Here comes the new WRC. This year is special in many ways. In 1973, FIA gathered all individual rallies and organized International Championship for Manufacturers, called IMC. The 50-year-old WRC marks a new chapter in history with its very first hybrid rally this year.
The Rally One, which is the brand-new version of the current World Rally Car, has changed a lot from before. Adding a motor to the current 1.6L turbo engine, the rally became ‘hybrid’. A package containing a 100 kW (134 hp) motor, a 3.9 kWh battery, and a control unit is housed right in front of the rear axle of every rally car. The center differential has been removed, the bodyweight has been increased to 1,260 kg, and a few aerodynamic parts and suspension have been simplified to reduce costs. Instead, the instant output is a maximum of 500 horsepower (currently 380 horsepower), which offsets these shortcomings.
Another difference is the chassis. Instead of reinforcing mass-produced monocoques, now the rally cars use steel pipe space frame underneath the body – just like those in Group B used to. Still, they must look like ordinary mass-produced cars.
Hyundai Motorsport introduced the i20 N WRC Rally One featuring a third-generation design. Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak are currently the most powerful top two drivers in the WRC. Their number of stage wins is a total of 29 wins (Neuville 15, Tanak 14). Although they are still behind the 8-time champion Sebastien Ogier or the nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb, these competitors now only participate in a few rounds – which makes them not a threat to winning the championship. Hyundai Team’s third car is shared by Dani Sordo and Oliver Solberg. Solberg, the rising star, participated in the opening round, and Sordo finished training in his rally car in several races last year.
Manager Andrea Adamo left the Hyundai team at the end of last year. A number of ‘big guts’ have been talked about as a successor, but nothing has been announced yet. For now, the president of Hyundai Motorsport Seung-Wook Noh, currently the acting director, and the managers of each department are leading the team.
Toyota, Elfyn Evans/Kalle Rovanpera, and Ogier/Takamoto Katsuta were in their GR Yaris. Ogier, who won his eighth Driver’s Championship title last year, has announced his retirement and only plays in a few rounds this season; And Esapekka Lappi, the team’s new driver, will drive for him.
The M-Sport Ford now became a better Works team as Ford ramps up its investments. The rally car will be the CUV Puma instead of the current Fiesta. The team now has more rally cars for newly hired Craig Breen, Adrien Fourmaux, and Gus Greensmith – plus, for the veteran/part-time driver Sebastien Loeb at the opening round. Next to Loeb was the female co-driver Isabelle Galmiche, on behalf of his long-time partner Daniel Elena, who has now retired.
This season’s opening round is held in Monte-Carlo, as always. There is not enough land in Monaco, a sovereign city-state, to build all the rally stages; so most of the rallies take place in French territory nearby, except for the opening round, awards ceremony, and some Special Stages. The road surface is basically tarmac, but the cold in January makes the mountain roads icy, snowy, and wet. Therefore, competitors must choose carefully among soft, super soft, winter tires, and stud/studless tires. Occasionally, some teams come up with an unusual choice of putting different tires on the front and rear, or on the left and right.
This year’s Monte Carlo Rally consists of 17 stages with a total length of 296.03 km. Unlike last year, which was reduced to 14 stages due to Covid-19, the course has been significantly increased. SS2 in particular takes place at night at the Col De Turini – a symbol of the Monte Carlo Rally. This was a rare show that hasn’t been seen since 2013.
After the opening ceremony in front of the Monte Carlo Casino on Thursday evening, participants rushed across the border to Alps-Maritimes in France. The two SS courses are only 38.45km-long but are challenging stages that require driving in deep darkness. In particular, Col De Turini is a challenging course full of tension, going up and down the mountain with continuous hairpins.
The rally was dominated by Loeb and Ogier – the best and the second-best champions – at first. Ogier conquered SS1 and SS2 and took the lead overall, followed by Loeb. On the first day, Evans, Fourmaux, Greensmith, Neuville, Breen, and Tanak finished the first day, respectively. Neuville’s strategy of using both soft and super soft tires did not work well, making him 12.6 seconds behind the lead. Solberg could not listen to the navigation because of his intercom problem and finished 10th on the first day.
On Friday, the drivers went through the 97.86 km-long six Special Stages, driving three stages twice in Mercantour National Park. Normally, they can look after their cars after the morning loop, but this time the drivers and co-drivers have to fix the car themselves before returning to the service park in the evening. A single accident or trouble can completely ruin the game.
