DirtFish’s predictions for the 2021 rallying year

The DirtFish team gathers round the crystal ball to look ahead at the upcoming year in rallying

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The New Year is well and truly up and running. The Dakar Rally’s done. Blue Monday might be here, too, but fear not – we’re just days away from the start of the 2021 World Rally Championship. Plenty to get excited about.

In an effort to beat the post-holiday blues – yes, they’re still a thing – we thought we’d get you looking forward to the season ahead by bringing you our staff writers’ hopes and predictions for the rallying year to come.

Don’t worry, we’ve seriously limited the following words: coronavirus, facemask, COVID, pandemic, virus, and lockdown.

And we’re seriously considering banning the word curfew too.

Which WRC round are you looking forward to most this year and why?

 

David Evans: Whenever I set out to answer these questions, I always, genuinely and honestly, mean to give you just one word. One answer. I set out to do as I’m told. But, being completely up front, that’s a very silly question. After the year we’ve just emerged from, how can you see past a return to Jyväskylä? It’s the epicenter of everything we know.

One word: Safari. Kenya’s back! The prospect of seeing current World Rally Cars ripping their way across the African plains, choking the telly heli with their great rooster trails of 100mph dust, is mouthwatering.

And I thought that was it. I thought it was the Safari. Until I remembered Chile, the mountains, the Andes and some of South America’s most challenging roads. And when I remembered Chile, I remembered Japan. And the deal was done. Japan.

It’s got to be. This year’s season finale starts in Nagoya and runs through the Aichi and Gifu prefectures. With challenging asphalt stages split by a service park in Toyota Stadium, Toyota City, the November 11-14 event will bring Asia back to the WRC in fine style.

But my choice is about more than the roads, more than the service park or the competition, it’s about embracing one of the most ardent groups of rally fans anywhere in the world. Japan. I can’t wait. Never in doubt…

 

Luke Barry: If last season taught us anything, it’s to approach any question like this with caution. After all, 10 rallies were either axed from the original 2020 schedule or the updated one drafted due to the pandemic, so there are absolutely no guarantees with a WRC calendar anymore!

Let’s be optimistic though and look at what we should have in store. It might be a slight cop out, but the Monte is always a classic and the last two years in particular have produced incredibly tense battles that have lasted the distance. Never underestimate the importance of winning the opening round, so I’m keen to see who makes the brightest start and grabs that extra bit of confidence because of it.

Other highlights for me include Ypres – as I think it is one of the best rallies in the world, so it deserves to have the best drivers in the world competing there – and the recently announced Arctic Rally, which will be an intriguing prospect too. Last year’s Rally Sweden essentially showed us what Sweden would be like without snow, and now we may have the opportunity (for the first time since Norway in 2007 and 2009) to see what a snow rally looks like when it’s not in Sweden.

Finally, the trips to Kenya and Japan will both be mega in their own right. We’ve been teased both of these events for a while, so to finally see a new generation tackle them both is tantalizing.

 

Josh Suttill: The Japanese event should make a welcome return to the WRC calendar this season after an 11-year absence. It regularly produced brilliant drama, such as the 2007 edition that featured incidents for the two title protagonists Sébastien Loeb and Marcus Grönholm.

In 2021, COVID-19 permitting, it will host the final round of what should be a closely fought championship battle. Rally Japan will be an emotional event for Toyota on its home soil.

Not only will Toyota likely be in both championship fights, but it marks the final appearance for its seven-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Ogier before he bows out of the championship. Home hero Takamoto Katsuta will also have a great chance to impress, considering he won the 2019 candidate Shinhiro Rally on similar roads and he’ll be at the end of his first full season in the top class.

You’d hope by November that we’ll get rally fans back on the stages in full force, so the passionate Japanese fans can enjoy the WRC’s finest up close and personal for the first time since 2010.

 

Elliot Wood: It’s amazing that Rally Japan has only featured in the world championship six times, as it’s so firmly ingrained in my memory both for its scenery and its action – and special stage 2 on Colin McRae Rally 3.

