The 2020 World Rally Championship season is over, but the drivers don’t have long to celebrate their successes or lick their wounds with the 2021 season opener just six weeks away!
Of course, the driver with perhaps the most to contemplate is Elfyn Evans, who missed out on his first world title despite leading the championship ahead of the finale. Equally, the biggest grin will be etched onto Sébastien Ogier’s face as he conquered the world of rallying for a seventh time.
But what else did Monza show us? Here’s DirtFish’s guide to what we learned from the 2020 Monza Rally.
Ogier is still the best of the best
It takes a special kind of driver to win seven world titles in eight seasons. And it takes an even more exquisite pilot to achieve that with three different manufacturers and teams. But to win the title in your first season with each of those marques is absolutely extraordinary.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to Sébastien Ogier.
Forget Evans’ near miss for a moment, because Ogier was absolutely deserving of this seventh crown. British rallying fans won’t thank us for saying this, but Ogier was just that little bit better this year. There was great appeal to the Evans narrative given he had never fought for a title before, let alone won one, and no doubt the surprise factor in Evans taking it all the way makes it easy to suggest that in fact Evans should have been the 2020 title winner.
But Rally Sweden and the opening two days of Monte Carlo aside, Ogier has been the quicker of the two. It’s natural to feel Evans lost the title because his slice of misfortune came at the final hurdle, but Ogier was kicked in the teeth in Turkey when he was booted from the series lead as his engine failed.
The Ogier and Toyota alliance was always going to be a strong one, and the fact Ogier will be back for another year is exactly the sort of news that will keep his rivals awake at night.
Just like a fine wine, Ogier seems to be getting better and better with age and he shows absolutely no signs of dropping the ball.
Evans can be a world champion
Having said all of that about Evans, there’s absolutely no doubt that he could have won the world championship this year. And if he had, it too would have been fully deserved.
There’s less talk about Ogier’s success being a ‘half title’ than Evans’ would’ve been, perhaps because Ogier was already a six-time champion so he has proved that he can do it across a full season. That would’ve been nonsense, and it’s actually hugely disrespectful to the kind of driver Evans has become.
The raw materials have been there for a while. Last season with M-Sport may not have produced the swashbuckling results, but in Corsica in particular Evans was supreme. Back then, it was suggested Evans was now part of the WRC’s so-called ‘big four’ – alongside Ogier, Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville. Strapping himself into a Toyota Yaris WRC this year has proved the theory correct, and then some.
He has the speed (see victories in Sweden, Turkey and supreme pace on the Monte). He has learned from Ogier and has the foresight and ability to know when to push and when to bank a result (see every single round this year). And he now also has the experience of a world championship fight.
Make no mistake, Evans will be there in 2021.
Monza was a worthy WRC round
On paper, the Monza Rally seemed to be the antithesis of what ‘real’ rallying is all about. Single venues are fine for club-level rallies, but in the WRC? Really?
Yes, really; and what a rally it was! As already argued by David Evans, Monza truly delivered.
Fears about this style of event were justified, but tempered by the fact the world is still battling a pandemic and therefore beggars most certainly cannot be choosers. Undoubtedly, there were certain factors in Monza’s favor, including the world championship hype and the atrocious weather that created some stages comparable to Rally GB and even the Safari.
“It’s definitely different,” outgoing World Champion Tänak told DirtFish on Friday. “I would say with the nice weather it probably won’t be as interesting as it is now, this weather is let’s say giving the extra spice to make it more rallying.”
He was right. But there’s nothing to suggest that Monza wouldn’t have been enthralling had it been dry either. It required a different skillset from the drivers, and variety is always fantastic to witness.
Should more rallies be like Monza? Probably not. But in the circumstances, it’s hard to think of a better way to conclude the 2020 WRC season.
Sordo continues to show his value
It would appear there are several guarantees in life: death, taxes, and Dani Sordo performing handsomely for Hyundai.
