Neuville’s alternative masterplan to fix the WRC

The current WRC points leader has criticised the recent technical changes proposed for the championship

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There was a lot of hullabaloo last week about whether Thierry Neuville wanted to stay or wanted to go from the World Rally Championship.

That’s all been sorted now: Neuville is here to stay, so long as the manufacturers do likewise. End of. If Hyundai offers him a contract for 2025 he’ll sign it.

But it’s worth digging further into how that whole narrative came about: it was a misunderstanding from a point of view focused on the new direction of WRC regulations spelled out by a World Motor Sport Council meeting a few weeks ago. He doesn’t think it’s right and he pointed out that if all the manufacturers walked, it would be the end of his WRC career – but not by choice.

So, forget the supposed big news about Neuville – what about the big picture?

“I was surprised by the number of changes and how aggressive the changes were in such a short period,” Neuville told DirtFish. “I think everybody was surprised.”

That’s a fair comment. A WRC working group had been put together to try and fix rallying’s future and had seemingly left no stone unturned, with almost every aspect of rallying’s top level being tweaked in some manner. Neuville argues that too many stones were turned. Some elements of the WRC needed adjusting – but some of the changes go too far.

“For me, it needs stability in the regulations until the end of 2026, and use these two and a half years now to build something for 2027 which guarantees you to have new manufacturers,” Neuville surmised.

“We all need to sit together and say, listen, we are in a tricky situation. We think it’s preferable to develop regulations for 2027, keep the stable regulations now until 2026 with the manufacturers who are there. There will be no other manufacturers joining in a transition period like now. But new manufacturers need regulations to start preparing for 2027. So it’s all about common sense and just taking the time to discuss together and find solutions for problems we face at the moment.”


The current WRC points leader thinks the Rally1 regulations should remain unchanged until 2027

This is where Neuville wants to make a distinction. Promotion of the championship is one thing, technical regulations another. He’s pleased to see the founding of a unit within the FIA to focus on promoting the WRC: “In terms of promotion, we were not on the level where we should be. So it’s been mentioned many times that we are carrying on with rallying like it has been done 40, 50 years ago. But today, the rallying cannot continue in that way.

“That’s why we – all teams, all crews – gave a long letter with a lot of proposals for better promotion of the championship and the changes we need to bring. I’m very happy to see some of the decisions that have been taken on the promotional side go in a good direction.

Varied rally lengths and less rigid event formats get a thumbs up from Neuville, as does remote services, which he describes as a “good way to start”. And then there’s the addition of the promotional task force within the FIA: “I think it’s a very good point because the FIA probably needs to put more pressure on the current promoter,” said Neuville.

But then there’s the caveat to all of this good news: “But I don’t think it needs all these technical changes now.”

Stability is hard to find against a backdrop of uncertainty in the world of automotive. One element of the planned 2026 Rally1 regulations highlights this: the new safety cell will be designed to hypothetically fit any kind of powertrain, whether that’s combustion engines, electric, hydrogen or something else. As Andrew Wheatley, FIA road sport director, explained a few weeks ago: “One of the design criteria that Xavier [Mestelan-Pinon, FIA technical director] is working to is to ensure that we can put whatever technology into that safety cell. So, this is part of the ongoing, let’s say, future-proof concept for that principle.”

What’s set to happen between now and this new Rally1 car rolling out is potentially a bit messy. There’s talk of old Rally1 and new Rally1 cars running simultaneously in 2026 and of upgrade kits for Rally2 cars being made available so they’ll be closer to Rally1 performance.

That, in turn, poses a headache for the Rally1 manufacturers: they can’t risk being beaten by a souped-up Rally2 machine, as Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala has pointed out. And Neuville agrees: “All the manufacturers who stay in Rally1 would be stupid to invest so much money and not be able to win a rally, because a Rally2 car can win a championship. What’s the point?”

Pepe Lopez

Neuville is concerned about the idea of a Rally2-plus machine beating the Rally1 competitors

So, what can be done instead? It comes back to Neuville’s point about stability. Radically revamping the technical regulations this quickly is not necessary, he believes.

“In the time that we have from now to 2027, we should try to keep the current manufacturers in the championship and follow their suggestions to establish regulations at the end of 2026,” said Neuville.

“We should use that time to get all the manufacturers in the world around the table and ask one question: who is interested in WRC? And you’re going to see, maybe out of 20 or 30, only seven or eight are putting their hand up interested. All the others can leave. OK, what do you guys need, what are your expectations to join the championship? And then you’re going to find out. Some might be reasonable, some might be possible, technically interesting, and I mean there could be a budget cap, there can be a limited number of people in a team, there can be some alternative technologies as they do in Dakar, which has worked there.