It should have returned last year, but the wait could be all the more worth it for 2021 as its mid-November date could mean we get sludgy stages from weather, a likely title decider as its currently occupying the season finale slot, and Sébastien Ogier back in the country he’s not only representing with Toyota but also where he made his name with his stunning 2010 win.

While Toyota has been keeping the rallying scene alive locally with its own series, as well as the host of older machinery that is in action in Japan, the steady decline of the Asia-Pacific Rally Championship over the last few years means the region is in need of a rallying stimulus. The send-off of the current generation of World Rally Cars should do the trick.

S�bastien Loeb, Red Bull Rally,   Citro�n WRC Team

Credit: Gepa Pictures/McKlein/Red Bull Content Pool

You get to go to one non-WRC event in the coming year. Which one and why?

 

DE: What! So you’ve just taken question one and opened it up to the best of everything everywhere else in the world? The tricky just got trickier.

Here goes. It’s got to be the DirtFish SummerFest. I haven’t been to one yet – something got in the way in 2020 – but having heard about the previous editions, I can’t wait. DirtFish is one cool school and when North America’s finest puts on a show, it’s a show worth watching (you’ll catch further details right here on DirtFish in the coming weeks and months).

Which is why I’m not even going to mention Goodwood’s Revival. And forget the Festival of Speed. If you can. Which I can’t.

If anything was going to run SummerFest a close second, it would probably mean staying in the States for Pikes Peak. I’ve been to Colorado Springs once and totally fell in love with the run up America’s mountain.

See… I got all the way through there without even mentioning Rallyday – a fall must for this year.

What’s that you say? Mull. Ah, Tobermory in early October for the Mull Rally. Now that’s going to run Seattle in the summer close…

 

LB: Beggars can’t be choosers… I’d take any! I’ve worked as a full-time rally journalist for just under a year now and have only been to three rallies in that time. That needs to change.

To be more specific though, I’m quite looking forward to this year’s British Rally Championship. There are some real gems on the updated calendar – particularly the Circuit of Ireland and Trackrod Rally Yorkshire – and it will be fantastic to see rallying back under way in the UK again.

That should include a nod to nostalgia too with the biannual Roger Albert Clark Rally. This event is always a highlight with five days of competition for historic cars mimicking the atmosphere and competition of Rally GB’s of old. And with no Rally GB in the world championship this year, its importance has shot up yet another notch.

 

JS: Witnessing the birth of a new championship is always exciting, especially when it’s one that harbors so much potential. A stacked list of high-quality drivers and teams is a brilliant foundation for the new Extreme E series.

The cars look mega, the locations are unique, and the format is essentially World RX with driver swaps. Seeing a grid with 50% female participation is a breath of fresh air and there’s just as many superstars amongst them as their male counterparts. The series is promoting an increasingly important message and one that should help it resonate with a new audience – even if it fails to satisfy more traditional fans.

Stuff will go wrong as with the first round of any new championship, but that will just make the whole event even more entertaining.

 

EW: I like left-field motorsport, it’s where some of the most interesting stories can be found. In 2021 there’s still the chance that a pandemic could leave me stranded in another country, so ideally I want to go to a rally where the weather is nice.

And so I come to July’s Rally Hawke’s Bay, which is the fourth round of this year’s New Zealand Rally Championship. A country doing an exceptional job of limiting the spread of COVID-19.

The event takes place on the eastern coast of the North Island, and is organized by a local car club that’s been involved in motorsport since 1947. One of its most famous members is four-time Bathurst 1000 winner Greg Murphy, who isn’t alien to hitting the stages to try out Rally Hawke’s Bay. Could he enter it again in 2021?

Previous itineraries for the rally have included stages through the town of Clive, battles near Hasting, gravel roads that run between the historic Cape Kidnappers and mountains straight out of Lord of the Rings. It would be great to see Hayden Paddon take his all-electric Hyundai Kona EV to the rally.

Hyundai EV rally car _action3 by Graeme Murray Photography

Credit: Graeme Murray Photography

Which up and coming driver should we look out for in 2021?

