It’s within touching distance. The 2023 World Rally Championship is about to begin with the start of the Monte Carlo Rally just days away.
Can you wait? Because we can’t. There’s something super special about this fabled week in January, and this year is certainly no different.
But let’s talk shop. Who’s going to succeed this year? What can we expect from the 51st season in WRC history?
We’ve set our core team of writers a task: to make some pre-season predictions. David Evans, Rob Hansford, Luke Barry and Adam Proud were all asked five key questions about the season ahead, and this is what they delivered.
Let us know your own thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this article:
Will Elfyn Evans become a title contender again?
Rob Hansford: I’d love for Evans to be a title contender in 2023, but unfortunately I’m not convinced he will be.
I know he will have been working over the winter to make himself feel more comfortable with his Toyota GR Yaris Rally1, but I just don’t think he will have found enough to propel him back to the very front.
And with Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville able to build teams around them at M-Sport and Hyundai, not to mention the fact you can fully expect Kalle Rovanperä to be favorite, I think the competition might squeeze Evans to the fringes again this year.
David Evans: Yes. Between the Welshman himself and the brilliant minds that hang out behind the doors of Toyota Gazoo Racing, the issues Evans had with the Yaris Rally1 last season will be put to bed.
That process is already well and truly underway.
To the wider world, the easy opinion to reach is that Elfyn will settle into the role of a perennial number two to Rovanperä. I’ve spoken to plenty at Toyota and they almost take offence at such a one-dimensional view.
Luke Barry: I’m with David on this one. Ask me if I think Evans will win the championship and my answer would be no, but that doesn’t mean to say I don’t think he will be in the fight.
In fact I’m fairly sure that he will be.
Rally Japan is the only evidence we really need. The work Evans did with Toyota on a European gravel test prior to the event seemed to transform him – and he can count himself rather unfortunate not to have won last year’s finale.
And even at the height of his struggles, Evans was never slow. He won just three stages less than Neuville last season and led eight of the 13 rallies. Only championship-winning team-mate Rovanperä headed more.
In short, Evans’ form was exaggerated when set against the previous two seasons he’d enjoyed. What really let him down were those two mistakes on the first two rounds. Avoid that, and he’ll be right in the mix this term.
Adam Proud: I’m going to say yes, as I firmly believe his 2022 struggles were just an anomaly. I think it’s going to be a much more competitive affair this year for the title with a few drivers in the mix, and Evans will be one of those.
As for how fierce of a contender he’ll be? Time will tell on that front, but I think he’ll give everyone else a good run for their money.
Who will be the most impressive driver in WRC2?
RH: If you’d have asked me before the new year, I’d have predicted Adrien Fourmaux to thrive, but now that Gus Greensmith has confirmed he will compete in WRC2, I think he could prove a few doubters wrong and emerge victorious. Either way, WRC2 is in for a cracking year!
DE: The joy of writing this answer at 35,000 feet somewhere between Seattle and London is that deputy editor Luke Barry can’t tell me off for having two drivers.
I simply can’t imagine that Oliver Solberg is going to be anything other than super impressive this season. Last year was skewed by a multitude of factors and that performance simply wasn’t what the 21-year-old was about.
I’ve always been a big Solberg fan – young and old – and I’ve been friends with the family for years (that is, no doubt, enough for some to see mine as a biased, one-eyed view) and that’s afforded me the opportunity to watch Oliver develop as a driver and a human.
He’s pretty good at both. Remember him monstering a 600bhp DS3 Supercar up Goodwood’s hillclimb? Or the way he dismantled David Higgins’ decade of American rally domination in a day or two? Or how he played with Sébastien Ogier at the 2021 Arctic Rally Finland? The dude can drive. He didn’t forget that.
The other one? Sami Pajari. He’s going to be something special; the next big Finn.
LB: I’d never tell you off, David! Particularly not in this instance as you’ve set a base that I’d like to replicate. I’m also picking two drivers.
I can’t disagree with Solberg. After a troubled 2022, everything looks to be in place for Solberg to remind the rallying world of his true talent.
I can’t disagree with Pajari either – his potential is sky high and adaption to Rally2 has already been mightily impressive. But I’m going to stand with one of Rob’s shouts and also pick out Fourmaux.
I see a lot of similarities in Solberg and Fourmaux. Both are clearly very talented but, in hindsight, were thrust into the cut-throat world of Rally1 too soon. Both have a huge opportunity this year to reinvent themselves and I’m predicting them both to excel.
AP: We’ve got three drivers who will no doubt be fired up after dropping from the top class in Fourmaux, Solberg and Greensmith. Now I’m not going to go one better than David and Luke and say all three, I’m going to throw my weight behind Solberg.
