Testing, it’s fair to say, has gone a bit bananas this year. And never has it been more bananas than it was ahead of last week’s Rally Italy.
The good old days of teams running a pre-event test a week or so out from the event have apparently been binned in favor of some mind-boggling logistical strategies. Why?
Let’s work this one through together.
Firstly, more testing.
A significant change in testing regulations was implemented at last June’s World Motor Sport Council, removing the 42-day testing allocation and replacing it with a day for each driver entered on an event by a manufacturer.
In addition to what is a 30-day limit for a three-car team (three days at 10 European rounds) the manufacturers are also permitted an additional nine days running to acclimatise to the new Pirelli tires and 30 days for the 2022 car.
All told, a team entering three factory cars will complete 69 days testing this season – more than any other year since testing was banned outside of Europe in 2004.
That’s why the current generation of drivers are busier than they’ve been in a while right now.
But what was the palaver about testing for Safari in Spain and Portugal? The sporting regulations clearly state that a pre-event test can only be for the corresponding event. And testing out for Kenya is out of the question. Because it’s Kenya and Africa is some way south of the southernmost European boundary.
This is where the teams got creative, with Hyundai testing for Portugal ahead of Croatia to save time. A couple of weeks after Croatia, the i20 Coupe WRC was in Sardinia for its pre-event Italian running, then the team remained in Portugal after the rally to complete its three-day Kenya test.
Toyota’s plan was more straightforward. In theory. It tested for Portugal before Portugal, but then traded a pure Sardinia test for some Spanish mileage which doubled as a Sardinian and Kenyan test.
The answer to the obvious question of where the days are coming from for Kenyan testing is that nine-day additional allocation. Hyundai has run all-but one of those days, with four for Monte, one for Arctic and three for Kenya in Portugal.
Toyota has more in reserve, having taken a strategic approach to the last round. There’s nothing in the regulations which dictates the location of a pre-event test has to be in the same country. We’ve seen, for example, teams testing in Finland for Sweden and, slightly more left field, we saw Citroën test in south-west France for Rally GB…
So a Spanish test for Kenya that’s masquerading as pre-Italy mileage is totally acceptable.
What threw a spanner in the works was when Toyota came out of Portugal on the back foot (despite Elfyn Evans’ win) and the team was suddenly forced to tweak its planned roads in Spain for something more representative of Olbia rather than Naivasha.
Evans was a good place to start searching for an answer. The question? Was Spain, for him, more Sardinia than Safari?
“I’m not 100% sure I was in either, actually!” grinned the Welshman having watched me trying to get my head around the masterplan.
I’m not sure if the test really would have given us a proper indication of what things would have been like in KenyaSébastien Ogier
“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” he said, taking pity and padding out his answer. “The idea was great, and normally, I think we discussed before, when you’ve done your set-up for Portugal you don’t normally need to change so much for Sardinia but we didn’t envisage to struggle, especially on Friday morning [in Portugal], and that’s when the focus then changed around the test.
“But maybe we should’ve just accepted we didn’t have the chance to change the car this time and focused mainly on Safari.”
On the evidence of last week’s Rally Italy, Toyota made the right call. But we’ll only know that for sure post-Kenya. If it’s blown away by Hyundai, following a previously undisclosed eureka moment for the Koreans in Portugal (that’s the second Portugal test, not the round four pre-event…), then we’ll know who got their Safari prep spot on.
Advancing towards retirement makes Sébastien Ogier more pragmatic about such details. The Frenchman’s feeling is that Africa is like Africa.
“The test in Spain was set up with Kenya in mind,” he told DirtFish. “We were trying to find the right set-up with the car for that rally where the conditions are a bit more difficult in terms of the terrain… even though none of us really know what it is going to be like, honestly.
“So, in actual fact, I’m not sure if the test really would have given us a proper indication of what things would have been like in Kenya.
“But, unfortunately for me, I already had a difficult test in Portugal where there was a lot of rain and I couldn’t really see that much, so it wasn’t ideal for us.”
Just when we thought we’d got on top of who did what, where and why, the champ throws in the curved ball of the weather. Remember Toyota’s pre-Portugal test doubled as its Italy pre-event as well. Or it should have done. Until it poured with rain last month and left the Ogier and his colleagues with precious little understanding of what Pirelli’s hard tire was capable of in anything like the conditions it was designed for.
“There were things we changed on the car that I believe should make the car better and should work,” added Ogier. In this [pre-event Sardinia] test, it was raining again and there was a big storm at the top of the mountain, so it was very wet.”
In fairness, the rain did arrive in Sardinia, but it landed on Sunday and south of the stages. And that’s not to say it won’t rain in Kenya. It might.
After all this pontification and summation, it’s Ogier who comes up with the ultimate conclusion.
“In any case,” he reasons, “there isn’t much I can do about it.”