The Hyundai World Rally Team successfully ended the 2019 WRC season last November with the manufacturer championship in hand. It was the team’s first manufacturer championship ever, but with the driver championship gone Toyota’s way, the partial success left the team thirsty for complete domination.
The Hyundai Team’s mission this year is to satisfy that thirst—the double championship in both the driver and the manufacturer category. To that end, the team has been busy in the short, two-month-long offseason. Ott Tanak, the reigning driver champion of the 2019 season, has been signed onto the team. The remaining stars in the roster, Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo, and the 9-time WRC champion and legend Sebastien Loeb, prepared diligently for the new season with Tanak in the fold.
With Citroen announcing its exit from the competition at the end of the 2019 season, many teams underwent roster shuffles. Sebastien Ogier, the 6-time consecutive WRC champion who succeeded Loeb’s dominant run, left Citroen to join the Hyundai Team’s rival Toyota Team. Ford’s Elfyn Evans also moved to Toyota. The Toyota Team also signed the 2019 WRC-2 driver champion Kalle Rovanpera to fill out its completely revamped roster. Meanwhile, Ford extended Teemu Suninen and signed Citroen’s Esappeka Lappi. The WRC-2 star Gus Greensmith also joined Ford and will take the wheel in nine rallies for the team.
2020 WRC is also noteworthy for introducing new rally venues. France, Spain, and Australia are out, to be replaced by Kenya, New Zealand, and Japan, marking the total number of rallies at 14. But political turmoil in Chile resulted in the cancellation of the Rally Chile, and similar to the last season, when the Australian Rally was canceled due to massive forest fire, this season will have a total of 13 rallies. But thanks to the additions of Kenya, New Zealand, and Japan, this season will mark the first time in 48 years of competition history in which all six continents are represented.
The 2020 season’s opening rally in Monte Carlo was held for four days from January 23rd to 26th. The total distance traveled by the teams during that time was 1505.64 km, with 304.28 km allotted for the actual 16 stages in which the racers vied for the championship.
Hosting its 88th rally this year, Rally Monte Carlo is the longest-tenured WRC rally that began in 1911. Held during winter in mountainous ranges located in the foothills of Alps, the rally requires drivers to quickly adapt to fast-changing surface conditions (dry, wet, frozen, snow-covered, etc.) and thus tends to favor experienced drivers.
Basically, the rally cars’ settings are fixed for tarmac (paved roads). But due to frequent appearances of snow and ice, the selection of the tires is paramount. In short, all-arounder rally cars and maximal focus of the drivers are prerequisites to winning at this challenging course.
The Hyundai Team sent Thierry Neuville, Sebastien Loeb, and Ott Tanak to Monte Carlo to open the season. As the reigning manufacturer champion, the team received more attention than ever, and the driver’s resolute faces reflected the high expectations the team set for itself.
The first day of the rally had two stages encompassing 43 km in distance. The hero of the day was Neuville. In the SS2, he blew by the competition by leaving a record that was more than 25 seconds faster than that of any of his competitors. His first victory at Monte Carlo seemed very much likely at that point.
But as usual, the rally brought its unpredictable hardship. The second day of the rally, the 24th, had six stages spanning 123 kilometers, the largest distance required of all rally dates. The day’s opening stage, the SS3, had the intermittent appearance of ice throughout the tracks, making the course particularly difficult for all drivers. At one point, Tanak spun and briefly stumbled, but soon regained his poise to stay within 10 seconds of the leading car.
But during the SS4, Tanak had a major accident. While zooming by with the speed near 180 km/h, his rally car slipped off the road and fell straight down the slope, causing the rally car to roll several times. Luckily, Tanak and his co-driver Martin Jarveoja could leave the car on their own, unscathed. The i20 Coupe WRC Race Car’s sturdy body had prevented physical damage to the drivers.
In the meantime, the Toyota Team was taking advantage and was challenging the Hyundai Team’s lead. On the Friday morning, Elfyn Evans achieved consecutive fastest records and seized the lead. On the afternoon stages, his teammate Sebastien Ogier dominated, pushing Neuville to third behind Evans and Ogier. Neuville showed discomfort at the unpredictability of the ice-covered course and, at one point, was seen discussing his rally car settings and strategy with the team crew and teammate Dani Sordo.
On the third day of the rally (the 25th), Neuville started to regain his torrid pace. He won three out of four stages of the day, closing in on the lead. Still, Toyota’s Evans-and-Ogier duo was holding a shallow grasp on the top two positions. The results, still too close at this time, were to be determined at the rally’s finale on Sunday the 26th.
On the rally’s final day, Neuville started at third place, 6.4 seconds behind the leading Evans. The leading group, composed of Evans, Ogier, and Neuville in that order, was locked in a fierce competition within a mere seven seconds between them. With only four stages and 64 km left, Neuville was still within striking distance of the lead, but there were justifiable concerns that the results of the last year’s Rally Monte Carlo, where Neuville finished second to Ogier in a mere 2.2 seconds difference, may repeat.
But as if he had something to prove, Neuville dispelled those concerns swiftly and with determination. In the wet-and-icy course of the SS13, Neuville dominated and finished 6.2 and 5 seconds ahead of Ogier and Evans, respectively, rising to second place. In the subsequent SS14, Neuville similarly finished over five seconds ahead of the Toyota duo and finally took the overall lead.
Meanwhile, Sebastien Loeb was showing his trademark composure in fourth place. In the SS14, he slipped and nearly retired off-course, but his rally car stopped inches short of the downward slope, and he could return to the rally with the gallery’s help. But given the damage suffered to the tire, it seemed unlikely that he would finish strong.
Neuville, though, finished with the fastest record in the Sunday’s afternoon stages and further increased the gap between himself and the Toyota duo. He came in first during the final power stage as well, meaning that he added 30 points to the team’s tally, the maximum total points by a single driver (25 + 5 power stage points). With that, Neuville took the lead for the driver championship as well.
Due to the unfortunate consequences in his tire selection the last day, Loeb was overtaken by Ford’s Lappi and Toyota’s Rovanpera, finishing 6th overall. But his finish added valuable points to the team’s manufacturer point tally: with 35 points in total, the Hyundai Team finished 2 points ahead of the Toyota Team’s 33 points and took the early lead for the manufacturer championship as well.
The final results of Rally Monte Carlo had Neuville in first, with the record of 3:10:57.6, Ogier in second with 3:11:10.2, and Evans in third with 3:11:11.9. Loeb, in sixth place, finished with the record of 3:16:02.3.
The Hyundai Team’s quest for double championship began on a high note with an auspicious win in Monte Carlo. With early leads in both categories, the team’s championship run seems full of promise. The team showed poise in conquering the notoriously icy and unpredictable roads of Monte Carlo, once again proving not only the excellence of the i20 Coupe WRC rally car but also the team’s status as the best among the best.
With a torrid start to the promising 2020 season, what awaits the Hyundai Team next? The next rally occurs in Torsby, Sweden, from February 13th. Quite literally “dashing through the snow”, the drivers will run through Sweden’s picturesque snowy fields in the only WRC rally occurring on snow-covered roads. Granted, Rally Monte Carlo had a bit of snow, but its intermittent occurrences are nothing like Torsby’s roads that are completely covered. It’s another challenge for the Hyundai Team, but given the resolve it showed in Monte Carlo, we might just be able to expect another victory in Sweden as well.