Five local heroes that could benefit from WRC rule changes

Proposed rule changes by the FIA to close the gap between Rally1 and Rally2 could bring back the local hero to WRC

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National heroes are few and far between in the World Rally Championship these days. Gone are the days of local legends like Mark Higgins, Jorge Recalde and Jani Paasonen making a nuisance of themselves at the sport’s sharp end.

Potential regulatory revisions could reverse that trend. If June does make Rally2 faster and Rally1 slower, it’s possible that we’ll see privateer protagonists back up where they belong, enjoying their share of the spotlight.

But who would be there? Who are those unsung national heroes?

Rally di Gran Bretagna 2002

Three-time British Rally Champion Mark Higgins frequently ran inside the overall top 10 on his home WRC event, with a best finish of sixth on Rally GB 2002

Alasdair Lindsay and James Bowen have put together a shortlist of five drivers who they feel are worthy of a shot at the WRC. Naturally, they’re not suggesting their choices should slot straight in alongside the likes of Kalle Rovanperä in the Rally1 elite, but a good WRC2 seat should give them a fair chance at showing their talents against the world championship’s established names.

Here’s who made the list.

Mārtiņš Sesks

Martins Sesks

Sesks has won the previous two editions of Rally Liepāja, the event that becomes Rally Latvia in the WRC this season

Sesks has been making his way up the rallying ladder for some time now. He’s got three seasons of Junior WRC under his belt, has notched up wins in the European Rally Championship and will be in the ERC again this season.

But Latvia’s ascendancy to the WRC provides an opportunity. Liepāja is the host city of the nation’s WRC round and it’s Sesks’ hometown. He’s also won the rally twice as an ERC round.

Now imagine a Fabia RS Rally2 with new aero bits bolted to it and a bit more power, against Rally1 cars that have been slowed down. There’d be two drivers the Rally1 crews would be sweating over: Sesks and Solberg, who also has an enviable track record in Liepāja.

It seems inconceivable that Sesks won’t take on his home WRC round this year. He’ll be a hot favorite for class victory. But in a world where a Rally2 car can keep up with a Rally1? He could well keep the WRC’s best on their toes on his home turf.

Alasdair Lindsay

Brandon Semenuk

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Semenuk is a double-ARA champion, and took his 16th career win on last week's Rally in the 100 Acre Wood

Canadian mountain biker-turned rallying star Brandon Semenuk has had a meteoric rise to the top of the American Rally Association ranks. Although he’d dabbled in rallying for the better part of a decade, it was 2020 when things got serious after he signed for Subaru’s factory ARA program.

Since then, Semenuk has won 55% of the events in America’s premier rally championship, including an incredible 11 consecutive events dating from the end of the 2022 season to last week’s Rally in the 100 Acre Wood. He’s racked up two ARA titles along the way, and is already well on his way to a third.

Although the depth of competition he’s faced hasn’t always been stellar, Semenuk’s numbers are still staggering for someone who’s effectively embarking on a second career – with mountain biking remaining very much his bread and butter. In short: American rallying done, it’s time for a new challenge.

A shot in WRC2 will allow the rallying world to see how good Semenuk really is, and give North American fans even more of a reason to tune-in to the WRC if the USA gets the nod for a 2026 calendar slot. Surely that’s enough of an incentive for someone to fund Semenuk’s ride at world championship level?

Either way, he’s more than earned his chance to take-on the world’s best, and the entire American rallying community, including six-time American champion Travis Pastrana, agrees.

So, Semenuk in a Red Bull-backed Toyota GR Yaris Rally2-plus for Rally USA 2026 anyone? Let’s make it happen.

James Bowen

Luis Monzón

Luis Felipe Monzon

Monzón impressivley set the pace on the 2022 Rally Islas Canarias, at the age of 55

Think of the Canary Islands in rallying and it’s hard not to conjure up images of local legend Luis Monzón in a Ford, Peugeot or Lancia. The Spanish mainland might have Carlos Sainz but off the coast of Morocco, Monzón is the superstar – and he has two Spanish titles of his own.

Monzón does have a handful of WRC appearances under his belt already. His best finish was on Rally Spain, where he picked up a seventh place overall. The caveat – it was in a Lancia Delta. In 1991!

You know what? Doesn’t matter. Next year, the WRC will be rocking up to Monzón’s turf, not the other way around. He’s 57 years old – but past his prime? Think again. Look at Rally Islas Canarias two years ago; when facing off against the ERC field, he was faster than all of them and looked set to win until a puncture took him out of the running.

He presumably won’t be the only Canary Islander taking up the chance to compete against the WRC’s best next year; Enrique Cruz and Yeray Lemes will surely have a crack too. And it could be argued that Cruz would be a better bet, considering he’s still competing full seasons and is the dominant force on the island today.

But no matter how much time has passed, no matter how little seat time he may have had recently, 2022 was a reminder that Monzón can still send the home crowd into delirium.

AL

Keith Cronin

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Cronin is tackling both the Irish and British national rallying championships in 2024

Any driver who’s been a dominant force in a national championship deserves a shout-out on this list. But a driver who’s dominated two national series? Well, that’s surely more than enough to earn them a place in the WRC?

That’s exactly what Ireland’s Keith Cronin has done pretty much every time he’s got behind the wheel in the past decade. His four British Rally Championship titles sit nicely alongside his 2016 Irish Tarmac Rally Championship crown, which came in the only season in which he competed in Ireland full-time in the last decade.

After sitting out most of last season, the 37-year-old is competing in both the Irish and British series this year, and with two wins from two starts in Ireland already, and status as a BRC title favorite, there’s a very real possibility he’ll hold both crowns come the end of the season – a feat that hasn’t been achieved since Jimmy McRae did it in 1981.

Cronin’s WRC starts have been sporadic over the years, with a 2013 WRC3 campaign in 2013 representing his only real crack at the big time. But with the success the Irishman has earned and enjoyed in Rally2 machinery since then, surely the time is right for the five-time national series champion to step up to WRC2 level.

If Rally Ireland gets its much-anticipated slot on the 2025 WRC calendar, it could be the perfect chance for the local hero to show he can mix it with the world’s best Rally2 drivers.

JB

Jan Kopecký

Jan Kopecky

Kopecký won his home ERC round last season; Barum Czech Rally Zlín

Kopecký has already been there and done that. He’s a WRC2 champion, a European champion, an Asia-Pacific champion and has won his home nation’s national series 10 times.

Suffice to say Kopecký is already a home hero in the Czech Republic. And you could argue he’s already had his chance on the world stage; all those WRC2 trophies over the years would suggest as much.

But a Rally2 car capable of running among the Rally1s, in Kopecký’s hands, could be an exciting prospect. Imagine this: he takes one last roll of the dice to chase that elusive overall WRC podium finish on the Central European Rally. Czech roads? Can’t be beaten there, surely; even today he’s still the clear benchmark in the Czech Republic. German asphalt? Three of his four WRC stage wins were scored there (albeit in a different part of the country).

Kopecký fever is very much a thing on Barum Rally Zlín. He could easily bring that fever with him to Prague. Erik Cais might be the Czech Republic’s driver for the future – but make Rally2 cars faster now and it’s Kopecký that could shine immediately.

AL

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