Back in the 2020 WRC, Hyundai Motor Company successfully defended the manufacturer’s championship with a dramatic turnaround. The victory was precious after being through numerous ups and downs caused by the COVID 19 pandemic. In the newly coming 2021 WRC, Hyundai’s goal is to defend the manufacturer’s championship and achieve a ‘hat-trick’ that wins three times in a row. Along with that, for the first time ever, the team aims to win the driver’s championship.
The Rallye Monte-Carlo, held annually as the opening race of the WRC, is the oldest rally that began in 1911, marking its 89th anniversary this year. It is also known to be the most demanding of all WRC races. As the rally course is located on the ridge of the Alps, the ever-changing climate shifts the driving environment from time to time.
The Monte Carlo Rally basically houses paved roads (tarmacs), but it is also covered with snow and black ice, making it difficult to predict. Therefore, the tension is inevitable to the extreme than any other race. Of course, each team has the Gravel Crew, which checks the road conditions in advance and establishes a strategy, but it is almost impossible to completely convey information on the road surface that changes every moment. Choosing a tire that can provide the best grip (performance) depending on the road conditions such as snowy roads, ice roads, and paved roads becomes more important than ever. Monte-Carlo is known as a city of gambling; and some jokes say this makes choosing a tire gambling as well.
The fact that the official tire supplier has changed from Michelin to Pirelli starting from this season should also be noted. Accordingly, four types of Pirelli tires were provided for the Monte Carlo Rally: Soft/Super Soft/Snow/Snow (with stud).
In addition to the tire change, Hyundai Team’s main driver Thierry Neuville switched his co-driver from Nicolas Gilsoul, who has been with him for 10 years, to Martin Wydaeghe. Going through the 300 km-long rally relies on the pace notes that the co-driver delivers. This makes the relationship between the driver and the co-driver tremendously important; Neuville is about to start the most demanding rally with his new co-driver.
The 2021 WRC Monte Carlo Rally was held for four days from January 21 to 24. During this period, the total distance each team had to travel reached 1392.88km, of which the teams competed in 14 stages that are 258.49km-long. This season’s Monte Carlo rally has the shortest in history; it has been reduced to 14 stages due to the curfew in France (6 pm to 6 am) to minimize the risk of the COVID 19 pandemic.
The infamous Monte Carlo rally saw its first victim at the first stage. Teemu Suninen of the Ford team couldn’t survive the slippery road and crashed into the mound and rolled down the ditch; the driver and the co-driver escaped safely but had to give up the rest of the schedule after driving the Monte Carlo Rally for only about 20 kilometers. The player who successfully finished the 40km-long race on Thursday was Ott Tanak of the Hyundai Team. Toyota’s rookie Rovanpera followed closely with a 3.3-second difference, followed by Evans (Toyota), Neuville (Hyundai), Ogier (Toyota), and Sordo (Hyundai).
The 105km-long race consisting of five stages held on Friday, the second day of the rally, is the longest of the Monte Carlo rally. And the tire selection is what made each team the most distinguishable; the Hyundai team took 3 pairs of super soft and 3 pairs of stud tires, while the Toyota team took 4 pairs of super soft and 2 pairs of stud tires. Neuville and Tanak at Hyundai Team used stud tires on the rear wheels on the passenger’s side considering the characteristics of the course, and the Toyota team carried the stud tires as a spare and then went through the course with supersoft tires.
Because of this, there was a lot of time loss, such as Tanak and Neuville spinning in turn in SS5. Sordo also seemed to be struggling to control the rally car due to the stud tires in the rear wheel, making the gap with the leader slowly widened. Even in the maintenance time before the SS6, each team chose different tires. The Toyota team began SS6 with two spares, and the Hyundai team with only one. Then there came an outcome; Ogier, who was driving almost perfectly in the morning and leading the race, had a spin and then a flat in the front wheel of the driver’s seat. This cost the team more than 30 seconds, which made the team the third; Tanak took advantage of this and became 2nd. On the other hand, Neuville was behind the lead by more than a minute, getting away from winning the championship.
The participants in the Monte Carlo Rally had to drive through three stages for only about 60 kilometers on Saturday morning, and then they had to travel all the way to Monaco, where they were to compete on Sunday. Saturday’s stage was covered with snow and ice due to the cold temperature of -10 degrees Celsius. So choosing the right tire seemed relatively simple; all teams put studded snow tires. The only difference was that the Hyundai team ran with only one spare to maintain the lead. At this time, no one would have known that this choice for winning the 2021 WRC opening race could take the victory away from Tanak and his teammates.
