The 2023 World Rally Championship season is entering its final chapter.
Two Tarmac rallies remain – Central European Rally and Rally Japan – and two major titles are still up for grabs: the drivers’ championships in both WRC and WRC2.
Plenty, then, is still on the line, and even more is up for grabs.
So what can we expect? That’s what we decided to ask our team of writers ahead of the penultimate round of the season, and here’s what they had to say in response to four key questions:
The WRC title battle
Reigning world champion Kalle Rovanperä holds a 31-point lead over his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans heading into CER, giving him a very real chance of becoming a two-time World Rally champion on Sunday.
But will he get the job done this weekend? And, actually, could Evans provide a major upset and claim the championship for himself?
Luke Barry: I’d love to believe that the championship is in for one final twist, and we’ll be treated to a thrilling finale on Toyota’s home soil between its two leading drivers. But my head is overriding my answer on this one.
There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Evans can’t beat Rovanperä in CER, which in theory would be enough to prolong the title battle to Japan. But Rovanperä is just so good on powerstages that even if he does finish behind Evans, I can fully see him recovering that deficit in bonus points.
I feel a great degree of empathy for Evans. The level at which he is currently operating is supreme, but much like Mikko Hirvonen a decade before him he is just unfortunate to be competing against such generational talents in Ogier and now Rovanperä.
James Bowen: Yes he will. I can’t see Rovanperä dropping the ball at this point. He made his token ‘one mistake per year’ in Finland, and he’s not going to make another one. And at CER, he knows if he beats Evans then the title is done, and I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t his target for this weekend.
At the end of the day, Kalle is a killer. He’ll do what he does best at CER, and kill off any dreams of the title heading to Wales.
Jon Scoltock: Evans deserves to become a world champion before he retires but, even though the last two events will suit the second-place man, I don’t see any scenario where he will overcome Rovanperä’s 31 point advantage.
The Welshman will carry the fight to Japan, but the big prize will ultimately go to his team-mate.
Hamir Thapar: The abridged version is yes and probably with a 31-point lead in hand and a maximum of 60 available, nothing short of a dramatic downturn in form is going to deny Rovanperä a second consecutive drivers’ championship.
Elfyn Evans’ consistency has been commendable this season, as has the maturity with which he’s capitalized on his team-mate’s sparse misfortune.
With CER a level playing field for all the top runners, there’s a decent chance Evans could beat Rovanperä (like he did in Croatia) and drag the Finn to a title decider in Japan, but given his less than ideal track record when it comes to such showdowns (we all remember 2020 and 2021) and Rovanperä’s raw pace, the Finn is still the overwhelming favorite for the title.
Colin Clark: Of course Rovanperä will. He’s an unstoppable force right now and on a different level from everyone else.
Tänak and M-Sport’s ending
CER marks the first event since Ott Tänak’s departure from M-Sport Ford to Hyundai was announced, so there’ll undoubtedly be a different energy around both driver and team this weekend.
Both will be keen to end their year together on a high, and it’s more than plausible as proved by Tänak’s victory on Rally Chile last time out.
But can this partnership win more rallies together before they break up?
CC: Well they can’t win more than two that’s for sure! Tänak is as fast as anyone on Tarmac but road position, and potentially reliability issues, may scupper their chances.
HT: Though not impossible, I’d be surprised to see Tänak top the podium in M-Sport colors again. Chile was an incredible drive of that there’s no doubt, one Tänak can partially attribute to his preferential road position and Rovanperä’s struggles.
These are advantages he can no longer rely on, thanks to the final two events being run on asphalt. Given the all-important title battle up front and a resurgent Thierry Neuville, Tänak will have his work cut out if he wants to mix it up with that particular trio and end the season on a high.
Why not? Tänak's speed on the second day of Croatia Rally was supremeLuke Barry
JB: I don’t see Ott Tänak switching off just because he’s off to Hyundai, he is a winning machine after all. And while the team may well be a little unsettled by the news of the departure of its main man and the unknowns going into next year, that won’t play on anyone’s mind once the rallies begin.
After all, M-Sport has been in this position many times before. Winning is the best medicine, and I definitely see Tänak and M-Sport in the mix for the top spot on CER and Rally Japan.
JS: As we have seen so many times, the Puma Rally1 is a temperamental beast, so there are no guarantees that the magic of Chile will be repeated.
Couple that with the fierceness of the title battle and I predict that Tänak will be wearing Hyundai colors next time he lifts the winner’s trophy.
LB: Why not? Tänak’s speed on the second day of Croatia Rally was supreme and he seemed to have Evans on the ropes before that mysterious handbrake-related issue halted his charge.
Beyond that we’ve not seen enough Tarmac rallies in 2023 to confidently judge where Tänak and the Puma stack up against the Toyotas and Hyundais – although he didn’t exactly have a clean run in Austria at the weekend! And I suspect that Ogier and Neuville in particular will be very hard to beat on both of these upcoming events.
WRC2’s three-way showdown
In all likelihood, the 2023 WRC2 champion will be crowned this weekend.
Andreas Mikkelsen leads the championship by four points over Yohan Rossel, with Gus Greensmith another five points further adrift. For all three, CER is likely to be their last event of the season, but Mikkelsen does have the freedom in terms of events entered to head to Japan afterwards should he need to.
So who’s going to win?
