The 10th round of the season ‒ EKO Acropolis Rally Greece, starting from the ‘City of the Gods’ Athens ‒ was held on the second weekend of September. The historic Acropolis Rally, which began in 1953 and coincided with the inauguration of the WRC in 1973, is famous for being notorious due to its rough roads, thick dust, and high temperatures. Many had missed the Acropolis Rally when it disappeared in 2013, but it came back last year as the most infamous gravel rally in the WRC. The hard soil floor is full of stones, and the more the rally cars run, the more hidden rocks are exposed, threatening the tires and the car body. This allows for additional protection, and teams sometimes raise their cars’ minimum ground clearance in the afternoon.
Perhaps some people complained last year was rather easy; this year’s courses of Acropolis Rally were reorganized, and they’ve become much more demanding. In particular, the 108.31km‒long course held on Friday is a marathon section where no services are allowed, so accidents or breakdowns must be avoided as much as possible. In other words, the driver’s precise control and the rally car’s durability must be supported to complete the race safely. There is a lunch service on Saturdays, but each stage is 20‒30 km long.
Hyundai Motorsport called Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville, and Dani Sordo. Ott Tanak recently jumped to second place in the championship by winning titles in Finland and Belgium. On the other hand, Thierry Neuville has fallen to fourth place by allowing Tanak and Evans to overtake him with an unexpected retirement. For Sordo, who returned after a long absence, it was his third participation of the season, following Portugal and Italy. He stood on the podium (3rd place, two times) with relatively high scores.
Toyota entered Kalle Rovanperä, followed by Elfyn Evans, Esapekka Lappi, and Takamoto Katsuta. Last year’s winner, Rovenpera, is again leading the championship this year; Currently, he is maintaining the gap of 72 points from the rest of his competitors; depending on the result of this match, winning the championship title could become a reality.
For Ford, which has won the most championships in Greece (13 times), the veteran Sébastien Loeb entered the season for the fourth time. “It’s a completely different event now,” said Loeb, who won an overwhelming victory here in 2012, just before his retirement. In addition, Craig Breen, Gus Greensmith, and Pierre‒Louis Loubet entered, and Greek‒born Jourdan Serderidis returned after the safari rally. Adrien Fourmaux, who was injured in Belgium, will not participate this time as his rally car has not yet been repaired.
The Rally headquarters is located in Lamia, a city with a long history. Meanwhile, Thursday’s opening stage was arranged in the capital, Athens. The most eye‒catching thing this year is, by far, the SSS1 at the Olympic Stadium; the 2005‒2006 round will immediately come to mind if you’re a long‒time WRC fan. When the committee decided to use the Olympic main stadium as the WRC stage, some had doubts, but it turned out to be a huge success.
This year, the course length was slightly shortened to 1.95 km, but it was crowded with fans who escaped the Covid‒19 lockdown. On the opening stage, 60,000 spectators cheered up loudly, and Neuville won. 2nd place was surprisingly Teemu Suninen from Hyundai WRC2. Using the i20 N Rally 2, which has an even lower output than Rally 1, he narrowed the gap with Neuville to 0.1 seconds. Sordo and Tanak took 3rd and 4th places, letting Hyundai take 1st ‒ 4th places in the beginning. WRC2 point leader Andreas Mikkelsen smashed into a barrier on departure, breaking the left front suspension.
Immediately after SSS1, the drivers traveled to Corinth in the Peloponnese to spend the night, and on Friday, September 9, they arrived at the gravel stage near the famous tourist spot, Loutraki. On the day’s opening stage, Loutraki, the veteran Loeb was the fastest, Loubet and Tanak in 2nd and 3rd. And in the morning, M‒Sport Ford and Hyundai showed a good pace. Due to visibility problems caused by dirt in Loutraki, the departure interval was increased to 4 minutes from SS3 Harvati.
On this day, the rally car’s durability, driver’s patience, and ability to respond to crises were tested as they had to run for 12 hours without services such as car repairs or parts replacement. Except for the opening, the drivers went through 4 stages out of 6 only once each, so Rovanpera, the first to start, was in charge of cleaning the road all day. Breen, aiming for the podium, was pushed back with a flat tire on the SS4.
