Is it just me or did anybody else spot the irony in Thierry Neuville’s comments about some of his rivals heading out to national rallies this weekend?
Talking to Neuville shortly after his pre-event test for Monte Carlo Rally, his frustrations with the new testing regulations were obvious.
This year, each three-car team gets 21 days testing to do with what it wants. That compares with a day per driver for each European round last year – that equated to 30 days. Prior to that, the limit was 43 days.
The FIA’s thinking is simple, less days equals less cost.
Not according to Neuville.
“It’s ridiculous,” reckoned the Belgian. “Twenty-one days is not enough when we are doing 13 rallies.
“I don’t think this will save money. Really it will be the opposite I think, because we know some drivers are already doing some national events before Sweden and national events are much more expensive, much more time consuming and the testing opportunities are much less.”
We know, of course, Neuville’s own team-mate Esapekka Lappi will take the start of the Kuopio Rally (with Toyota’s Takamoto Katsuta on the entry list right behind him) while M-Sport fields a brace of Ford Puma Rally1s for Ott Tänak and Jourdan Serderidis in Otepää, on the south side of the Gulf of Finland.
Neuville’s right. It’s going to happen this year. But we shouldn’t forget who brought national rally testing back to the forefront in recent seasons… it was Neuville’s former boss Andrea Adamo.
There is, of course, nothing new with factory teams competing locally ahead of a WRC counter. In the UK through the late ’80s and into the 1990s, the Audi Sport Rally – a one-day national event running through mid-Wales – was an annual event for Mazda, Toyota and Ford ahead of the RAC. It was the same with the Mänttä Rally in Finland around the same time – and Rally Estonia just a few years ago.
But Adamo took it to another level. In 2020 and 2021, factory Hyundai drivers were seen across Italy in Alba, Rome, Ciocco, Sanremo and further afield in Ypres (pre-WRC), Fafe and then there was Estonia, where Neuville and his then fellow i20 pedaller Tänak became regulars at events like Otepää, Viru and Lõuna-Eesti. And when there wasn’t a rally at the right time, one was created – like Kehala Ralli in early November and conveniently before Monza…
Adamo made – and makes – no excuses for his approach. It was an approach Neuville used very firmly to his advantage when he and Martijn Wydaeghe were first getting to know each other. Don’t forget, at the top of the 2021 season, when fellow series regulars were starting round three in Croatia, Zagreb was already the sixth event for the newly crewed-up Belgians.
Raising the issue with Adamo soon after this year’s season-opener brings a wry smile.
“We would go and do a one-day national event for a third of the cost of a test,” said Adamo. “OK, we do a three-day test and we get 300 kilometers and we do one day of a rally and get 100 kilometers, but still it was worth it.
“I would do it again. Don’t forget, we weren’t just making the rallies for the test – we were spreading a little bit the message of the sport and the brand of Hyundai.
“When we were in Italy, we had support from the local importer and the events like Alba, they worked with us all the time to bring Thierry and Ott to their events.
“Honestly, I don’t think I’m the bad guy in this one. I didn’t break any rules and a lot more people had the chance to see one of those amazing plus [2017 generation] World Rally Cars than if we’d just stuck to private testing and the WRC rounds.”
He’s right. And nobody’s breaking any rules this weekend, they’re just using the options available to them to further their own ends. And, no doubt, there will be a national rally which works just before Croatia and maybe a rough gravel event in southern Spain just before México. You see where this is going.
Is Neuville’s grumbling groundless? No, it’s not. There’s a strong argument for getting a car dialled ahead of every rally – especially where shakedown is notoriously unrepresentative. But there’s an equally strong argument for banning testing altogether.
I know, imagine that… Trust me, it could be done. These are the best engineering brains in motorsport, they could build a car which would work everywhere without 21 days’ running beforehand. Don’t forget a generation ago, engines came and went from round to round – now there’s two per car for a season. Times change, regulations evolve and the teams adapt. It’s what they do.
Do I think that’s a good idea? Actually no. I think testing needs to be centralized, controlled, regulated and run more along the lines of F1 testing.
A few years ago WRC Promoter worked on the potential for a group test in Greece in conditions similar to those the cars were about to face in Turkey. Simon Larkin – WRC Promoter event director – is one of the most forward-thinking folk in the sport and this was one of his finest ideas. Sadly, there wasn’t universal buy-in from the teams and it didn’t happen.
Revisit it. Make it a regulation. Make it happen.
As for testing on national rallies, I understand the cost and the issue of the budgetary haves and have-nots, but I spent too long standing behind a tree waiting to see Timo Salonen hammer a 323 through Dyfnant to be against it.