Last weekend brought the curtain down on the first electrified season in World Rally Championship history.
But 2022 was about far more than the new hybrid Rally1 cars – it was an historic season in many ways.
So, as we all hunker down for the winter, now feels like as good a time as any to reflect on the key moments from the WRC season just gone.
But it’s important to note that what you’re about to read aren’t necessarily the 10 biggest or best moments, but the 10 moments that defined the 2022 season.
Agree with our reckoning? Let us know in the comments box below.
1: Loeb wins on his M-Sport debut
There was more than a touch of irony in the fact a brand-new and exciting dawn broke over the WRC, and yet it was the two world champions of a past era, Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier, who dominated the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.
But what a battle it was! And what a result at the end of it.
That’s not to say that Ogier coming out on top of an exciting scrap with Loeb wouldn’t have been interesting – far from it – but for Loeb to sprinkle a touch of the old magic and claim an 80th WRC career win nobody really thought was possible was just sensational.
Particularly when you consider it was Loeb’s M-Sport Ford debut, and first rally alongside co-driver Isabelle Galmiche who became the first woman to claim an outright WRC win in 25 years. And, of course, it was M-Sport’s first win in the world championship’s top class since 2018.
After two incredibly tough years grappling with budget concerns in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, M-Sport had once again produced the goods and had a driver capable of doing the business with it.
The M-Sport/Loeb partnership wouldn’t win again, but it would challenge for victories on the three other rallies Loeb contested. Even if they had won again, nothing could’ve topped that sensational start back in January.
2: Evans crashes in Sweden
What happened on the Monte could perhaps have been chalked up as simply ‘one of those things’, but a second mistake (with dire consequences) in as many rallies signified something was up with many people’s championship favorite.
Elfyn Evans was the only driver capable of holding a candle to the two Sébs on round one, so much so that he was poised to take the lead of the rally on SS11, the first pass of Saint-Geniez / Thoard.
But approaching a tight right hander too quickly, Evans slid off the edge of the road – the rear of his Toyota hanging unbalanced over a bank where the stage, ironically, traversed.
He was right on the pace in Sweden too, challenging team-mate Kalle Rovanperä for victory.
But things got bizarre on Saturday’s final stage when Evans ploughed into a snow bank on the day’s final corner and crossed the timing beam off the road. Deviating from the defined route in the road book earned him a 10-second penalty.
Evans was then on a push to make up 18.3s instead of 8.3s, but got it wrong through a fast corner and lost the rear, thwacking a snow bank at full speed with the front of his Toyota and having to retire.
Two rallies, just four points (from the Monte powerstage) on the board; Evans would never recover and went winless throughout 2022 – struggling to adapt to the new Rally1 car that, with no active centre differential, had fewer set-up options than its World Rally Car predecessor.
3: Rovanperä destroys Tänak in Croatia
A win in Sweden, coupled with an impressive recovery drive to fourth on the Monte, had earned Kalle Rovanperä a handy 14-point lead over Thierry Neuville after just two rounds.
But that was too early to be talking about title favorites. Round three wasn’t though, given the manner in which Rovanperä drove in Croatia.
Leading by over a minute after day one (the first time any driver had done that since 2015), Rovanperä made the most of his advantageous position as first on the road in wet conditions, and avoided the punctures that beset so many others.
But his own flat tire on Saturday pulled Ott Tänak into contention and suddenly Rovanperä had a job in his hands. Up against a driver fueled by a wretched Monte and a punishing Sweden where an unsafe hybrid unit cost him second place no less.
Tire strategy split the contenders on the final morning – Rovanperä taking hard compound Pirellis but Tänak selecting softs. With the initial stages dry, that allowed Rovanperä to stretch his lead. But the rain soon arrived, and Tänak overturned a 28.4s deficit to lead the rally with just the powerstage left.
Tänak set an impressive benchmark, a 9m07.5s which was 16.2s quicker than anybody else. But, on the wrong tires for the damp conditions, Rovanperä didn’t just beat it, he obliterated it. Faster by over five seconds, Rovanperä snatched the win back and sent a real statement to the WRC.