 

DE: Would it be too obvious to talk about Oliver Solberg? I could go for some obscure Peruvian nobody’s heard of. Or the latest Tartu teen to take the Estonian junior scene by storm. But, every now and then, it’s worth going route one.

Solberg was a sensation in the second half of last year and there’s nothing to suggest his ascent of the learning curve is going to slow in any way, shape or form. At 19-and-a-half, Solberg has already enjoyed his fair share of the limelight, but that has nothing to do with him being born into the world’s most famous rallying family and everything to do with the speed, commitment and rally craft he’s already shown at the sport’s highest level.

 

LB: Marco Bulacia. The 20-year-old still has a relatively low profile in international rallying despite three seasons in the WRC’s support classes including a WRC3 title fight last term. A season alongside Andreas Mikkelsen at Toksport in WRC2 should change that however.

The added media exposure of WRC2, coupled to being the team-mate of a triple WRC winner, could be the making or ruining of Bulacia. But expect it to be the making. The expectation will not be to keep pace with Mikkelsen but to be in the mix. Should he muscle in at Adrien Fourmaux, Nikolay Gryazin and Ole Christian Veiby level then it will be a job superbly done. I fully expect him to do just that and give himself the limelight his talent already deserves.

Sean Johnston is another man worth looking out for too. Also in the WRC2 class, the American (and his co-driver and good friend Alex Kihurani) is somebody I’ve got to know fairly well over the last year due to his partnership with DirtFish, and that means I know how hard he works. I’ve never come across anyone that strives as hard for perfection as Johnston does, and he’s starting from a competitive base in 2021 so expect him to be putting his Citroën C3 Rally2 places you wouldn’t expect to see it throughout the season.

 

JS: Looking beyond the star-studded WRC2 line-up this year, I’ve gone for Lauri Joona. The young Finn won the prestigious AKK Flying Finn Future Star award last November, beating the 2019 recipient Sami Pajari, who finished runner-up to Tom Kristensson in the 2020 Junior WRC.

Joona would have earned a podium on his one-off JWRC debut last season had a last-stage puncture not robbed him of third place on Rally Sweden. He’ll be back for his first full campaign in the series in 2021, and he should be among the title contenders.

 

EW: It may be an obvious answer, but Oliver Solberg is the hottest talent outside of a World Rally Car right now. He doesn’t even need to be in current-spec Rally1 machinery to be scoring WRC points though, as he proved in a Rally2 car in Estonia, Turkey, Sardinia and Monza last year.

It’s not rare for a driver in the support categories to get a top-six stage time, but Solberg was matching the WRC’s manufacturers on more than one occasion in 2020. He was doing this while switching between different cars too, and even different teams, as he also tackled the European Rally Championship.

With Hyundai behind him for the upcoming season, he’s not only one of the favorites for the WRC2 title but also odds-on to be sitting in a Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC at some point in the year.

AUTO - ERC - RALLY DI ROMA CAPITALE 2020

Credit: Frédéric Le Floc'h/DPPI

What – or who – is going to be the biggest surprise in 2021?

 

DE: Two words: Rally Star. The FIA has described its latest initiative to get young feet into rally cars as ‘its most ambitious driver detection program ever launched’. Who are we to argue?

Rally Star was officially underway on January 1, with domestic governing bodies – ASNs – around the world running initial selection processes via an online event – utilizing the World Rally Championship’s official game WRC9 – or motorkhana, a slalom-style driving event using standard road cars.

From there, each ASN can put forward 15 drivers to their continental final. The first continental final comes in Europe in April. Soon after, the FIA will have a solid handle on the finest and fastest rally driving prospects aged between 17 and 26.

What’s even better is that M-Sport and Pirelli are partnering in what’s going to be a game-changing young driver program.

 

LB: Jari-Matti Latvala. I’ll explain.

A lot of us were left gobsmacked at his appointment to become Toyota’s team principal at the end of last year, citing his occasional mental fragility as a driver and wondering how that could ever stand him in good stead as one of the WRC’s three team leaders. Surely he would get munched for breakfast by the likes of Andrea Adamo?

