New year, new cars. Last weekend saw the World Rally Championship return for the 2017 season in spectacular fashion. Changes to the rules at the turn of the year mean vehicles are faster, lighter, and modified beyond all recognition.
But while laws have changed, the drivers have not. Despite only having a month to familiarise himself with M-Sport’s Ford Fiesta WRC, Sebastien Ogier (Julia Ingrassia) won his third consecutive Rallye Monte-Carlo title.
Bringing the former Volkswagen driver on board proved to be a masterstroke. It was M-Sport’s first Monte gong in five years, and has surely set a precedent for the season to come. However, Ogier went on to say that this year’s Championship is likely to be one of the most closely contested in years.
And looking back at the action in Monaco’s mountains, you can’t help but agree. Thierry Neuville (Nicolas Gilsoul) looked set to dethrone Ogier as he took a 51 second lead in to the final stage on day 3, only to hit a post and wreck the suspension on his Hyundai i20 WRC. Roadside repairs cost the Belgian 30 minutes, who eventually came home in 15th despite setting five fastest stage times.
Estonian driver Ott Tänak (Martin Jarveoja) look set to make it a Fiesta one-two for M-Sport, but he’ll be more than happy with just making the podium after his car was troubled by mechanical issues which saw him finish with only two cylinders. Toyota’s return to the Championship was a special one for Jari-Matti Latvala (Miika Anttila) though, whose unspectacular yet more than effective driving style landed him second place.
Two hotly tipped drivers to challenge Ogier for pole position in Monte Carlo were Kris Meeke (Paul Nagle) and Juho Hänninen (Kaj Lindstrom), although both saw their races end early. A misjudged crest saw Meeke’s weekend come to an end in a suspension shattering collision, while Hänninen’s Toyota Yaris WRC lost traction under breaking and ploughed in to a tree.
Tyre choice is make or break for teams in Monte Carlo. The varying conditions from icy crevasses to solid tarmac make it a nightmare for engineers and drivers alike.
British-based M-Sport made up three of the top six positions throughout the weekend, and a special mention must go out to Wales’ Elfyn Evans for an aesthetically pleasing sixth place finish, having spent the majority of the three-day event sideways. He was running on DMACKs rather than his teammates’, and most other competitors’, Michelins.
So, the rule changes. What’s changed, and how will it affect the season ahead? Well, here are the three main talking points: cars are up from 315 brake horsepower to 380; they have shed 25 kilograms to now weight 1175kg; engineers have been given more freedom to modify aerodynamics and technical specifications.
Citroën’s looked to make the most of the new laws as they returned to the sport after a year’s sabbatical.
CEO of the French car manufacturer Linda Jackson, speaking to Top Gear, said: “Rallying is the number two motorsport globally. It’s in line with Citroën’s position, as it’s not at elitist sport. It shows we can do endurance and quality. That has a link with road cars.”
But the rallying of years gone by is drifting further away. It’s certainly better for the sport, making it more appealing as a spectator sport, but racers no longer get behind the wheel in lightly modified road cars.
But their return was rather bleak. Having fielded a sole 2011 model DS3, which has seen Monte Carlo victory before when driven by Sebastién Loeb, it bested both of their brand new C3 WRC editions. It took some impeccable driving from Craig Breen (Scott Martin), but it was certainly not the result they had wanted.
The Irishman came home in fifth, suffering from the same problems as seventh placed Andreas Mikkelsen (Anders Jaeger Synnevaag) in his Skoda Fabia R5. While both put it effortlessly impressive times in the winter conditions, they suffered on dry tarmac and looked far from threatening on day three.
The weekend did not pass without raising another talking point on the sport’s safety, however. Stage one was cancelled after New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon car hit black ice and was sent careering off the road, causing a spectator to fall down a rock face. He subsequently died of his injuries in hospital. The man was stood on the outside of a left hand bend in an unauthorised and non-stewarded location.