Tänak is one of the fastest drivers out there, and Rovanperä bossed him. The 29-point championship lead it earned him was really rather ominous.
4: Road cleaning doesn’t hamper Rovanperä
It was an art Ogier absolutely perfected, but could Rovanperä win gravel rallies from the front – cleaning the stages for his rivals on a Friday? Alarmingly for his rivals, the answer was a resounding yes.
Rally Portugal was Rovanperä’s first as a day one road sweeper, and he coped admirably. Although he initially lagged behind in 10th, gaps were tight and Rovanperä slowly began picking up places as others around him faltered. When Neuville’s Hyundai lost a driveshaft, all of a sudden Rovanperä found himself second overnight behind leader Evans.
It was important for Evans to send his team-mate a message and he held his own across Saturday morning, extending his advantage by 4.8s over the loop where the two drivers faced similar stage conditions. But then the rain came, and Rovanperä was in a league of his own.
His wet weather skills were an attribute Rovanperä would come to exhibit over the course of the season, showing his prowess on course to victory in not just Portugal but Kenya and Estonia too.
5: Hyundai gets off the mark
Speculation was that Hyundai would trail M-Sport Ford and Toyota when the season began in the French Alps, but Hyundai’s worst fears became a living nightmare with Neuville’s compromised but battling drive to sixth being its only Monte finisher.
It wasn’t just that the i20 N Rally1 lacked pace, it lacked reliability too. A podium in Sweden and a double podium in Croatia lifted spirits, but it wasn’t until round five in Italy where Hyundai could breathe a sigh of relief: its car was a winner.
Ott Tänak was the one responsible for delivering it. And, importantly, he proved that the car could be fast but also reliable.
A constant presence in the lead fight, Tänak tailed Evans before his Toyota’s water system was damaged through a compression, then kept with Esapekka Lappi when his Toyota took over the lead.
There was a brief scare when the transmission broke at the end of Friday, but when Lappi crashed on Saturday morning Tänak was clear and made it count.
Hyundai wasn’t out of the woods, but it was no longer out of the races.
6: Loeb exposes M-Sport’s driver problem
While there was just the one victory for Loeb in 2022, there were no more for M-Sport Ford either – and Loeb was the only one, with the possible exception of Pierre-Louis Loubet on the Acropolis, that ever looked likely to seal one.
While M-Sport led both the drivers’ and the manufacturers’ championship, Craig Breen’s off in Sweden was a sobering bump down to earth that would, ultimately, set the tone for the year ahead. M-Sport’s mechanics would spend far longer repairing Pumas than they would toasting podiums in 2022.
Indeed, after Loeb’s victory and Breen’s third on round one, the team would only return to the podium once over the next 12 rallies.
Ypres was a real low point as all three works Pumas of Breen, Gus Greensmith and Adrien Fourmaux crashed – Fourmaux’s particularly galling as he was the last man standing in fifth and had been instructed not to chase after Oliver Solberg’s fourth.
Fourmaux’s year in general was a real disappointment. A terrifying crash on the Monte was followed by another accident in Croatia, and all of a sudden things pivoted to just building experience rather than pushing for results.
His Ypres accident cost him a crack at Rally New Zealand while budget constraints forced him out of Japan.
Greensmith peaked at the start of the year with a brilliant maiden stage win on the Monte, and two consecutive fifth place finishes. But progress plateaued as the season wore on – two crashes in New Zealand and Spain certainly not helping matters.
And things weren’t much better for M-Sport’s lead driver either…
7: Breen’s season capitulates
Relative to the swashbuckling highs of his part-time season with Hyundai in 2021, the start to Breen’s first-ever full WRC campaign in 2022 seemed a bit disappointing.
Fourth in Croatia was decent at face value but the speed was lacking, and eighth in Portugal would’ve been sixth were it not for brake issues – hardly too shabby given his experience deficit on those stages compared to others. And then second in Sardinia returned him to the rostrum.
But as soon as Breen headed for the trio of events that last year earned him the M-Sport seat – Estonia, Finland and Ypres – it all went south, and he never really recovered.
