The World Rally Championship hasn’t been here before, and yet it has at the same time. Quite recently too.
While the 2022 season welcomes hybrid technology to the championship for the very first time, this season is far from the only one where we’ve all headed into it with no idea what to expect courtesy of a fresh – and radical – set of technical regulations.
Wind the clock back five years to 2017 and the anticipation ahead of the Monte Carlo Rally was just as high. New regulations meant World Rally Cars now had more horsepower with a wider turbo restrictor and were faster around the bends too with a more aggressive aerodynamic package and the return of an active center differential.
And as if that wasn’t exciting enough, a curveball was thrown in when Volkswagen suddenly pulled out after the penultimate round of the 2016 season. That meant the 2017-spec Polo R WRC never saw a special stage and placed world champion Sébastien Ogier at M-Sport Ford, Jari-Matti Latvala at Toyota and Andreas Mikkelsen on the sub’s bench.
How Ogier and Latvala would adapt to their new environments was an intriguing subplot as the wider onus was on these new exciting cars, and which team had done the best job. Sound familiar?
Continuity was key for Thierry Neuville who started his fourth season with Hyundai and he proved to be the dangerman straight from the off. But sadly the new era would launch in tragic circumstances as Neuville’s team-mate Hayden Paddon struck a spectator who was fatally injured in the incident.
Paddon withdrew from the contest but the reprieve for Hyundai came in the form of Neuville’s early pace. On the only Thursday night stage that ended up counting, he was 7.8 seconds quicker than Ogier’s Ford Fiesta WRC with Juho Hänninen a surprise and commendable third for Toyota.
Teething problems were expected with brand-new cars and Toyota, competing in the championship for the first time since 1999, was the first team to suffer. Latvala’s Yaris WRC refused to start in Friday morning service but ultimately this proved to be nothing more than a scare.
The real drama was about to unfold on the stage. Starting first courtesy of his fourth title the season before, Ogier was first in and the first in trouble.
On a particularly icy downhill right-hand hairpin, Ogier lost grip and tugged the handbrake, hoping to coax his new ride into a slide that he could then accelerate out of and continue on his way.
But, as Ogier described at midday service, the handbrake treatment “provided the opposite effect” and he went straight on instead. Stuck in a road-side ditch, Ogier tried to free himself but he needed some French manpower to free him.
Luckily Ogier’s home fans were only too happy to oblige, but the damage was clear. He’d lost over 40s to the stage winner and was dumped to eighth place.
“I don’t know what happened,” commented Ogier at the end of the Agnières-en-Dévoluy – Le Motty test that had caught him out.
“I pulled the handbrake but the car wasn’t turning. I was completely slow, like 10kph, but I just slid in the ditch. It’s super tricky.
“First on the road is a disaster, it’s going to get quite [a lot] quicker after some cars. Obviously it’s not the start we wanted today.”
Neuville was unperturbed though. Ott Tänak nicked the SS3 stage win – the first of M-Sport’s season – but that was the only blot on Neuville’s Friday morning copybook. Fastest on SS4 and SS5, Neuville led Tänak by over half a minute at service.
The contrast between him and the recovering world champion Ogier was clear.
Speaking about the handbrake not doing what he expected it to, Ogier said: “I have to understand that, it’s something I don’t understand on the behavior of the car.
“I am completely unconfident.”
Compared to Neuville: “[I have] quite good confidence to be honest, a good feeling in the car. Feeling good, I really can drive fast and clean and the times are OK so we are really pleased.”
We all know how tricky Monte is it's just disappointing to start like this."Kris Meeke
Ogier’s Friday wasn’t as bad as Kris Meeke’s though.
Expected to be one of the forerunners of the season given Citroën’s decision to sit out 2016 in an official capacity to develop the C3 WRC, big things were expected. And Meeke was second after Friday’s first stage before it all unraveled on the second.
Standing next to his car speaking to WRC TV wasn’t really according to the plan: “”Obviously tricky conditions this morning,” began Meeke’s explanation.
“[It was] a fast-left corner and it was just polished ice, I understeered wide and hit a small bank and it’s damaged the steering. So OK, we all know how tricky Monte is it’s just disappointing to start like this.”
Hänninen was another in the wars. Overhauled by Tänak on the stage Meeke crashed on, the Toyota driver got his braking wrong on the approach to a tight left-hand hairpin. The Yaris WRC drifted into the verge which lay in the middle of the hairpin bend and hit a tree.
“We were a bit too late for the brake,” Hänninen confessed, “and on the inside there was a big tree [which we hit with] the left-front and damaged the suspension.”
That same hairpin would minorly catch out Latvala and rally leader Neuville in the afternoon; both drivers stalling their machines at the bend. But apart from a couple of more pirouettes and a brief fuel problem on a road section for Latvala, the afternoon was drama-free for the field.
Neuville’s lead was a strong 45.1s overnight with Ogier climbing all the way back up to second, boosted by the retirements of others and his first pair of Fiesta-powered stage wins at the close of the day.
There was better news for him on Saturday morning too as a change to the sporting regulations meant he no longer had to run first on the road like the championship leader needed to the previous season.
But ultimately this didn’t really help him as Neuville extended his lead to 1m00.7s at the first service point of the leg. Elfyn Evans – back in the WRC after a year in WRC2 and the British Rally Championship with an R5 in 2016 – had found his form though; struggling early on but returning a fastest stage time on SS10.
The DMACK driver, registered as M-Sport’s third manufacturer entrant in another rule tweak for the season, put that down to retaining the studs on his rubber better than he had the previous day. He’d later pick up victories on SS12 and SS13 too.
