There’s a new/old look to the World Rally Championship calendar for 2020, as a schedule shake-up means a different order to the second half of the season in particular and the return of three nations with great rally pasts.
Here’s our full guide to what to expect from each event over the coming WRC season.
Monte Carlo Rally
Date: January 23-26
Surface: Asphalt, snow and ice
The oldest rally in the world. Created in 1911 as a way of encouraging folk from the north of Europe to forget the worst of winter, risk a ride through the Alps and emerge into the Monegasque sunshine. The sun always shines in Monaco. It worked. They came in their droves. And then came back again for the rally, with entries topping 350 cars in the 1960s.
The Monte is as famous as it is infamous, with the notoriously fickle Alpine weather doing its thing to make or break a result. For more infamy, see 1966 when the top four crews were disqualified on trumped up charges, leaving the way clear for a Citroën to win.
Old and controversial it might be, but the WRC wouldn’t be the WRC without the Monte at the top of each season.
Date: February 13-16
At best, this is a winter wonderland; a rally touched by absolute magic. Cars balance on a 100mph knife edge, with their survival dependent entirely on 1536 tungsten studs divided equally between four tires. Watching a well driven World Rally Car in perfect conditions is a sight to behold. It’s poetry.
At worst, this is a mild-wintered puddle-fest with the stunning bright white resprayed a dirty brown. The biggest challenge now is keeping as many of those 1536 studs in the tires as the crews ride over gravel emerging from not-so-permafrost.
The organizers moved the rally north to Torsby in an effort to chase more chill, but the best bet for snowy conditions remains over the border in Norway, where the event now traditionally spends its opening day.
Year on year, it’s a meteorological gamble. But when it’s good, it’s great.
Date: March 12-15
Location: Guanajuato, Mexico
In the championship since 2004, this event has always been one of the most compact, with the rough, rocky gravel tracks in the Leon suburbs doubling for one week a year as the road to Central American WRC glory.
The city’s grown and grown as industry’s moved in over the last decade, but head way out of town to some of the further away stages and you’re plum in the middle of nowhere, with just a cowboy and a cacti for company.
One unique feature of this event is the height of the stages, with some tests rising to 14,000 feet. That’s enough altitude to leave your average World Rally Car gasping for sufficient breath to feed a turbocharger’s appetite for oxygen. The teams prepare specific maps for the car’s ECU in an effort to work with a power drop that can be as much as 30%.
As well as being the highest, Mexico is also one of the hottest with temperatures sometimes showing a 60-degree (Celsius) swing from the snows of round two.
Date: April 23-25
Location: Cordoba, Argentina
Based: Villa Carlos Paz
Watching the South American autumn sunrise between the lunar landscape of the fabled El Condor stage is almost spiritual. The snoring coming from tents housing Fernet-Branca-fuelled locals brings you back down to earth. But only briefly.
Rally Argentina is one of the most stunning rounds of the season. The roads vary greatly, from the Santa Rosa quick stuff down south to the twisty, technical tests which traditionally close out proceedings on the final day.
But Rally Argentina’s about more than beautiful vistas and watersplashes, it’s about a fabulous culture of intense red wine and an excess of red meat. Rallying done for the day, a long glass of Malbec and a plate full of Bife de lomo is one of the season’s highlights.
Date: May 21-24
Location: north-west coast, Portugal
For El Condor, read Fafe. For Argentina, read Portugal. The Portuguese fans always match their South American friends for absolute rally passion. At times in the event’s past that passion has been difficult to contain with catastrophic consequences – most notably in 1986 when Joaquim Santos’ RS200 went off the road and into fans lining the road through the Sintra hills. Four people were killed and 32 taken to hospital.
Lessons were learned and the rally which runs today is a world away from the 1980s. In recent years, the Portuguese organizers have produced something of a blueprint in terms of fan management.
But the roads they stand alongside haven’t changed a bit – they’re still among the most challenging, rewarding and enjoyable in Europe.
Date: June 4-7
Location: north-west coast, Sardinia
For 30 years, Italy’s round of the World Rally Championship meant only one thing: Sanremo. And Sanremo, in turn, meant two things: the asphalt stages in the Ligurian mountains behind the town itself and the trip around the coast to gravel roads which thread their way between achingly beautiful Tuscan towns like San Gimignano and Montalcino.
In 2004, when the promoter dictated asphalt stages were dull, Italy was forced to find an all-dirt event. The best place for that was Sardinia, where Costa Smeralda stages were bolted together to provide an island paradise for Italian rally fans.
The WRC tifosi took some convincing, but 16 years on, the rough, rocky roads are as much a part of the world championship calendar as the stunning, harbourside Alghero home the event’s found.
Safari Rally Kenya
Date: July 16-19
Location: southern Kenya
The first of three returning classics, the Safari has been missing from the WRC calendar since 2002. What we’ve got this year, in terms of competitive distance, is a Safari in the shadow of its former self.
