The 2023 WRC, celebrating the second year of Rally 1, began with the Monte Carlo Rally. Despite being a small city-state next to the Mediterranean Sea, Monaco is home to two world-class motorsport events: the jewel of F1, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the 110-year-old Monte Carlo Rally. The headquarter and service park were also set up this year at Port Hercules, adjacent to the Monaco Grand Prix course. The marina, lined with luxurious yachts, boasts a uniquely splendid and beautiful scenery.
The Monte Carlo Rally started in 1911 and boasts the longest history among the current WRC calendars. At first, it was a Concentration Run – departing from various parts of Europe and gathering in Monaco – so it looked very different from what it is now. About 100 years ago, flimsy cars had to drive thousands of kilometers from Minsk, Belarus, Warsaw, Poland and Glasgow, Scotland. Compared to then, the roads these days are very smooth, the courses are shorter, and the cars are brilliantly enhanced.
Nevertheless, the Monte Carlo Rally is still the most demanding event in the WRC. The difficult corners winding around the Alps are covered in snow and ice in places, and the ever-changing weather makes tire selection little different from gambling. The story is the same for the night stage on the first day. It is called ‘Night of the Long Knives’ because the afterimages left by the lamps in the dark look like dancing knives. Several stages have moved slightly south this year. The number of stages is 18, one more than last year. The combined distance of the stages also increased to 325.02 km.
Hyundai Motorsport celebrated its 10th anniversary of returning to the WRC this year. Since the Tiburon in the 2L WRC in 1998, in 2000 Hyundai completed its rally car, the Accent (Verna in the Korean market), after collaborating with British MSD (Motorsports Development). Although it retired after three seasons, the automaker did not stop challenging. In 2012, Hyundai Motorsport GmbH was established in Alzenau, Germany, and began to develop its own rally cars. And after returning in 2014, the team won two consecutive Manufacturers’ Championships in 2019 and 2020.
Beyond the hybrid drivetrain, the Rally 1 regulations established last year made several major changes – simplifying the aerodynamic design, for example. Because of this, many rally cars had to suffer from a lack of front downforce. Now in its second year of Rally 1, this year has been meticulously refined to address issues found last year; First of all, the front of the i20 N Rally 1 Hybrid was made sharper, and the shape of the air splitter under the headlamp was also slightly wider. Also, the softly curved front fender line slopes into a steeply angled straight line. In addition, a lot of effort was put into securing the downforce in the front of the car, such as trimming the support of the side mirror in the form of a wing. The shape of the rear wing has also changed a lot.
While Hyundai Team reorganized its driver team, and announced the appointment of Cyril Abiteboul to the role of Team Principal of Hyundai Motorsport. Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo, who had been with the Hyundai team since 2014, kept their seats, and recruited Esapekka Lappi and Craig Breen.
Still the team’s ace, Neuville won Monte Carlo in 2020 and finished third in the championship with two wins last season. Spanish veteran Sordo once considered retiring, but changed his mind by renewing his contract with the Hyundai team. Although he had relatively little experience with the new Rally 1 car, having only competed in five races last year, he nevertheless finished on the podium three times (three third places) and placed eighth overall.
Taking the place of Tanak, Lappi is a Finnish driver born in 1990. He made his 2017 debut and built his career at Toyota and Citroen, etc. Last year, he competed in seven races for Toyota and finished ninth in the championship. Breen, an Irishman, is relatively well known as he was on the Hyundai team from 2019-2021. After transferring to M-Sport Ford last year for a full-season race, he will return to the Hyundai team and share the third car with Sordo. Last year he marked 7th place. Neuville, Lappi and Sordo took their cars for this Monte Carlo Rally.
Sordo, who participated in the opening race for the first time in two years, said, “Rallye Monte-Carlo is a difficult event, but now it is based more around Monaco and the south of France it may be a little bit better in terms of the weather. It is always a challenge due to the conditions; normally it is cold and you have the potential for ice, especially first thing in the morning. As a result, in the course of one stage you can come across so many different levels of grip on the tarmac, so it is very demanding. However, we need to be a little bit closer to the rally to see what the weather will do and understand what we are going to face on the stages. Overall, I really like Monte-Carlo and its stages, so hopefully we can perform well and begin the year with a positive result.”
After winning the championship title two seasons in a row, Toyota kept their entry list unchanged, including defending champions Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans, Sébastien Ogier and Takamoto Katsuta. kept Veteran Ogier has eight Monte Carlo Rally trophies alone. The biggest difference among the Toyota drivers this year is the change of Katsuta to the original team. Previously, it belonged to a separate team called Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG. Among the four Toyota drivers for the opening race, Rovanperä, Evans and Ogier joined the entry and scored championship points.
Another Rally 1 force, Team Ford, has completely changed their driver list. Ott Tänak and Pierre-Louis Loubet from Hyundai will compete as full-time drivers. However, the number of Rally 1 cars was reduced to two, probably because they spent a lot to recruit Tanak. Still, Jourdan Serderidis from Greece participated in the opening as an individual.
Thursday evening, January 19th. After a grand opening ceremony in the plaza in front of the Monaco Casino, the drivers drove straight north. In SS1 (La Bollène – Vésubie – Col de Turini) and SS2 (La Cabanette – Col de Castillon), which started after sunset, competitors must run in darkness with no streetlights. In particular, the 24.9km-long SS2 is the longest stage in this event.