The SS5 Dafni has been disappeared since 1995. While Loeb made a mistake, Pierre‒Louis Loubet rose to the overall lead with his first stage win. Esapekka Lappi, who showed good performance, overtook Neuville and rose to 3rd overall. Neuville, who struggled to find his hard tire setting, took the lead and 4th overall by 4.9 seconds, followed by Tanak and Sordo.
Loubet, who showed good pace until the SS6, faced power steering problems on Friday’s final stage, Bauxites. Loeb finished Friday with the overall lead, followed by Loubet, Lappi, Neuville, Sordo, Tanak, Greensmith, Evans, Rovanpera, and Katsuta. Neuville is 16 seconds behind the lead, and Sordo is 22.2 seconds behind. Tanak had a bad record due to a malfunction in the electric motor caused by a hybrid system problem.
On Saturday, the drivers went through six stages of the 147.98km‒long SS8 ‒ SS13, starting with Pyrgos, the longest stage of the rally. The 33.2km‒long SS8 Pyrgos is the second longest section of the season after the 37.24km‒long Amarante stage in Portugal. After fixing the hybrid system, Tanak finished 5th overall with a top time of 25:06.1 in Pyrgos. Neuville, who rose to 2nd overall, chased Loeb, who was leading 19 seconds ahead. However, Loeb retired from the race due to an alternator failure at the first SS9 Perivoli after 2005. Greensmith and Serderidis also had problems, leaving M‒Sports Ford filled with frustration.
Now Neuville led the overall, followed by Tanak, Lappi, and Sordo in fourth. Neuville won back‒to‒back victories in SS10 and SS11, while Tanak allowed Lappi to overtake at SS10 due to differential issues. Rovanpera managed to get out of his cleaning job on Friday, but the pace didn’t come back, and he was even penalized for being late to fix the car.
Sordo was the fastest in SS12 Perivoli, repeating SS9 in the morning. However, a problem occurred with Lappi in 2nd, letting Hyundai take the top three. At the end of Saturday, Tanak was the fastest at SS13 Tarzan. Neuville maintained the overall lead, Tanak placed 2nd, and Sordo placed 3rd, giving Hyundai Team an opportunity to dominate the podium. The gap between Evans and Sordo was 7.1 seconds. Then there were Ford’s Loubet, Breen, and Toyota’s Katsuta, but there still was a big gap.
The race on Sunday, September 11, was important; The all‒new Elatia‒Rengini and Eleftherohori were repeated twice over three stages totaling 45.06 km‒long. In the opening SS14, Tanak was the fastest, and Neuville was second. However, when Evans stopped the car due to turbo problems, all the Toyota rally cars were pushed out of the top position, and the gap between Sordo and 4th overall Loubet widened by about 50 seconds, making the race easier; Now, no one could stop Hyundai.
The trouble was rather within the Hyundai team; Since Tanak is currently the most likely player to overtake Rovanpera on points in the Drivers’ Championship, Hyundai may ask him to let Neuville win. And if the team members can compete freely until the end without the director’s intervention, a puncture or an accident may occur. In the end, Hyundai ordered its drivers to maintain their current rankings, and Tanak kept the same spot in the SS15. Instead, Tanak took the final power stage and earned an additional five points.
As a result, Neuville took his first trophy of the season in his hands. It was also his first personal victory in Greece. In addition, Tanak placed 2nd and Sordo 3rd, and eventually, Hyundai dominated the WRC podium for the first time in team history with 3 consecutive wins (4 wins in total) in the second half of the season. M‒Sport Ford’s Loubet and Breen took 4th and 5th places, respectively, and Toyota’s Katsuta took 6th place. As many major players retired, the rest of the scoring spot was occupied by WRC2 players such as Emil Lindholm and Nikolay Gryazin.
Now Tanak has another chance to take over Rovanpera (207) in the lead, with 154 points in the Drivers’ Championship. Also, in the Manufacturer’s championship, Toyota earned 23 points versus Hyundai swept 48 points; Now, the gap between the two has narrowed to 63 points, which made people anticipate a flip. Competitors now have to cross the ocean to prepare for Round 11, which will take place September 29‒October 2 in Auckland, New Zealand. Rally New Zealand has been gone since 2012 but was scheduled to return in 2020; then, the pandemic delayed this plan by two years. This year’s WRC now has three rounds left ‒ New Zealand, Spain, and Japan.
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.