But the days of racing along open roads, through towns, with only an overflying helicopter to keep you safe are gone. They simply can’t come back.
What we’ve got in their place is a route run on a private estate roads conforming much more closely to the rules and regulations governing the other rounds of the series.
But don’t worry, this will be an all-African round of the world championship. The roads will be pukka, Safari rough in places and the wildlife, the elephants and giraffes, are all original too.
Given the ban on testing on longhaul rallies, it’s going to be fascinating to see who can make a World Rally Car tailored to the demands of Europe’s fast gravel work in the African dirt.
Date: August 6-9
Location: central Finland
Monte’s always a big tick in the box, but if you ask any driver which rally they really want to win, it’s this one.
Finland – or the 1000 Lakes as it was known previously – is always the fastest round of the season, Ott Tänak managed a 76mph average for last year’s 200-odd mile route.
But Finland’s about more than just who spends longest in top gear. It’s about going ballistic as well; the famous Ouninpohja yellow house jumps regularly hurls cars 50 meters down the road.
Finland is about bravery and bragging rights. And it’s about a sport which is actually more of a religion to a nation born and brought up on such iconic names as Mikkola, Vatanen, Grönholm and now Rovanperä the second…
Rally New Zealand
Date: September 3-6
Location: North Island
The World Rally Championship’s Aotearoa (it means land of the long, white cloud) return is long overdue. New Zealand is a sports-mad nation that totally gets the WRC and loved taking it to heart year after year.
The series hasn’t been to the bottom end of the earth and landed in the South Pacific since 2012, which means only a handful of the drivers (Ott Tänak, Sébastien Ogier, Thierry Neuville and hopefully Hayden Paddon) have actually experienced the camber-surfing pleasure of rallying in this part of the world.
The stages are an absolute dream to drive, with smooth gravel rotating the cars into some of most beautifully flowing roads anywhere on planet earth. And the camber thing really does work, with the drivers hooking the car up into the corner and pulling unreasonable speeds.
But get it wrong, get just a wheel on the wrong side of the crown of the road and you’re out of there.
Rally of Turkey
Date: September 24-27
Location: Mugla province, south-west Turkey
This is the third and final year of Turkey’s residency on the WRC calendar and it’s a rally which polarises opinion. For Toyota Gazoo Racing team principal Tommi Makinen, it’s a step too far in terms of rock and rough.
But for the drivers who emerges from the baking forest roads at the top of the table on a Sunday afternoon, it’s an ultimately worthwhile exercise in driving quickly slowly.
In the absence of the Acropolis, it’s good to have an event which demands significant input from the head as well as the right foot, but with Japan back onboard, selling Turkey as the WRC’s Asian outing is potentially less attractive.
Date: October 15-18
Location: Saarland, Germany
On the calendar this year at the cost of Rally Spain, with the price being to run in the same week the WRC would normally be visiting the Costa Daurada (Spain skips this year, but will be back in place for 2021).
The difference here is that Salou in mid-autumn is a very different prospect to Saarland. It’s almost bound to be raining on the roads around Bostalsee in October and that will turn a slippery, tricky Rally Germany into a living nightmare for the crews.
Stages like the mind-bendingly twisty, junction-ladden Panzerplatte – which contains approximately 1.27 million grip changes – will be fabulously entertaining for you and I, but a shocker for the boys and girls sitting on the startline.
And the vineyards in the rain, all that water running down those roads? Nice.
Date: October 29-November 1
Like Safari, this is a rally which fails to live up to a once fearsome reputation. The days of five days and four nights of driving taking crews up and down Britain through ‘killer Kielder’ and ‘grizzly Grizedale’ are long gone.
But in modern-day terms, GB’s still one of the toughest around, with the crews dragged from their beds well before dawn to leave the north Welsh coast and head south for such utter classics as Dyfi and Myherin which sit in the middle of the country.
Moving the service park to Llandudno was something of a masterstroke last season – lifting it from the obscurity of a Toyota dealership car park in Deeside and taking it to the heart of a town well-versed in the sport resulted in an upsurge of visitors and new-found fans.
Date: November 19-22
Location: Aichi prefecture, Japan
The season’s final returning classic. But this year’s Rally Japan is a far cry from the Sapporo-based event we last saw in 2010 – and an even further cry from Obihiro, further north on Hokkaido, where the WRC first landed.
Both of those events were superb, with some great stages. But one of the main ingredients that made Japan an absolute winner in the eyes of pretty much everybody was the huge crowds of insanely enthusiastic fans. Where else would Petter Solberg have been greeted by a man wearing a hat modelled so ridiculously precisely on the 2004 Subaru the Norwegian drove to victory in this proud nation’s maiden WRC counter?
This year’s event will run on all-asphalt stages on the Japanese mainland in an effort to tempt the millions in Nagoya and the surrounding areas out to watch the world’s best – including Toyota’s home-grown hero in the making in Takamoto Katsuta – on their very own roads.