It’s always exciting when the World Rally Championship makes a step into the new. We’re therfore in for a treat this week with the brand-new Central European Rally.
But with an all-new event comes plenty of uncertainty. Add to that the fact the WRC hasn’t been on Tarmac since April, and trying to decipher an accurate form guide for round 12 isn’t the easiest.
That doesn’t mean to say we haven’t done it, though! Here is said form guide for the first-ever Central European Rally:
#69 Kalle Rovanperä/Jonne Halttunen (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 4th-1st-DNF
Despite a lackluster weekend in Chile, Kalle Rovanperä arrives in Central Europe as the odds-on favorite to retain the world championship. With a 31-point lead in hand, the Finn can clinch the crown by simply outscoring team-mate and rival Elfyn Evans.
The Welshman may have won this season’s only Tarmac event thus far in Croatia, but Rovanperä has long since demonstrated his ability on the black stuff (that shootout with Ott Tänak’s at last year’s running of Croatia Rally remains one of the Finn’s most memorable drives thus far).
Add to the equation his adaptability, raw pace and tendency to learn quickly, even in the face of driver error, and Rovanperä will likely be heading to the season finale in Japan as a double world champion.
Starting first on the road this week should help, too!
#33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 3rd-2nd-1st
Just as Rovanperä needs to outscore Evans in order to take the title, the Welshman needs to do the same in order to keep his title hopes alive. He’s quick on Tarmac, of that there’s no doubt – he took victory in Croatia earlier this year and racked up second-place finishes in Ypres 2022 and Catalunya 2021.
That said, Evans’ track record when it comes to title deciders is less than ideal, a likely 2020 crown fell victim to that treacherous patchy of ice at Monza, while the rematch with Ogier the following year saw the Frenchman simply outdrive his main rival.
There’s little doubting Evans’ consistency, but given the margin by which he trails Rovanperä as well as the latter’s current form, it’s hard to contest the notion that the Finn is the safer bet for the championship.
That doesn’t mean to say Evans can’t record another strong result on CER though. His form is certainly immaculate with podiums on each of his last four starts.
#11 Thierry Neuville/Martijn Wydaeghe (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 2nd-20th-2nd
He may be out of the title race, but with all the pressure off his shoulders, nothing is stopping Thierry Neuville from pushing as hard as possible to end the season on a high.
Three podiums from the last four events (his would-be win in Greece not included) would have done his confidence a world of good and with the stages in CER broadly comparable to his native Belgium, don’t be surprised to see Neuville firmly in the mix.
#8 Ott Tänak/Martin Järveoja (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 1st-4th-DNF
In what will be his first event since announcing his return to Hyundai next year, Ott Tänak comes to CER on the back of a much-needed victory in Chile. Having endured a torrid run of form since that second place in Croatia, Tänak and M-Sport were finally able to end that eight-winless rally drought.
The Estonian’s imminent departure may have tainted that last win but with an all-new event inbound, CER could serve as yet another opportunity for the 2019 world champion to end the season on a high.
#17 Sébastien Ogier/Vincent Landais (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 10th-1st-14th
Having racked up three wins from his six starts and briefly topped the championship table (despite his part-time campaign) it’ll be tough to bet against Ogier who will be returning to Toyota for CER.
Never mind his current form, affinity for Tarmac, or track record with brand-new events (Kenya 2021, anyone?), CER is practically based on the former world champion’s doorstep (Ogier’s current residence in Munich is a mere 200km from the rally’s base in Passau – although he’s never actually been to the area).
Having displayed comfort and confidence on nearly all his appearances this year, it’s tough to contest the claim that Ogier will be one to watch next weekend. But having said that, his road position of fifth could count against him.
#4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-5th-DNF
The highs of Italy and Estonia must feel like a long time ago for Esapekka Lappi. Having failed to score points in three out of the last five events, the Finn’s season looked to hit a new low in Chile, with that spectacular roll forcing him out of the rally on the very first stage.
With the manufacturer’s race now over, Lappi’s main concerns will be rebuilding his confidence and stringing together enough decent results to convince Hyundai of his worth.
With Tänak’s return to Alzenau confirmed it remains to be seen if Lappi will find himself in a full-time seat next year. A mistake-free weekend in CER will be a good start.
#18 Takamoto Katsuta/Aaron Johnston (Toyota GR Yaris Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 5th-6th-3rd
It’s been an uneven year for Takamoto Katsuta – one that was certainly marred by those four non-scores from the first six events. Since Kenya, the Japanese driver has put together a string of respectable results, the highlight no doubt being that podium in Finland, but it’s safe to say that the balance between consistency and pace is one he’s yet to strike.
Moreover, Tarmac has never been a happy hunting ground for Katsuta, his sole asphalt podium being his home event last year.
But with the entire field learning the intricacies of the event simultaneously, there’s a chance Taka-san could spring a surprise result to complement the invaluable mileage he looks set to acquire.
#3 Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Hyundai i20 N Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-4th-5th
Suninen comes to Central Europe in a predicament not too dissimilar to his team-mate Lappi.
After running in an immaculate second, Suninen misjudged a cut and crashed on the penultimate stage last time out in Chile. The fact that his retirement came in the wake of team boss Cyril Abietboul insisting that two cars make the podium would have only compounded the situation.
With the precise nature of both his and Lappi’s drives next season still uncertain, both of Hyundai’s flying Finns will need to hit the ground running this weekend.
#7 Pierre-Louis Loubet/Benjamin Veillas (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: DNF-DNF-45th
Loubet’s season is perhaps best summed up by M-Sport’s decision to essentially drop him for the season finale in Japan. Adrien Fourmaux will take his place with the Frenchman being given an extended break with the intention of helping him “concentrate fully on getting everything needed in place to ensure that he lines up in Monte Carlo for the start of 2024 season”.
What little momentum Loubet has been able to acquire in 2023 has fallen prey to a series of mechanical gremlins and blatant errors, the most recent of which sent him rolling out a provisional fourth in Chile.
The arrival of Benjamin Veillas is a clear attempt to steady the ship and supply Loubet with a hard reset. The man himself has admitted that, with just one rally left to run, his only realistic goals are to adjust to having Veillas alongside him, “build the confidence and to just try to do a normal rally”.
#13 Grégoire Munster/Louis Louka (Ford Puma Rally1)
Last 3 WRC results: 13th-12th-15th
Much like his last foray into Rally1, Grégoire Munster is looking to gain experience, rather than pursue a top-line drive. But after a steady debut in Chile, he’ll be looking to up the ante.
Back on his preferred surface, the Luxembourger has, by his own admission, “been driving a lot in Germany, some events in Austria, and then the Barum Rally [in the Czech Republic]”.
Whether or not this will translate to a better result remains to be seen (Munster himself has refused to set himself a concrete target) but having acquired experience both on the relevant surface and in the relevant machinery, Munster should produce a stronger showing than in Chile.