Today’s the day the talking stops and the action begins.
For the first time since May 2019, the World Rally Championship’s finest will tear up South American soil as they take on Rally Chile for just the second time.
So what can we expect? And what should we be looking out for as the rally unfolds? Allow us to guide you through it all, with the help of the world’s best rally drivers.
The vast majority of this year’s rally route is new, but that’s done little to diminish the quality of the roads that was so evident back in 2019.
Back then comparisons were drawn with Wales, New Zealand and even Finland – all countries known for great rally stages. This year there have even been some mentions of Portugal and even Greece, but what is sure is that Chile offers stages that the drivers will enjoy.
“It is a great place I would say – the kind of place which is made for rallying,” past Rally Chile winner Ott Tänak told DirtFish.
“It seems they have good options of roads. Most of the roads are new this year but still all of them [are] looking good.”
Why? What makes them so good?
“I think the characteristic is fun but it’s demanding at the same time,” Tänak continued.
“The road surface is quite solid, hard, which means they are not really breaking up so they last well and, I mean like this, you don’t need to worry about the car to preserve anything, it’s just pure performance and a kind of driver’s rally.”
World Rally Championship title contender Elfyn Evans labeled them “rewarding if you get them right”, punctuated by their variation in characteristics from fast to twisty.
Kalle Rovanperä added: “I don’t know if it’s really the best ones [stages] but really nice ones. This year it seems that Friday is really like… I see it as New Zealand, to be honest. A bit more narrow but really similar, lot of camber on the roads but it’s not easy, road is quite round.
“Loose gravel also for us so Friday is definitely like that, but it has nice flow, also a lot of crests and elevation so should be nice stages.”
Road cleaning could be severe
There has been some rain in the Bio Bio region this week, but Rovanperä’s rain dance probably won’t be enough to save him.
Today’s stages are littered with loose gravel and bigger rocks which will work against the world champion.
“It looks now it’s going to be a proper challenge,” he said. “Definitely Friday stages has been repaired quite a lot so there is some loose gravel.”
Rovanperä’s Toyota team-mate Evans was in agreement.
“It looked quite bad, to be honest. We have to just wait and see how it plays out,” he said.
“We can’t do anything about it, we just have to try the best we can and see what that brings.”
Those lower down the running order should therefore be in for an advantage. But Esapekka Lappi, who lines up fifth in the order, isn’t sure where the best position will be.
“That’s a question mark because there was a lot of rain last night [Wednesday] which I don’t know much will affect it on Friday’s stages. If it didn’t then there is a lot of cleaning but if it did then I’m not so sure which is the best road position to be,” the Hyundai driver explained.
“Like we saw this morning I think it was not really good to be further back on the road order on the shakedown.”
Meanwhile, when it was put to him if road position could work in his favor as eighth car on the road, M-Sport’s Pierre-Louis Loubet replied: “Yeah, yeah, let’s see.”
Tire wear key
If Sébastien Ogier was here, he’d be looking like a big favorite for victory. ‘When isn’t he?’ you may ask. Fair point. But with tire management, and selection, set to be at the forefront of our conversations and crews’ headaches, it does feel like Ogier territory.
Pirelli has selected the soft tire as the prime option, meaning Rally1 drivers will have 24 available for the weekend plus eight hards at their disposal.
Tänak said tire strategy for the rally could come down to a bit of guesswork, specifically with how to use the hard.
“I’m pretty sure we need to [think about strategy],” he said. “It will be still quite hard with the cool temperatures to really know when can you make the hard tire work or if you can at all.
“So it’s a bit guessing.”
Takamoto Katsuta – who, curiously, is the only P1 driver to have driven these roads on Pirelli’s rubber – reckons the “abrasive surface” could make things difficult.
“Yeah, let’s say on Saturday is [the] more demanding stages, very abrasive surface and very hard for tires, so really interesting tire choices can be quite different for everybody in the morning,” he said.
“For sure especially on braking or some abrasive section you need a bit to look after tires, but yeah it really depends which tire you have. Soft tire definitely you need to care but hard tire you can still push, so I think you need to adjust yourself.”
