
Toyota’s young Finn wasted no time to state his intent last year when he snatched a Rally Sweden podium from his champion team-mate, Ogier. But perhaps an even greater sign of Rovanpera’s potential came on the WRC’s return from lockdown – Rally Estonia.
If you scan through the highlights of 2020 it’s easy to miss one of Rovanpera’s best performances of the year. He finished the rapid rollercoaster of a rally in fifth but had it not been for a simple breach of parc ferme rules he was destined for another podium finish. In fact, if you discount his one-minute penalty he was on course to finish second.
Ifs and buts don’t make world champions but with several new events facing the crews, potentially including a certain Finnish winter rally won by Rovanpera last year, it does remove some familiarity, which plays into Rovanpera’s super quick hands.
Ogier, Tanak, Evans, Neuville, and Rovanpera. They all have their unique traits. Some have been there and done it; some still have plenty to prove. One thing they all have in common, they will be gunning for glory from 2021’s first stage countdown until the season’s final control.
Hyundai v Toyota
Unfortunately, the current state of the world has now wedged a gap between M-Sport and its two rivals Hyundai and Toyota. While it will be intriguing to see how drivers like Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux perform in promoted positions, it is a far cry from M-Sport’s magnificent title-winning season in 2017.
The WRC’s manufacturers’ battle has become a straight shootout between two big-budget teams.
Despite two Toyota drivers duelling for the drivers’ title in Monza last month, it was Hyundai who sneaked the manufacturers’ title by a mere five points.
Both teams field familiar line-ups in 2021, ready for a battle as fierce as ever.
Hyundai has two of the most capable rally-winners in Tanak and Neuville. But it is the third driver that has proved to be Hyundai’s real ace card.
Craig Breen and Dani Sordo share the final seat. With the benefit of desirable road positions they offer relentless point-scoring and rally-winning potential.
In contrast, Toyota’s three drivers will compete on every round and while they miss out on any elusive head starts, they do gain from assurity.
Ogier has just ticked off his seventh world title, Evans is the man of the moment, and Rovanpera is ready to record some rally wins.
Hyundai and Toyota are two teams with unbelievable strength in depth. The disappearance of other manufacturers means the world’s best rally drivers now fit in a compact battle between the Korean and Japanese car-makers.
And we better not forget about their team principals – Jari-Matti Latvala and Andrea Adamo. We really are in for a treat this year.
So, as we fret over the potential hits rallying may still take courtesy of coronavirus just remember what an awesome season is in store.
Rallying offers year-long competition like no other. There is so much about this season that could make it one of the best in a very long time.
Now, we wait for that annual curtain-raiser.
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Photos courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool