Ypres is canceled. Monza is a total unknown. Multiple countries have outlawed non-elite sport as the second wave of COVID-19 comes crashing down on Europe. The prospect of getting another World Rally Championship rally in before the end of 2020 is looking bleaker day-by-day.
Many are also understandably questioning how viable it is to run a rally in the south of France – a nation currently in lockdown – in late January 2021, as is currently planned for the start of next season. As Hyundai team principal Andrea Adamo asked: “What f***ing calendar?”
OK, enough doom and gloom. The situation isn’t great, we all know that. What is there to really look forward to right now?
Rally Hungary, perhaps? No, it’s not another late addition to the WRC calendar; it’s on the European Rally Championship billing instead. But intriguingly it promises to be similar to Ypres, at least in the characteristics of the challenge it offers.
Autumnal Ypres was to be radically different from the typical summertime run between the fields of Flanders. It was probably going to rain, a lot, and it was going to get muddy.
Everyone expected the sort of rally which Hungary delivered last year.
It was supposedly an asphalt rally. At least that’s what the surface underneath is said to be. But who knows what’s really under there? It may as well have been an ice rink. There was mud everywhere, punctures, fog, aquaplaning, title contenders crashing in shakedown, and a last-stage change of lead that altered the destiny of that year’s title.
The entry list looks much healthier this year too.
Andreas Mikkelsen is back at the wheel on a rally for the first time in nearly a year, with Hungary marking his first competitive event since leaving Hyundai in 2019.
Rusty, he is not. In addition to his hundreds of miles at the wheel of a Citroën C3 WRC while testing Pirelli’s 2021 tires over the past few months, Mikkelsen also recently clocked up test miles at the wheel of a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo, the car he’ll be driving in Hungary.
Hyundai’s Craig Breen is one of the better-placed drivers to cope with the potentially treacherous conditions. Before Ypres was canned he got one warm-up event under his belt, which in hindsight may also be valuable for Hungary: Aarova Oudenaarde.
It wasn’t with the same car – Breen was in an i20 Coupe WRC on Michelins in Belgium and drives an i20 R5 on MRFs in ERC – but the conditions were quite similar. It rained a lot, cars were sliding off all over the place, there was plenty of aquaplaning and it got foggy at times. Not to mention he has several years of accrued experience at the top level in general. If the MRFs are up to the task it could present Breen’s best chance at a first 2020 ERC win.
And then there’s the actual ERC title battle. It’s not exactly been a classic year in that respect, with 2018 champion Alexey Lukyanuk already a rally win ahead in terms of points with three rounds to go, in theory at least.
Lukyanuk learned the hard way how cruel Rally Hungary can be. Leading with one stage to go and all set to win the 2019 title, both he and rival Chris Ingram picked up punctures on the final test. But Lukyanuk’s fall from first to second was more critical for the points battle, handing the title to Ingram.
This time around he’s the leader rather than the chaser, and instead of Ingram it’s Oliver Solberg he’s got to worry about. Solberg’s switched from the Polo he’s used in the first three ERC rounds to a Fabia, run by local Hungarian firm Eurosol.
Victory may not be on Solberg’s agenda; more than anything he needs mileage on asphalt, extra points over Lukyanuk and also over Grégoire Munster, who’s caught him up in the ERC1 Junior title race after a disastrous Rally Fafe Montelongo.
And then there are the outliers, the dark horses. Callum Devine has had a fairly horrendous run of luck in ERC this year, but one year ago he scored a podium on this event. It will be interesting to see how his Motorsport Ireland Rally Academy team-mate Josh McErlean, the reigning Junior British Rally Champion, gets on during his ERC debut.
Asphalt specialist Yoann Bonato came a few seconds from beating Lukyanuk to victory at the last ERC round and is back for more; being the only frontrunning driver on Michelins could end up as a useful advantage if the Pirellis struggle to cope with the conditions.
The writing had been on the wall for Ypres when the South Belgian and Hemicuda rallies were both cancelled only a day before each was due to start. But there’s no sign Rally Hungary will suffer the same fate.
Hungary has not been immune to the spike in COVID-19 cases that has afflicted almost every European nation in the last month. Prime minister Viktor Orban had resisted imposing restrictions on mass gatherings and sporting events until yesterday, and the government is now reserving the right to force sporting events to stop at a moment’s notice. But for now, it’s not exercising that right. Exemptions have also been in place for foreign nationals coming to compete in sporting events since the start of September, so everything’s in place for another international rally to take place.
As the weeks pass and pressure ramps up on health infrastructure, it may become harder to justify running rallies. Not only from a practical point-of-view, but a moral one too. And that’s the problem Lombardia, the host region of Monza Rally is now facing. It’s what ultimately ended Ypres’ hopes; even if professional sport wasn’t completely banned, the nature of rallying using swathes of closed public spaces – rather than a stadium that can operate completely in isolation from the outside world – made it hard to justify.
Amid all the bad news, we’ve still got this rally going ahead. It’s easy to dismiss ERC as the WRC’s poor cousin, a pale shadow of its former self from the Intercontinental Rally Challenge days a decade ago when manufacturer teams were in abundance and Monte Carlo, Corsica, Sanremo and Ypres were all on the schedule.
Let’s hope Monza weathers the storm and we get a WRC season finale. But if the international rallying season ends as it began when the first lockdowns were relaxed, with an ERC event, we should at least end with an entertaining finale. All while recapturing an element of what Ypres 2020 should have been.