WRC2 driver Gus Greensmith feels we could even see drivers choosing hard tires for the morning loop.
“It’s a very unique rally, the only thing I’m 100% certain of is it’s very hard on the tires,” he said.
“So yeah, I think even hards in mornings might be a thing just to make sure we actually get to the end of a loop.”
Setup quandary across the weekend
Friday’s and Sunday’s stages have been linked together as having similar characteristics, but Saturday’s are completely different altogether.
As WRC2 frontrunner Oliver Solberg put it: “You need to be clean tomorrow [Friday], good pace, and on Saturday you need to be good with the tire wear.
“It’s like two different rallies.”
That naturally poses quite the challenge when it comes to setting up the car – particularly as many drivers didn’t benefit from a pre-event test for this event.
“For the setup it’s going to be a bit of a challenge,” said Thierry Neuville.
“For us it was the first time back in the car this morning after powerstage in Greece so it’s always a little bit of things you want to improve, but we’re very limited on what we can do during the event.
“I mean we had to choose our set of dampers and start setup a bit like this coming here, so it’s never so easy.
“Friday was a bit humid, Saturday really abrasive or really dry and hard surface, different flow of stages. So tire management, setup choices will all be crucial.”
“[I’m] feeling good in the car to be fair, but it’s a bit hard to know where to pitch things here,” agreed Evans.
“We don’t have a specific test for this rally and we sort of have to take a bit of a guess, and then we’ve seen this sort of massive variation, especially between Friday and Saturday, we may need something a bit different from the car.
“So let’s wait and see.”
Setup is one area where Rovanperä has it easier, at least on Friday.
“Yeah, definitely [when you are first on the road] you are let’s say making the car as soft as possible, you just try to get all the traction out,” he said.
“And also with the engine and hybrid you can try to maximize let’s say the grip or you don’t want to have extra wheelspin and stuff.
“Usually we try to do everything we can to be let’s say soft as possible for the conditions.”
Big championship jeopardy
The WRC2 title can’t be decided this weekend – unlike the overall title – but either way Chile is poised to be a massive event in both as the end of the season draws ever closer.
In the main contest, Rovanperä starts round 11 with 33 points in hand over the #33 GR Yaris Rally1 steered by Evans, but no thoughts of clinching the championship on his 23rd birthday (Sunday) have entered Rovanperä’s head.
“I haven’t really calculated it,” said the Finn. “It’s still quite a small chance, so not thinking too much.
“I think at this point we just need to compare to Elfyn, to be honest. If we are fighting with him, if we can get more points than him it’s all good, we don’t need to think about the other positions.”
Evans hasn’t given it too much thought either.
“We can only do the best we can – that’s it,” he said. “There’s no point thinking beyond that and, yeah, we’ll just keep at it.”
Greensmith is more than aware of what he needs to do in the WRC2 contest though.
Points leader Andreas Mikkelsen is absent this weekend, offering his two closest chasers, Greensmith and Yohan Rossel, a golden chance of stealing a victory.
Greensmith lost out badly in Greece by finishing second to Mikkelsen, as that created a 14-point swing against him. So there’s only one objective on his mind in Concepción.
“For sure, we do need to score big this weekend,” he said. “The maths after Greece… it’s certainly doable but it doesn’t look great; it could have been a lot better.
“But yeah, we need to take pretty much maximum points or at least a second place this weekend and then we definitely need to win Central Europe and hope that Andreas doesn’t have a good rally.
“It’s hard because there’s a lot of drivers here that don’t have anything to keep in mind and they can push hard and there’s quite a few… not local drivers, but are from South America.
“Obviously Oliver’s here, so there’s a lot of people that can push hard and want to go for the win whereas I’ve got to kind of think about what I’m doing,” Greensmith added
“But again, I can’t just fall back into fourth or fifth and collect those points, that won’t be good enough for the championship.
“So yeah, it will be quite tricky but from shakedown everything’s feeling good so far.”