The World Rally Championship’s second-tier, WRC 2, has caused considerable head-scratching for the past two years. Ever since WRC split Rally2 (R5) cars into two categories, the logic behind the decision has yet to come to fruition.
But does Rally Monte-Carlo’s entry list offer promising signs that the segregation will finally benefit crews in 2021?
The original reason for splitting Rally2 was to increase the number of factory supported drivers (WRC 2) and encourage privateers (WRC 3).
The theory meant well but what actually happened was a drop in factory Rally2 seats and seemingly discouraged privateers.
Last year, a WRC 3 competitor finished as fastest Rally2 crew on six out of the season’s seven rounds. Rather than being acknowledged as the fastest second-tier crew, they were instead winners of WRC’s third tier – a tier given much less coverage than WRC 2 competitors.
Then there is the issue of factory support.
WRC 2’s 2020 runner-up Pontus Tidemand was regularly driving a Skoda Fabia Rally2 with no sign of Skoda’s traditional colours. Meanwhile, WRC 3 regular Oliver Solberg was regularly testing with Skoda in the Czech Republic. Even when Andreas Mikkelsen returned to win WRC 3 on Rally Monza, he did it sporting traditional Skoda colours.
So, how will 2021 be any different?
Firstly, the quantity of WRC 2 entries has increased with eight crews ready to fight for class-honours in Monte-Carlo.
That is three more than 2020’s season-opener while there were only two entries the year before.
An extra three cars isn’t a huge difference but the new entries have given the class a lift in quality. And it’s a lift in quality, spread across all five main Rally2 manufacturers.
Drivers to move up from WRC 3 include Eric Camilli, Marco Bulacia, Solberg, and Mikkelsen. All four were WRC 3 winners in 2020. Their championship upgrade considerably reduces the chances of a WRC 3 crew finishing as highest-Rally2 crew on 2021 events.
In general, it leaves the majority of WRC 3 looking a bit more privateer-like.
The real purpose of the Rally2 segregation is demonstrated best by WRC manufacturers M-Sport and Hyundai. The former utilising up-and-coming Frenchman, Adrien Fourmaux, for the second year running.
Hyundai, meanwhile acquired the services of Solberg in December to partner Ole Christian Veiby in WRC 2 this year. At the time Andrea Adamo inadvertently explained exactly what WRC 2 is about. It can benefit both drivers and manufacturers alike.
“We are confident that both young talents will demonstrate the potential not only of our R5 car initially,” said Hyundai’s team principal. “But also our brand-new Hyundai i20 N Rally2 car which we expect will make its competitive debut mid-season.
“Our Customer Racing department has worked fiercely during this challenging year to produce competitive rally machinery for crews around the world.
“So we are excited to see what our customer cars can do on the world rally stages in 2021 with these ambitious drivers.”
Five Rally2 manufacturers will battle it out on Rally Monte-Carlo’s stages next weekend. Eric Camilli represents Citroen while Skoda and Volkswagen also line up, albeit, in less manufacturer-supported efforts.
If you look down the list of cars and crews any one of the five manufacturers could finish top of the order in Monte-Carlo.
It’s the perfect way to showcase customer cars. Plus it offers a reasonable step into a manufacturer drive when the gulf to today’s World Rally Car is, well, huge.
Does it warrant splitting Rally2 crews into two separate classes?
I’m still unconvinced.
But what I am sure of is that WRC 2 is well worth following this year.
There are at least five drivers that could just as easily be in World Rally Cars but for the moment they’re all in competition to get that elusive shot at a top-tier seat.
At the same time, each manufacturer will be hoping to prove that they have the fastest Rally2 car. After all, it is the most successful level of customer rally car currently on the market.
So as we follow the battle between three WRC teams over the southern Alps next weekend, just remember there will be an even closer encounter between five brands behind. And those cars will be tamed by drivers with ambitions as lofty as those in the big cars out front.
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Photos courtesy of Skoda, Hyundai, and Red Bull Content Pool