Tanak spun right after starting SS9 and bumped into something, destroying the front wheel on the driver’s side. The following SS10 was also where Tanak retired due to an unfortunate accident in the previous season. This season, however, in order to prevent accidents, The WRC organizer installed an additional chicane to limit the speed on the straight course. However, Tanak stopped in the middle of it this season as well. This time, he blew a right-rear tire.
Arriving at the SS10 finish line, all the tires were worn off on Tanak’s car. A series of bad luck made it more difficult for him to win the race, but he tried to keep driving to score points in the WRC for Manufacturers. According to the WRC regulations, the drivers in the road section (the public road other than the special stage) must comply with the road traffic signals of the country. Therefore, it was impossible to drive using only wheels without tires in the road section. To overcome this, Tanak used the wheel once again that had been damaged at the SS9 to get to the service park. However, all of the tires were departed, and only the wheels were left. Eventually, due to the lack of spare tires, he could not continue the race according to regulations. His strategy to reduce the weight of the rally car even a little and to win the leading position halted him.
In the meantime, Neuville, who has just finished SS10, did his best as if he was trying to overcome the mistake Tanak had made. It recorded a whopping 40 seconds or faster than Ogier, increasing the possibility of standing on the Podium. Toyota team still kept all the top three positions, but the Hyundai Team was able to close the gap between Rovanfera in third place with a 1.5-second difference. Sordo, who was in 5th place, made up for Tanak’s retirement and continued to drive with much more stability to score points in the WRC for Manufacturers. This is because, according to the regulations in which two drivers’ points are added for each manufacturer, if Sordo retires, it could harm their ranking.
After finishing their drive on Saturday morning, the athletes went on a long journey to Monaco, where Sunday schedules were held to decide who will stand at the Podium. The stage on which the Sunday schedule is held is a course that was used during the group B period, which was called the golden age of the WRC, and the stage was ready once again since 2002; and obviously, it couldn’t be a familiar course for the current generation. In addition, due to the long distance from the service park, maintenance other than tire replacement is impossible. Therefore, even a single mistake is not tolerated.
Neuville sped up to stand at the podium and eventually succeeded in taking Rovanpera and reaching third place. Even in the final stage where additional points are given in the power stage, he succeeded in earning 2 additional points by reaching fourth place. The new rule, from this season, gives additional Power Stage points added to each manufacturer’s points. In other words, Neuville’s performance scoring Power Stage points couldn’t be more valuable for the team. Neuville also eliminated concerns about his teamwork with his co-driver Wydaeghe. Sordo also succeeded in securing 5th place based on stable driving and added 1 additional point by taking 5th place in the Power Stage.
The Monte Carlo rally was eventually won by Toyota’s Ogier. Ogier showed what perfect driving was while taking first place in Power Stage. This resulted in his 8th Monte Carlo rally win (Sebastien Loeb has won the Monte Carlo rally the most times – 9 times).
Jari-Matti Latvala, who succeeded his predecessor as team principal at Toyota Team this year, couldn’t hide his joy. In the first game of his debut, he scored 52 points (1st place, 25 points + 2nd place, 18 points + PS 1st place, 5 points + PS 2nd place, 4points) along with a 1-2 finish, while adding 9 additional points (5 points + 4 points), the highest score in the Power Stage. Above. 4 points), the highest possible score. The Hyundai team scored 30 points thanks to the efforts of Neuville, who finished third, and Sordo, who raced until the very end.
Although Neuville stood at the podium, the Monte Carlo rally is definitely a disappointing start for the Hyundai team, who aims to win the third manufacturer’s championship. The regret gets even greater because the Hyundai team completely conquered the Monte Carlo rally last season. However, there are still 11 rounds left for WRC this season. Moreover, the fact that there are many new and unfamiliar courses added is a clear advantage for the Hyundai Team, who became the champion in a relatively short time; even the next rally is the Arctic Rally Finland, which was added for the first time instead of Rally Sweden, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Arctic Rally is scheduled to be held from February 26th to 28th in Rovaniemi, Finland, also known as the hometown of Santa Claus. The area boasts extreme cold, with temperatures falling below -30 degrees Celsius. Therefore, it is expected to be important whether the rally car’s durability and performance can be demonstrated well in cold weather. Let’s look forward to seeing what kind of history the Hyundai Team, one of the main teams of the dramatic 2020 WRC, will write in the 2021 WRC.