In days gone by the test team would have taken care of it. Those days are done. Now it’s about development one week, competition the next. The demands of one World Rally Championship team doing everything have never been in sharper focus than right now.
Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport Ford have all commited themselves to this season in full knowledge that they have to do so with an eye – sometimes one-and-a-half or even two – on next season.
Balancing the demands from drivers to make this year’s car ever quicker with the desire to know that, come Monte Carlo in less than 12 months, the all-new-for-2022 metal will be perfectly synced to hybrid and quicker than anything else up and down a French Alp is not easy.
“The resource balance on the 2022 car is one of the most difficult things,” Toyota’s Tom Fowler told DirtFish.
“We are WRC teams not F1 teams. We’re not geared up to do a complete new evolution of car or huge development every year at the same time as doing a different chassis on a new regulation.
“At times of regulation change it’s a huge peak in workload for the whole team and that’s difficult to balance.
“To put it in simple terms, the engineers all understand that the future is important and they’re working to the priority given by the management, but as soon as the current rally starts and we start getting feedback on any issues or driver comments when we go testing, more jobs come out to make things better; when Séb [Ogier] and the other drivers are asking us: ‘Have you thought about this?’.
“Yes, those things would be nice, but we also have to balance that with having a new car in a few months.”
And not just any new car. Next year’s Rally1 cars will be groundbreaking in that they will combine electric power alongside internal combustion. Hybrid’s here. Almost.
But there’s still a season to be won in 2021.
And the decision when to deliver an engine upgrade is more important than ever. Traditionally, Toyota has brought its engine evolution out in time for Rally Finland in the middle of the season. Those improvements then run for the following 12 months. A similar timescale in 2021 would mean a workable life of just six months for that engine, before a hybrid unit gets bolted alongside it for 2022.
In terms of the engine, the obvious question is one of short-term pain and long-term gain. Isn’t it worth taking a hit on the engine development for this year in the hope of delivering a motor tuned more towards hybrid from 2022 onwards?
Fowler’s seen this one coming. And has clearly thought along the same lines.
“An engineer and the team’s management might think trading 2021 performance for a better engine for the following five years, but when the driver presses the pedal? Not so much…” he says.
There’s a bigger picture for this season. Thinking must go beyond the here and now and it’s the team which balances that best which could be looking at a larger slice on longer-term glory.