But don’t expect Latvala to be the de facto leader as such. Yes he will be the figurehead and will be the one in regular dialogue with Japan, but he is not the only leader in Toyota’s set-up. We can expect a far flatter structure within Toyota’s walls this year, with Kaj Lindström, Tom Fowler, Jarmo Lehtinen and Latvala forming a strong axis. And that’s a formidable line-up.

Ultimately success for any brand is the manufacturers’ championship, so that’s a major factor in judging how successful Latvala’s first term in charge is. Of course, Hyundai isn’t exactly light on world-class drivers, but are you going to be betting against Sébastien Ogier on a swansong, a hungrier Elfyn Evans and a more experienced Kalle Rovanperä? I’m not.

 

JS: It’s probably not the biggest stretch to declare that Kalle Rovanperä will be among the contenders for the 2021 WRC crown. Last year, Rovanperä would have been an outside contender for the title heading into the Rally Monza finale, had he not crashed out of the penultimate round.

He’s consistently shown a rapid level of growth and maturity beyond his years throughout his short career so far. There’s little doubt that he has the machinery underneath him considering his Toyota team-mates Ogier and Elfyn Evans battled for the 2020 title.

Rovanperä will be especially strong on the events he competed on last year, although he’s hurt by the fact that only three of them appear on the 2021 schedule. Nevertheless, he shouldn’t have to wait long for his maiden rally victory and he’ll keep the experienced hands honest.

 

EW: Rally Croatia. Because, at present, I know absolutely nothing about it beyond when it was first announced as an addition to the 2021 WRC calendar. If it actually happens, that will be a surprise already.

Jari-Matti Latvala

Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

What is 2021 going to mean to you?

 

DE: Hopefully… getting back to what we know and what we do best. I know we’re not allowed to talk about things like pandemics, curfews and cancellations, but you’d have to have spent the last 12 months on another planet not to understand what the world’s been through since this time last year.

Yes, sport pales into insignificance when you consider the hardship and misery heaped on us since we welcomed a new decade across the doorstep a year and three weeks ago, but the time has come to look forward. The time has come to talk vaccine, not virus.

I can’t wait to plan a trip, then make it. And the trips I’m most looking forward to this season will be the trans-Atlantic trips. Yes, to Chile. But also to Seattle. I can’t wait to get back to rally school.

I’m proud to work alongside some of the finest, most committed and dedicated rally enthusiasts anywhere in the world. But I’m tired of seeing them on this screen I’m staring at right now. Zoom’s done. Let’s get back to reality.

 

LB: A final chance to see the current generation of World Rally Cars in action, as from 2022 the class will be renamed Rally1 and will incorporate hybrid technology.

Whatever your view on the WRC’s latest regulations and the timing of them, it will be a shame to wave goodbye to the current breed of cars at the end of Rally Japan. It’s always hard to quantify an era and how revered it will be in years to come when you are living through it, but the Ogier, Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak narrative of the 2017-2021 era of the WRC will live long in the memory as one of the best.

The cars are scintillating to watch stage-side and have been super close on the timesheets. The future should be similarly exciting, but it looks unlikely that we will see rally cars as fast as this again in a good while.

 

JS: I’d like to say that the 2021 season will mark a return to normality with fans lining the stages and the end of constant calendar-reshuffling, but I can’t predict that unfortunately.

Instead, the 2021 WRC season – in whatever form it takes – will provide a much-needed distraction for all rallying fans amid another impossible year as well as Extreme E, World RX, the European Rally Championship and everything in-between.

Last year proved that we can still sit down and witness some fantastic rallying even when we’re in the midst of an ever-raging global crisis.

 

EW: I was too young to remember the Safari Rally when it was still a WRC-scoring rally, but grew up well aware of its presence within the wider motorsport world and its importance to Africa, so seeing it on the biggest stage of all once again is going to be great. Especially with the current generation of WRC cars.

So much mystique surrounds the event, and I’m sure it will deliver not just in the in-stage storylines but as a world-class sporting event.

Words:DirtFish Media

Images:M-Sport, Gepa Pictures/McKlein/Red Bull Content Pool, Graeme Murray Photography, Frédéric Le Floc'h/DPPI, Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool

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