Happy New Year dear DirtFish reader. Welcome to another year; welcome to the fourth year of the DirtFish media project.
And what a year we have ahead of us. Plenty of change across the top championships should make 2023 another classic, but what should we be most excited for?
Well, you’ve come to the right place. Here are our 10 picks for things to look forward to this year:
Rovanperä’s title defense
Will it be a success, or will it be a failure? There’ll be plenty that are hoping the latter proves true (not least Thierry Neuville, Ott Tänak and co), but Kalle Rovanperä hasn’t exactly proved inept at dealing with pressure or new scenarios so far, has he?
But however well Rovanperä deals with being the one with the target on his back, it’ll be an interesting element to follow as the season progresses.
Particularly as the challenge from within his own team should be stronger from Elfyn Evans, and the challenges from outside should be more complete too with Hyundai wrapping even closer around Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak making a big and exciting move…
Tänak’s M-Sport return
He’s come home. And the mission could not be clearer: add a second World Rally Championship title to his name.
So the follow-up question is equally as clear: can he do it? And that’s the answer that 2023 will give us.
Tänak loves M-Sport. M-Sport loves Tänak. But the love could quickly turn sour if Tänak isn’t able to be a title challenger in an M-Sport Ford Puma Rally1. In all likelihood though, this partnership should have no problems becoming (at the very least) a rally winner once more.
Breen’s Hyundai return
Craig Breen would probably like to pretend that 2022 never happened. The big move to M-Sport came with a lot of anticipation, but instead he finds himself in the exact same situation that he did two years ago, having made the reverse move back to Hyundai and a part-time program for 2023.
The stakes couldn’t be higher though. Hyundai threw Breen a career lifeline after he was dumped by Citroën for 2019 – and Breen flourished. But he has even more to lose this time around if it doesn’t work out given the damage Breen’s poor 2022 did to his reputation.
However, placed back in an environment that clearly worked for him before and completing a less pressured program, Breen looks to be in the perfect place to reverse the tide. It’ll be interesting to watch it play out, whichever way it goes.
Central European Rally
New rallies are always fascinating in the WRC, but Central European Rally is more than just a new rally. It’s an entirely new concept.
Never before have three separate ASNs clubbed together to host a round of the world championship before, making Central European Rally the first tri-nation event in championship history.
It should be a corker of a rally too. Using top-quality asphalt stages in the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany, hopefully plenty will still be on the line as CER hosts the penultimate round of the season. But in late October, the weather could be key for making this an extremely challenging and entertaining affair.
The Americas return to the WRC
As much as we love new rallies, there’s something equally special about welcoming an old friend back into the fold. Since the pandemic, we’ve been hankering to touch down on American soil and thankfully the WRC will be doing that not just once, but twice, in 2023.
Rally México was the last rally to be staged before the world changed for the worse back in 2020, and the color, atmosphere and power-sapping altitude have been badly missed from rallying’s global tour ever since.
Rally Chile’s presence in the WRC history book has been restricted to just a small acknowledgement thus far, with only the one championship appearance to date in 2019. But the gorgeous stages draped in the foreground of the Andes are back for this year, offering a welcome reprieve after periods of civil unrest and coronavirus complications.
WRC2’s continual evolution
Let’s all be honest here: WRC2 will be just as exciting as the Rally1 battle this year, such is the strength of the entry list both in terms of quality and quantity.
Oliver Solberg and Adrien Fourmaux are the headline acts as fully-fledged Rally1 drivers last season. But it’s Emil Lindholm that they all need to beat as the now reigning champion of the Rally2 class.
There are challengers aplenty. Teemu Suninen, Yohan Rossel, Grégoire Munster, Sami Pajari, Erik Cais… the list goes on. And that’s before you consider 2021 champion Andreas Mikkelsen who may yet appear again later in the season.
A compelling sub-plot will be the performance of Škoda’s new Fabia RS Rally2 too. Toksport is the team running most of those, but others do have their own private examples.
A rival in the Rally3 class
One of the big questions a couple of seasons ago was how successful would Rally3 – designed to be a stepping stone between the front-wheel-drive Rally4 machines and the four-wheel-drive class – be?
The 2022 year contained emphatic proof that this new addition to the FIA’s rally pyramid makes a huge difference for drivers progressing up the ladder to better adjust to Rally2, but the class couldn’t be signed off as a total success with only M-Sport Poland producing an eligible car in the Ford Fiesta Rally3.
But now the Fiesta has a playmate. Renault Sport has created the Clio Rally3 and although it won’t hit the stages until the spring, the battle between these two pocket rockets promises to be deeply fascinating.
The 2023 year marks the second campaign that the European Rally Championship will be under WRC Promoter’s stewardship, and ERC has a revised calendar to suit with Rally Hungary returning and the all-new Royal Rally of Scandinavia joining the fold.
The loss of the Azores makes sense logistically but is a shame given the quality and unique nature of the rally, but otherwise few fans can hold many complaints about what lies ahead in the ERC this season.
The quality promises to be up with several recognizable drivers signaling their interest, meaning this is a championship all rally fans should stick with, at least at the start of 2023, to see how it develops.
New regulations in ARA
All of the above is tremendously exciting, but if there’s one thing we at DirtFish at least can’t wait for this year it’s the revised Open 4WD regulations in the American Rally Association National championship.
The idea is to bring the ARA’s flagship machines closer in-line to the series’ RC2 class for homologated R5/Rally2 vehicles, and therefore generate more competition for event wins and ultimately the championship title.
There are some that believe that the intention of the regulations are correct but fear they haven’t quite gone far enough. Will that prove true, or will we be treated to a super-intense multi-car fight?
Forget looking ahead for something to look forward to, this is something you can enjoy right now.
The Dakar is one of the most famous yet intense motorsport challenges anywhere in the world, making it arguably the hardest to conquer. And for the first time, we have on-the-ground presence this year with Colin Clark fulfilling roving reporting duties.
The competition will be good too. Both Toyota and its new world champion driver Nasser Al-Attiyah and the Bahrain Raid Xtreme team are fielding full-strength teams, but both may struggle to contain Audi and its electric RS Q e-tron which proved a fierce contender on debut last year.
And the Audi has indeed started this Dakar as the machine to beat. Mattias Ekström topped the prologue then led for much of the opening stage, only to be pipped late on by team-mate Carlos Sainz.