“Then you have one to one and a half years to draft the regulations. Once the regulations are drafted, manufacturers are going to say, OK, that sounds interesting, we’re going to join. But we still need one and a half years to prepare for that.”

Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz

Manufacturers are able to bring different technologies, but still compete on an equal playing field on the Dakar

Rally2-plus as a concept is trying to solve one key problem that’s blighting the WRC: a lack of depth in the entry list at the top level. WRC2 has been a roaring success but single-digit entries for the fastest rally cars in the world have become the norm.

An issue with Neuville’s thinking that all eyes should be on new regulations for 2027 and simply not bothering with Rally2-plus at all is those entry list problems become locked in for another two years. But he feels it’s a price worth paying for the long-term stability it could provide.

Neuville’s alternative idea to get more front-running cars before a potential 2027 overhaul is a simple one: get the current Rally1 manufacturers around a table and commit them to running an extra car for the next two years.

“You have two manufacturers who are spending a lot of money per year,” Neuville pointed out. “And you have Ford, which has a car running but there’s no investment needed anymore, and Ford has the budget to run the car with some good drivers. But if you have the two biggest manufacturers in the world, Toyota and Hyundai, why you don’t say: OK, listen, what do you need for those coming years to stay within the championship and to engage an additional car? It’s not a big part of the budget in the season to add one car. So what is needed for the manufacturer to bring more cars at least for the next two years?


Could Hyundai be persuaded to enter an extra car in the WRC next year? Neuville thinks so

“And that’s another good point: change the format of the rally, try to reduce the cost of hospitality, add remote services, and improve the championship promotion. So spend two years already working on that idea and during that time, so you can develop nice regulations with all the manufacturers who are interested in WRC for 2027.

“By 2027 it could be a Rally2-plus formula, it can be a Rally3-plus formula, I don’t know. But who cares? At the moment, though the cars are spectacular, like this you would have several manufacturers in the championship, loads of competition; nobody cares what that car will be for 2027. If there’s a reason for manufacturers to join the championship, it’s because there’s great technology, the promotion between 2024 and 2026 has increased, and so on.”

Another element of the Rally2-plus plan was to allow drivers to get more experience at faster speeds, so they’re better prepared for the step up to Rally1. Andreas Mikkelsen’s learning curve in the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 at the season-opening Rally Monte Carlo suggested even for a highly experienced driver, Rally1 represents a huge step up.

In Neuville’s opinion, this problem doesn’t really exist: “The difference between Rally2 and Rally1 is not bigger than it has been between S2000 and WRC in the past. I’m sorry, there’s no difference. And it was a big step when I came also to WRC. So for me, this is not a problem.”


Neuville's team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen struggled in his Rally1 debut on January's Monte Carlo Rally

Some current Rally2 drivers might not see it this way. Several DirtFish had spoken to were interested in the prospect of Rally2 kits which could allow them to compete on even terms with Rally1 machinery.

As it turns out, Neuville had been making similar phone calls. But unlike us, he wasn’t asking for opinions – he was giving them. And the angle he was pushing is a strong one: if more manufacturers can be convinced to join the WRC in 2027, those seats would effectively start appearing as early as next year, when drivers will be needed for testing and development.

“I spoke to some Rally2 drivers,” continued Neuville, “and they said, maybe it’s an opportunity for us because our cars will be faster, so we will be closer. But I said, you’re still not going to win a rally, so what’s the difference? What’s the opportunity for you? There will not be more manufacturers in Rally2, there will not be more manufacturers in Rally1, so what’s going to make the difference? You’re not going to win a rally, you’re not going to win a championship with a Rally2 car.

“I told them that if there are regulations ready soon for 2027, one which interests manufacturers who are going to join, they’re going to call the Rally2 drivers now and say: listen, we have to develop a car for 2027, we’re going to start at the beginning of 2026 – because you need some time to develop a car if you join a championship – so, we want you to develop our car.

“Manufacturers will start developing, they will hire those drivers, because they are the only ones who are free of contract or already engaged with the brand like Stellantis or Škoda, and would be available to do that development. And probably, with a 95% chance, they would be a potential driver for that manufacturer in 2027.”

Neuville has plenty of opinions. A lot of them are built on solid foundations. More than once the phrase “I don’t know if you agree” came up during what I’d consider less an interview and more like a debate. There were moments his voice raised – through a passion for the point being made, not in the sense of arguing it.

There’s no doubting Neuville’s commitment to the WRC: he’s planning to stick around for the long term, even if it means having to roll up his sleeves and plot a complete redesign of the entire championship to ensure he’s still here for years to come.