There was worse news for the other Ford Fiesta of Tänak and new co-driver Martin Järveoja though. His gearbox was changed as a precaution at first service by the M-Sport mechanics but it didn’t cure anything as the Estonian ran into gear selection issues; his pace dropping as a result.
Ogier briefly ran into a field on SS12 and clipped a bank on SS13 but got away with his skirmishes. The same could not be said for the car out front.
Neuville’s Monte Carlo was about to turn in an instant. Tackling an innocuous left-hander, the rear of his i20 Coupe WRC stepped out – which it later transpired was because of a puncture – and touched something on the edge of the corner.
It didn’t look to be too big an impact, but it was enough to damage the suspension and force Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul to stop and make some repairs. They did make the end of the stage but lost over half an hour. Any hope of victory had vanished.
“In quite a slow corner on the exit I hit the throttle and the rear went wide and hit something, I don’t know what,” he explained once he reached stage-end.
I'm more disappointed for them than for us because I think we have shown a great pace, we have shown we are there - especially on such a difficult rallyThierry Neuville
Back at service, he was more philosophical: “It’s not all negative for sure,” he insisted.
“Obviously we wanted absolutely to bring home this victory for the team. I’m more disappointed for them than for us because I think we have shown a great pace, we have shown we are there – especially on such a difficult rally – and leading with a gap [of] sometimes more than one minute I think is exceptional.”
Neuville grabbed five powerstage bonus points – the first driver in WRC history to do so as the scoring was opened to the top-five in 2017 – but this was of little consolation.
“To be honest he was doing a great rally so far, he had fabulous speed on this condition,” praised the new leader Ogier.
“I never wish any bad luck to my concurrents so I’m sorry for him because he was really doing a great job so far.”
It was a gift Ogier was happy to accept regardless. With Tänak tucked up in second, M-Sport was on for its first 1-2 finish since Rally Australia 2011.
But the drama wasn’t done there. Meeke had been able to restart the rally following his kiss with the scenery on Friday but his worried “engine” call to Paul Nagle signified trouble. He pulled over with what was later diagnosed as a spark plug issue before continuing.
However this wasn’t the end of it. Once the day was done, Meeke was on the transit section south to Monte Carlo where the final leg of the rally was based and was involved in a road traffic accident. Damage was sustained to the rear-right of his C3 WRC and with no restart rules for the Monaco leg, Meeke’s rally was finally over.
Unfortunately, the 2017 Monte can be reflected upon as a fitting metaphor for Meeke’s Citroën career from that point onwards.
The first event of this new era had unquestionably delivered drama aplenty, but there was a final twist in store on Sunday’s final day.
Tänak’s Fiesta dropped to two cylinders on the first stage, and with no service breaks in between the day’s four tests, he was helpless to cure the problem despite his best efforts on the non-competitive sections.
His issues opened the door for Latvala who keenly swooped in to net second place on Toyota’s return. Tänak gamely held onto third, under threat from Hyundai’s Dani Sordo who had only just cleared Craig Breen who was competing in the previous year’s Citroën DS3 WRC, on the final stage when late flurries of snow negated his power disadvantage.
A monster drift through the final finish board of the rally was indicative of the determined drive he had just produced to cling onto his podium.
Breen scored fifth, nearly three minutes ahead of Evans, while Mikkelsen dominated WRC2 in a Škoda Fabia R5.
But the story of the rally was a dream opening chapter to the Ogier and M-Sport tale. M-Sport hadn’t won an event since Rally GB 2012 but Ogier remedied that at the first time of asking by a clear 2m15s in the end.
“To be honest I expected to have this victory one day, I was hoping for it, but to have it after the first race after only one month together with so [much] less preparation, it really feels amazing,” smiled Ogier.
“Thank you so much team you’ve been amazing, I know they’ve been working so hard over the winter and New Year’s Eve to be ready and I think the victory is well deserved.”
Naturally, Malcolm Wilson was equally as pleased: “To do this with the first event in the team with Sébastien and a new car, and not only that but the performance of the whole team – all three guys, they’ve all set fastest times – it just goes to prove that we’ve got a great package and I really just can’t wait for the rest of the season,” he beamed.
Wilson was right to be so impatient, as 2017 yielded an historic drivers’ and manufactures’ double for M-Sport – to this day a feat that has yet to be matched by the team.
Will the winners of this year’s Monte Carlo go on to be so triumphant come the end of 2022? Your guess is as good as ours, but we’ll be smiling if we this new era can kick off just as excitingly as the outgoing one did.
Monte Carlo Rally 2017 result:
|1||Sébastien Ogier||Julien Ingrassia||Ford Fiesta WRC||4h00m03.6s|
|2||Jari-Matti Latvala||Miikka Anttila||Toyota Yaris WRC||+2m15.0s|
|3||Ott Tänak||Martin Järveoja||Ford Fiesta WRC||+2m57.8s|
|4||Dani Sordo||Marc Martí||Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC||+3m35.8s|
|5||Craig Breen||Scott Martin||Citroën DS3 WRC||+3m47.8s|
|6||Elfyn Evans||Dan Barritt||Ford Fiesta WRC||+6m45.0s|
|7||Andreas Mikkelsen||Anders Jæger||Škoda Fabia R5||+9m32.7s|
|8||Jan Kopecký||Pavel Dresler||Škoda Fabia R5||+12m58.1s|
|9||Stéphane Lefebvre||Gabin Moreau||Citroën C3 WRC||+14m43.8s|
|10||Bryan Bouffier||Denis Giraudet||Ford Fiesta R5||+16m09.4s|