What am I supposed to do for three months?
This is the annual off-season cry from single-seater fans the world over, as they twiddle their thumbs waiting for the new season to begin.
We’re five days into the new year. Yes, the Monte Carlo Rally is still a few weeks away. And yes, the Dakar Rally gets underway properly on Saturday. But the rally calendar kicks off here and now, with an event that’s as close to the World Rally Championship’s iconic season opener as you can get without being in the French Alps.
For the next three days, Austria gets a turn as the center of the stage rallying world. Audi Quattros, Ford Escorts, Mazda 323s, Lancer Evolutions and, of course, plenty of Rally2 cars, will be competing on one of Central Europe’s most prestigious events – even if it’s not part of a major international series.
Jänner Rallye was last on the European calendar in 2015. But with over half a century of history behind it, Austria’s jewel in the crown is an event worth paying attention to.
“Normally we have around 80,000 fans; the police department told us it was more than 140,000 [last year]!” Raimund Baumschlager tells DirtFish.
Baumschlager, for the uninitiated, is Austrian rallying royalty. He’s a fourteen-time national champion, three-time winner of the Jänner Rallye and was the only person trusted by Volkswagen to run the all-conquering Polo R WRC as a customer car.
People speak in hushed tones about the challenge of the Monte: cold, dark and icy, the grip on offer can shift from corner to corner in an unpredictable fashion. It’s hard to find that sort of challenge anywhere else. But here, in the Austrian Alps, the Jänner is almost akin to a mini-Monte.
“Without snow, when the temperature is down, at four or five o’clock in the evening, the bridges start to get frozen and you get some ice spots,” explains Baumschlager. “It’s a lot of pressure for the drivers: if you go into the stage, maybe it’s just damp but in the middle of the stage, it starts to be icy and you need a good ice crew, they need to say two hours ahead how the temperature will be, when it starts to be frozen, where it will be ice, so this is totally similar to Monte.”
Its challenge is fearsome. Take Dennis Rostek, who has been rallying with his own Pole Promotion team for over a decade. For Jänner, Rostek felt the need to hand his Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 over to Baumschlager’s crack BRR team to prepare and run the car.
“He said he has no experience; he doesn’t know what he should do with suspension and tyres. He will do the first kilometers on snow in his entire life in this rally!” says Baumschlager.
“On the [pre-event] test it was just wet; that’s why he’s doing this event together with us. It’s his own car but we made all the technical things correct for the rally.”
That’s the key word: snow. In recent years there hasn’t been much of it: the last time it was a ‘proper’ snow rally was 2019; in the two editions since, there’s not been much in the way of fresh powder.
The good news? It looks like this year will be a ‘proper’ Jänner, transforming the event from a fast asphalt blast to one of the most difficult rallies in the world. Turning weather forecaster for a moment, Baumschlager confirms: “We’re expecting 10 to 20 centimeters of snow.”
Good. Just like the old days.
Despite winning the event three times, it’s none of those trophies that Baumschlager remembers most fondly: rather, it’s the 2012 edition that comes to mind, an example of how the Jänner puts the drivers through the ringer.
“I was leading in front of the two factory [Škoda] drivers; Juho [Hänninen] made a spin and then I tried to push more to get a bigger gap – but then I hit a concrete post and spun! The lead was always between Hänninen and myself until Saturday midday and at the end of the day, Kopecký won the rally because both of us made mistakes.”
The entry list isn’t quite what it used to be in the ERC days: the factory teams are gone and replaced by well-heeled privateers, plus the odd international entrant preparing for Monte; this year, that’s 2019 European Rally champion Chris Ingram.
But with a truly authentic Jänner experience on the cards, it’s one to soak in and enjoy while the snow falls. It’s not always that way.
“This happens all the time; I first did the Jänner Rallye in 1984 and it was like it was summer! No snow at all. The year after it was a lot. So it’s changing all the time; it’s nothing new.”
Let’s hope Raimund is as good at weather forecasting as he is at driving; a snowy Jänner will make the wait for Monte that little bit shorter.