On Friday morning, Loeb the veteran took action; Starting with SS3, he has won 4 stages in a row to take the lead. Ogier was 15.8 seconds slower than Loeb in SS5, falling to 3rd overall, and Evans took 2nd place instead. Ford gained momentum with Loeb’s lead, while Formaux’s car was crushed at SS4, and Greensmith’s hybrid system was not working properly. Fourmaux was forced to retire as a result of the accident. The Hyundai team, which performed poorly on the first day, seemed to slowly regain pace; In SS4 and SS5, Neuville and Tanak joined the leading group; Overall, Neuville finished in 4th and Tanak in 6th.
As the morning passed, the temperature rose and the road was drying up quickly. In the afternoon, Greensmith cheered for his first stage win at SS7. At the end of Friday, Loeb maintained the lead, keeping Ogier second. Neuville, who finished Friday in fourth place, narrowed the gap with the lead to 47.8 seconds. Tanak overtook Breen for fifth place.
On Saturday they moved a little further west to the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. There they drove SS9-SS11, 3 stages in the morning, and then went through SS10 and SS11 again. Ogier returned to the lead in SS10, beating Loeb again. But Evans, the fastest on Saturday’s opening stage, went off course at SS11 and ruined his game. Despite the crowd’s help, he was unable to hoist his rally car over the ramp. Thanks to this, as the morning passed, Breen took 3rd place and Neuville took 4th place.
Hyundai faced bad luck, too. Neuville, who didn’t use studded tires on the SS12, was fast on dry roads but slowed down on icy roads. Moreover, a broken suspension mount caused him to waste more than three minutes on the SS12. Tanak, who ran into a wall after dangerously crossing a corner in SS11, managed to finish the stage but had to retire when the coolant broke out.
Ogier was leading the rally at the end of Saturday. It was followed by Ford’s Loeb and Breen. Rovanpera and Greensmith are in 4th and 5th, and Neuville is in 6th, 7 minutes and 44 seconds behind the lead. Exhaust fumes entered Solberg’s car, making him off the course at SS10 and dragging him to the 48th on Saturday. As it was the first rally in which the new technical rules were applied, half of the 10 Rally One contestants were pushed out of the scoring zone due to accidents and troubles. As it was the first rally with the new technical rules, half of the ten Rally One participants couldn’t even score due to accidents and troubles.
On Sunday, everyone returned to Alps-Maritimes to decide the final winner in the 67.26km-long course, repeating two stages each. Ogier took the lead, but he was not safe yet because of Loeb, only 21.1 seconds behind him. Loeb was the fastest on the opening stage, followed by Ogier by just 1.1 seconds. Neuville finally had his moment at SS15 with his first win of the season. Solberg decided to retire after finishing SS14. After Tanak and Solberg retired, all Hyundai has left was Neuville. He lost a lot of time until the previous day, so it was difficult to change his ranking; Instead, he decided to focus on the power stage. For this, he spared a pair of soft tires as long as possible.
The fierce lead fight led to a double pole once again in SS16. Loeb took the lead by 9.5 seconds while Ogier was caught by a flat tire. Besides, Breen is in third place, so it was a great leap forward for the Ford team, which was the weakest until last year. With Breen in third place, the Ford team showed tremendous performance, considering its weakest rank of last year. In the last Power Stage / SS17, Rovanpera was the fastest, with Evans, Neuville, Loeb, and Ogier taking extra points.
The skillful 47-year-old veteran Loeb won the Monte Carlo Rally. It is his eighth Monte Carlo trophy, as well as his first 80 wins in four years since Rally Spain in 2018. Ogier and Breen took the rest of the podium, followed by Rovanpera, Greensmith, and Neuville to finish the opening round. For Hyundai, Neuville, who finished 6th (8 points), took an additional 3 power stage points to get a total of 11 points.
The Monte Carlo Rally was still scary for everyone, suffering from a number of accidents. It is also a disappointing result for the Hyundai team that has faced many obstacles. However, considering the fact that the team won in 2019 and 2020 after they overcame every hardship at the beginning of the season, there is still hope. The second round, Rally Sweden, will be held on February 24-27, moving to Umea in the northeast rather than Karlstad in the south, where there is a chronic snow shortage.
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 ‘otak’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.