HT: As tight as it may be atop the WRC2 standings, the smart money is on Andreas Mikkelsen. In a year that’s seen the likes of Oliver Solberg and Adrien Fourmaux show immense pace only to fall back due to inconsistency, Mikkelsen’s experience has really shone through.
He hasn’t just been a model of consistency, having accumulated three wins and a podium from five events, that impressive display in Acropolis served as a reminder of the Norweigian’s immense raw pace – this is after all the man who beat Séb Ogier in equal machinery in Australia 2016.
With two point scoring events left to run and a slim four-point lead in hand, it’s tough to imagine Mikkelsen falling apart from here, not least because of his affinity for Tarmac.
Though not his preferred surface, the Norwegian has been known to perform well on sealed surfaces – you need only cast your mind back to Germany 2017, where he finished second despite limited time at the wheel of his Citroën C3 WRC, to understand my point.
LB: It’s impossible to look beyond Andreas Mikkelsen. The Norwegian has just been too consistently good to let this one drop in my view. He’s yet again proved to be the benchmark of the Rally2 class.
But we haven’t yet seen Mikkelsen on Tarmac in the WRC with a Škoda Fabia RS Rally2.
With that in mind, Yohan Rossel will be the one to push him hardest. He and the Citroën C3 Rally2 proved to be the class of the field in Croatia and also won the other Tarmac round in Monte Carlo. Gus Greensmith will challenge but his defeat to Mikkelsen in Greece looks very prohibitive in terms of his championship dreams.
JB: Hard to say anyone other than Andreas Mikkelsen. You can’t ignore the fact he leads the points with effectively a round in hand, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he beats Yohan Rossel and Gus Greensmith at CER.
The former may be an asphalt specialist, and the latter a winner on Czech roads recently, but Mikkelsen’s proved he’s no slouch on a sealed surface either, and does have some experience of similar stages from his time in the ERC. I think he’ll avenge missing out on last year’s title and take the WRC2 crown again this year.
CC: We know how good the Citroën is on Tarmac so who’s to say Rossel won’t derail the Škoda juggernaut and take the title? Mikkelsen is the man who controls his own destiny though but he has been prone to making silly mistakes when the pressure ramps up.
JS: WRC2 is the standout of the whole WRC circus for me and, while CER will suit Rossel and Greensmith, there’s no better place to be than at the top of the standings, which makes Mikkelsen my title favorite.
Even if CER doesn’t go his way, he could still scrape together the budget to go to Japan and seal the deal.
Loubet vs Fourmaux
Comparing where M-Sport’s two Frenchmen, Pierre-Louis Loubet and Adrien Fourmaux, are in their respective careers to this time 12 months ago is fascinating.
This time last year Fourmaux was on his way down to a Rally2 program, and Loubet was in the process of earning his first full WRC season. But now Loubet will miss the season finale in Japan and will be replaced by… you guessed it, Fourmaux.
Both then have one event in a Rally1 car to end the season in what could potentially be a shootout for a drive in 2024. So who will put in the better performance?
JB: I think this one comes down to momentum. Fourmaux has it, and will be full of confidence after getting the nod from the team to replace Loubet for Rally Japan.
Loubet lacks it, coming off the back of three poor results (though not all of those were his fault) and the departure of former co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul.
I think he’ll be focused on just getting to the finish on CER, and giving his new relationship with Benjamin Veillas time to gel. So for me, Fourmaux will have the stronger showing.
JS: You have to feel for poor Loubet. It’s been a tough season, and parting with Nicolas Gilsoul so late in the day has handed the initiative to Fourmaux.
This is the British Rally champion’s chance to reclaim a seat at the top table, and with Loubet’s troubles I think he will grab the opportunity with both hands.
LB: I’m delighted for Fourmaux that he’s earned his Rally1 reprieve. The step back to a Rally2 program has been the making of him and he’s greatly impressed not just M-Sport but the entire rallying community with his performances this year.
Now it’s time for him to prove it once and for all, back in the car he’s been longing to drive. And I fully expect him to do just that with a solid, mature drive in Japan.
As for Loubet? I think his season has been greater than the sum of its parts, but it probably is for the best that he takes some time to reset. Given the context, Fourmaux I think will be stronger. For Loubet CER will all be about making it through without any dramas alongside new co-driver Benjamin Veillas – who’s a choice that both intrigues and pleases me.
Intrigues me because, like Gilsoul, he’s in his 40s while Loubet is in his 20s – and Loubet appeared to work best with Landais who was just seven years older. But it pleases me because Veillas was spurned 12 months ago not because he wasn’t capable, but because it just didn’t quite click with Ogier. It’s nice to see him get another chance in a Rally1 car, even if it’s only one event for now.
CC: Only Loubet can save himself – and he knows that. Lots of talent and potential but needs to find a style, system and performance level that suits him. Foundations crumble unless they are firmly set, and Loubet is yet to set firm Rally1 foundations.
HT: Despite Loubet having had a full season at the wheel of a Rally1 car, deciding whether or not he will have a stronger end to the year than compatriot Fourmaux is difficult as both men look set for periods of adjustment.
Fourmaux will be jumping back into a top-spec Puma for the first time in a year, while Loubet will be settiling into a rhythym alongside fresh co-driver Benjamin Veillas.
I therefore think it’ll be relatively tight between the two of them, but with Loubet having spent all season in a Rally1 Puma and reportedly adjusted well to new co-driver Veillas in testing, I’m going to back Loubet to have a marginally stronger end to his campaign.