There was an element of misfortune in Estonia. Sliding off the edge of a well-known corner, Breen should’ve been able to reverse out and continue with just damage to his pride, but a felled telegraph pole – hidden in the grass – put him out on the spot.
In Finland he was asked to throw caution to the wind and hit a rock over a crest, ripping the rear-right wheel clean off. And then in Ypres he ran wide and rolled into a ditch. From there his confidence was shattered, and crashes on day one of both flyaways in New Zealand and Japan compounded matters further.
Seventh in the championship behind Sébastien Ogier, who entered less than half of the rallies, really wasn’t what anybody expected.
8: Tensions brew at Hyundai
Ask anybody who won Rally Finland, and they’ll tell you Ott Tänak. Not Ott Tänak and Hyundai. Ott Tänak. His driving was utterly sensational to hang it all out there and fight against his natural instincts to deny Toyota and Kalle Rovanperä the home victory they craved.
But from one of the best victories of the season to the messiest, up next was Ypres and Tänak won again. However the whole affair was tainted by brewing tensions between Hyundai’s lead drivers and continued disarray caused by the lack of permanent management.
Neuville and Tänak were locked in battle to win in Belgium before Neuville broke clear when Tänak’s Hyundai developed a transmission issue – a bugbear of the season. But unusually, at the end of the next stage, Neuville questioned the validity of Tänak’s claims: “I think if Ott has problems then I have only three cylinders!” he said.
Naturally, the whole thing spilled into the media where Tänak was a bit stunned but Neuville moved to clarify it as a misunderstanding – a stance backed by his boss later. But in reality the ball had only just begun rolling.
Immediately after winning the rally Tänak claimed Julien Moncet, still acting as deputy team director, was not fit to lead the team, and to top it all off there was yet more acrimony at the following round in Greece.
Holding first, second and third on Sunday morning, Hyundai was on the verge of history – but with Rovanperä languishing outside the points, second-placed Tänak felt he should be allowed to win in order to gain seven extra points on Rovanperä which wouldn’t affect Hyundai’s podium lockout or points haul.
But Hyundai Motorsport president Sean Kim stepped in and ordered the drivers to hold position – ensuring Neuville got his first win of the season. To say things were tense in the media zone would be an understatement.
Hyundai got its moment, but Tänak headed for the exit door.
9: Rovanperä becomes youngest ever world champion
There were blips in Belgium and Greece that created a speck of doubt, but in reality there was never anybody in the race to become 2022 world champion other than Rovanperä.
Rally New Zealand was the crowning moment and the scene of those now iconic dance moves from Rovanperä and Jonne Halttunen on the roof of their GR Yaris Rally1. And of course they sealed it by winning the rally and the powerstage.
Rovanperä has often been likened to Max Verstappen in how he’s redefining what it means to be successful at a young age. His 2022 campaign is certainly now the yardstick for all youngsters to beat, and it could be very tricky indeed given Rovanperä was just 22 years and one day old when he became champion of the rallying world.
Colin McRae’s record as youngest world champion stood for 27 years; coincidentally the same age he was when he clinched his title. Something tells us Rovanperä’s record might last longer than 22 years, and that this was likely the first of many.
10: Hyundai’s season does a full 180
Contrast the performance of the i20 N Rally1 on the Monte Carlo Rally and Rally Japan and it’s barely recognizable. The turnaround in performance was simply superb from round one to round 13, particularly considering the fractious environment it was achieved in.
Ironically, although it missed out on both titles, 2022 therefore became Hyundai’s most successful WRC season ever in terms of rally wins – Neuville’s Japan victory its fifth of the year, breaking the previous best of four.
And to make it that bit sweeter, Hyundai beat Toyota on both of its home rallies. Its ending to the season was massively important in providing a statement of intent for what’s to come next year.
Hyundai has arguably never had a more important off-season. It must continue its startling rate of progression and settle all the politics so that it can, as a team, take the challenge to Toyota in 2023.
Achieve that and maybe, just maybe, the Rovanperä/Toyota juggernaut could be defeatable after all. And you certainly wouldn’t have heard anybody saying that six months earlier.