Ogier, who was fastest during the test drive, led the season by finishing top in the opening round. Also in SS2 he was fastest, finishing their first day in the order of Evans, Tanak, Neuville, Rovanpera, Sordo, Loubet and Lappi. There was black ice in the hairpin section of SS2, which was not there during the recce (an activity when the racers get to scout the roads before the event for getting pace notes), which made many drivers nervous. Neuville’s car also slipped, but managed to get back into the race.
On Friday, January 20th, drivers traveled west to compete for speed on the 105.34km-long SS3 to SS8 section, which repeated three stages. There is no service at lunchtime, so once drivers leave in the morning, they can’t get help from the team mechanic until the evening. Especially on the day’s opening stage, SS3 (Roure – Roubion – Beuil), they have to start at 800m above sea level and climb to 1,678m. Ogier widened the gap to his contenders by winning all three stages in the morning despite having hybrid problems on SS4. Unlike most of his rivals with two spare tires, he only took one and proved he was right. Evans followed closely, but lost 40 seconds due to a flat tire on SS5 and fell back to 5th overall. Meanwhile, the Hyundai team struggled to find an appropriate setting. Neuville started Friday in 4th place, finished 3rd in SS4 and then moved up to 2nd in SS5. Sordo and Lappi marked 6th and 7th places.
Even in the afternoon, most of the top spots on the stage were Toyota drivers. In SS6, Rovanpera pushed Neuville by 0.4 seconds to move up to second place. At the end of Friday, Ogier led, with Rovanpera in second, 36 seconds behind him, and Neuville in third, 1.9 seconds behind him. Tanak and Evans placed 4th and 5th, and Sordo, Katsuta, and Lappi placed 6th to 8th. Besides Loubet, who had problems with the power steering, the Ford team also had Serderidis away from the lead by more than 10 minutes, leaving Tanak as their only hope.
On Saturday, January 21st, the 111.78km-long section was a repeat of three historical stages familiar to rally fans. And Toyota drivers prevailed on this day as well. In the morning, Rovanpera and Ogier split the top time, and Neuville caught SS12 and SS13, sparking the chase. On the opening stage SS9 (Le Fugeret / Thorame-Haute) Loubet hit the ice and broke his rear suspension. With no lunch service and his car beyond repair, he slamed into retirement during the day. Tanak and Evans battled hard for fourth place behind Neuville. At the end of Friday, Tanak led by 8.1 seconds, but was unable to resolve a power steering problem and fell back to fifth. Lappi’s performance got better, but a flat tire on SS12 put him away from Sordo again. Meanwhile, Sordo couldn’t keep pace because his hybrid system wasn’t working properly.
As of Saturday’s end, Ogier was still in the lead – still with 16 seconds to spare, even with Rovanpera chasing hard. Neuville in third is 16 seconds behind Rovanpera, and Evans in fourth is 24.5 seconds behind him. Tanak’s time difference with Evans widened to 10.8 seconds due to power steering problems. Katsuta was ranked 6th, while Sordo and Lappi were ranked 7th and 8th.
Sunday, January 22nd was the final leg to decide the winner of the opening round – the 67.88km-long SS15 to S18 with two courses repeated twice. SS16 (La Bollène-Vésubie / Col de Turini) is the same course as SS1 on Thursday night: but during the day. The 15.12km La Bollène-Vésubie – Col de Turini, SS16 and SS18, is one of the iconic stages of the Monte Carlo Rally, with steep slopes and endless sharp corners. Ogier came one step closer to winning by conquering SS15 and SS17. Rovanpera caught up to the finish but couldn’t get past him. Neuville looked to secure a third place. All that was left was the final SS18, which was also the power stage.
Things didn’t change until the end. Ogier won easily and became the crown jewel of Monte Carlo, the opening round. Ogier, who has eight WRC championship titles, is no longer a full-time driver and therefore has no prospect of adding more titles, but his winning record has risen to 56. That’s less than Sebastien Loeb’s 80 wins, but no driver has won the Monte Carlo Rally more times than Ogier (nine times). Ogier had won the WRC eight times (2014-2019, 2021 and 2023) and the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) in 2009 when Monte Carlo was not on the WRC calendar.
Rovanpera came in second, and Neuville in third; Neuville survived the dominance of the Toyota drivers to finish third and finally to the podium. Evans, who performed well in the beginning, finished in 4th place due to a flat tire. And Tanak, who suffered from power steering trouble, finished in 5th place. Katsuta placed 6th, while Sordo and Lappi placed 7th and 8th. Rovanpera, Tanak, Evans, Neuville, and Ogier earned extra points on the Power Stage.
In the WRC2 class, Nikolai Gryazin and Yohan Rossel battled for the win until the very end. The gap between the two cars on Sunday morning was only 10 seconds. But on Saturday, Nikolay Gryazin’s car with a flat tire was given a five-second time penalty for fully leaving the road on SS14. And as a result, Rossel became the winner by 0.5 seconds. Third place was Pepe Lopez driving the Hyundai i20 N Rally 2. Pepe Lopez in his Hyundai i20 N Rally 2 marked third.
Suffering from problems with finding optimal settings and hybrid trouble issues, the Hyundai team began the season with slightly disappointing results – though better than last year. At that time, Neuville stayed in 5th place, with Tanak and Oliver Solberg retiring. Judging from the quick problem-solving they showed at the beginning of the season, many are curious to see how quickly they can catch up in the next round. The second round of the WRC is a snow rally in Sweden and will be held from February 9 to 12, with Neuville, Lappi, and Craig Breen participating.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.