I was quite surprised when Hyundai announced it would be parting ways with its young driver. It was quite a tough season, yes, but I had a feeling things would come good for him given more time.
Solberg, in my opinion, has more to prove this year and will be ready to show just what he’s got in his locker to be in a Rally1 car in the future.
There’s less pressure with a WRC2 drive, and I can see him maturing into the talent that we all know he holds.
Will the Tänak and M-Sport partnership prove successful?
RH: I really hope it will. It would be brilliant to see M-Sport back regularly at the very front, winning multiple events. Especially having had such a tough time last year.
Tänak has the bit between his teeth and he won’t settle for anything less than title glory, so ultimately, I think it will be a successful one. If it isn’t… then a lot of questions will be asked of M-Sport’s approach going forward.
DE: Yes. Just yes.
LB: There’s no reason why the Tänak and M-Sport axis should fail in terms of performance or rally victories. But the bar has been set so high that, actually, proving successful would mean one thing and one thing only: Tänak winning the world championship.
Will that happen? Again, there’s no reason why not. But given the strength of the opposition, there can’t be any guarantee of it before round one of 13.
AP: Personally I was sad to see Tänak depart Cumbria for pastures new at the end of 2017. It was a move that ultimately paid off and gave him a world championship two years on, but now he returns to Dovenby Hall.
He’s another driver who will be hungry for success after a very rough 2022 where he couldn’t seem to settle, and that was what brought him back to M-Sport.
A riled up Tänak with the aim to win is something I’m excited to see. This is a reunion that I believe will pay off.
How many rally winners will there be in 2023?
RH: Well, that’s a tough question. I believe there will definitely be three winners with Rovanperä, Neuville and Tänak, but there could be a fourth throughout the year.
I actually don’t think Evans will win in 2023, but wouldn’t put it past Esapekka Lappi to spring a surprise at some stage.
DE: Eight. It’s going to be a ripper of a year.
The winners? Ogier, Rovanperä, Neuville, Tänak, Evans, Lappi, Craig Breen and Takomoto Katsuta. For a fee, I can even tell you where they’re going to win. This is, of course, just my opinion – I didn’t mean for that to come across as some sort of match-fixing kind of thing!
LB: I see Rob’s shout of three and David’s raise of eight, but I’m going for something in the middle with five.
And it’ll be the four likely title contenders that hog the various top steps around the world this year – Rovanperä, Tänak, Neuville and Evans – with the odd victory from part-timer Sébastien Ogier thrown in there too. Starting with this week’s Monte.
Breen would be my pick for an alternative winner – I’m fully expecting his move back to Hyundai to work out – but on the events he’d normally excel, I’m not convinced he’ll prove stronger than Rovanperä or Tänak.
Which, it has to be said, is no discredit to anybody.
AP: I’m going with six. Ogier’s appearances will prove successful, I think Rovanperä is a given, Tänak will sneak a couple of wins in there, Neuville will get one as will Evans.
As for the sixth? Katsuta in Japan. How magic would that be!?
Who’ll be World Rally champion?
RH: I’m torn, really torn.
My head says that it will be Rovanperä’s. He will be calculated right out of the box, and despite the added pressure of being the reigning champion, I think he’ll cope with that and prove once again that he’s the fastest WRC driver right now.
But on the other hand, my heart says Tänak.
Can you imagine the scenes if he and M-Sport were to cross the line on Rally Japan as world champions? For both driver and the team, there’d be a huge reception. And with M-Sport throwing nearly all of its backing behind Tänak for 2023, it could well become a reality.
DE: Tänak and Martin Järveoja. The boys are back in town.
LB: Rovanperä. By no means am I expecting the same sort of walkover that we saw last year – the opposition is far too strong for that to happen. But I don’t believe a sterner challenge weakens Rovanperä’s hand in the slightest – quite the opposite. I’m expecting him to thrive off it.
He’s too good a championship thinker to let a second one slip him by. But if he doesn’t do it, it’ll be because Tänak, Neuville or anyone else has strung together a simply awesome run that was too good to resist.
Above all, I’m craving a repeat of five years ago. The Ogier/Evans Monza battles of 2020 and ’21 were all well and good, but bring me a three-way tussle between drivers in three different teams like we had in Australia 2018 please.
That’s something we can all get behind.
AP: This is a tricky one. There’ll be a few contenders to start off with, which I think will gradually trickle down to a final round face-off between two: Rovanperä and Tänak.
As for who will get the better of the other? I’m going with Tänak.
Like Rob said, M-Sport will be throwing absolutely everything it can muster behind a Tänak title in 2023, and I can see it paying off come November.