Less than three weeks into 2021, the World Rally Championship has already encountered its first Covid challenge. It was touch-and-go but Rally Monte-Carlo has been given the go-ahead.
WRC keeps its traditional opener but it will be a different Rally Monte-Carlo from its previous 88 editions.
2021 will be the event’s shortest-ever route with 14 stages totalling 257 competitive kilometres, almost 50 km less than last year. Crews won’t have a shakedown to prepare for the opening brace of tests on Thursday which will be run during the day rather than in the dark.
The atmosphere of a night-time Monte-Carlo stage is synonymous with the rally and with government restrictions stopping stage-side spectators it maybe isn’t a traditional championship opener after all.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the importance of Monte-Carlo for every crew’s season ambitions. The fact that the rally is as unique a challenge as it is only fuels the spectacle.
Every year the event offers a new beginning for those striving for success on rallying’s world stage. And perhaps some more than others are focused on the future rather than dwelling on the past.
Elfyn Evans and Scott Martin came tantalisingly close to WRC success in 2020. Indeed they came close to Rally Monte-Carlo success 12 months ago.
The British crew will be hoping to bounce back from a heartbreaking end to their title bid. A controlled season challenge came to a sudden stop on one of Rally Monza’s Monte-like right-handers last December.
If there was an event made to prove it was a transient mistake, Rally Monte-Carlo is the one. Evans’ performance around the southern Alps last year is evidence he can return to the top this weekend.
2020’s Monte-Carlo was the Welshman’s debut drive in the frighteningly fast Toyota Yaris WRC. All eyes were on his seven-time Monte-winning team-mate, Sebastien Ogier, but it was Evans who broke loose to hold the overnight lead with a single day remaining.
Even though his grasp on a first Monte-Carlo victory slipped as Thierry Neuville thundered through Sunday’s four stages to claim the win, it was enough to prove Evans was more than a match for the recognised title contenders.
Speaking to WRC.com after two days of Monte-Carlo testing Evans was focusing on the job now at hand:
“We need to learn from the mistake of Monza going forward. Perhaps Monte-Carlo is the rally to be aware of what happened [in Monza]. Overall we have to put it behind us and focus on doing the best job we can in 2021.”
Evans is not the only driver with a point to prove on the WRC’s season-opener. Pre-event accidents for Ogier and M-Sport’s Gus Greensmith are sharp reminders that the wintry conditions are waiting to bite.
Neuville revealed his surprise split with long-time co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul less than a week before Monte’s first stage. Gilsoul’s replacement, Martijn Wydaeghe, will taste top-tier rallying for the first time not on a pre-event test, nor shakedown, but instead the 20 kilometres of Stage 1, Saint-Disdier – Corps.
Meanwhile, 2019 World Rally Champions Ott Tanak and Martin Jarveoja return to Monte-Carlo following the scariest of accidents 12 months ago.
Such is the sport of rallying that every driver and co-driver starts another season with their own point to prove. Their own battle to overcome.
While Evans’ misfortune on Rally Monza brought the toughest of consequences, his calm demeanor and steely look of concentration will be solely fixed on driving home a result on the 89th edition of Rally Monte-Carlo.
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Photos courtesy of Toyota Motorsport