The Monza Rally was yet more evidence of Sordo’s superb form since becoming a part-time WRC driver. Sordo led the event on Friday and fought Ogier for the lead on Saturday morning, but the reigns were soon tightened when Evans’ retirement elevated Tänak into third and created a Hyundai two-three. The manufacturers’ championship was what mattered, and it’s what they both drove for.
Sordo did this with aplomb, frequently telling stage-end reporters of his desire simply to help Hyundai seal the deal. He even lost second place to Tänak on the powerstage and wasn’t bothered.
Just what Sordo could have achieved had he not been asked to drive at nine-tenths will not be known, but his value to Hyundai cannot be underestimated. Where was long-term team leader Thierry Neuville? Out of the rally after needlessly clipping a chicane and then drowning his engine as a result of the reduced speed he had to go at.
The 2021 season would be Sordo’s 16th in the WRC if he reappears. It looks less certain than perhaps ever before that he will, with co-driver Carlos del Barrio looking set to partner Fabrizio Zaldivar as he graduates from Junior WRC to WRC3.
Let’s hope there is room for Sordo at Hyundai’s inn. He’s certainly performing at a level that warrants it.
M-Sport at its best may have made the podium
M-Sport will be keen to forget 2020 in a hurry. All teams were hit hard by COVID-19, but as a privateer outfit without official works backing, M-Sport was hit the hardest. Jobs were sacrificed to keep the team running and pre-event tests skipped so that the balance sheets would make sense.
Even pre-pandemic things were a little bleak. Esapekka Lappi was a solid fourth on Monte Carlo Rally but was off the pace expected of him in fifth in Sweden. His car then burned to the ground in Mexico. Teemu Suninen has shown brighter performances; his third place in Mexico was the standout moment, but ultimately it proved to be M-Sport’s only podium all year.
It probably shouldn’t have been.
Lappi was clever in Monza. Fitting snow tires for the third stage of the rally with everyone else on wet-compound Michelins earned him a 7.9-second stage win and the rally lead. And the rest of the field played copycat.
After slipping to fifth on Saturday morning on the mountain stages, Lappi broke the mold again and selected four snow and two wet tires in his package, with his rivals choosing the opposite for the second pass. It snowed, and Lappi should’ve benefited.
But he didn’t. SS10 and 12 were both canceled, which was out of the team’s control, but the blunder that led to him running with wet tires on SS11, despite it snowing heavily, was poor at best and probably cost Lappi a podium.
“How could it have gone so wrong?” asked DirtFish’s Colin Clark afterwards. “Not enough information,” was Lappi’s response. “We just had the information that it’s wet, what else I can say?”
M-Sport has struggled for performance with its Ford Fiesta WRC as the year has progressed as it’s been unable to justify the expense of intense development like Hyundai and Toyota, but operationally it fell short of the mark at Monza too. To compound it all, Teemu Suninen only got to do one stage with a healthy engine.
Mikkelsen is still a rich talent
Ever since he was axed from Hyundai’s WRC line-up at the end of last year, Andreas Mikkelsen hasn’t been shy to tell the world that he didn’t think the i20 Coupe WRC suited his driving style, especially on asphalt.
He pointed to the fact that even the great Sébastien Loeb – who used to eat his rivals for breakfast on the black stuff in his domineering Citroën days – struggled to get the best from the car.
Potentially compelling evidence, but it was difficult to take it at full face value. Mikkelsen’s reputation had been damaged badly after two fairly average seasons with Hyundai, so of course he would be vocal in his defense.
But in late 2020, he has let his driving do the talking in a Škoda Fabia Rally2 evo. It’s unlikely to be an accident that he’s done three asphalt events in four weeks, starting with a comeback victory on Rally Hungary and then a sixth place on the Canary Islands Rally in the European Rally Championship.
Proving he could do it on the Monza Rally, upon his return to the WRC, was key however. He certainly did just that, running as high as third midway through Friday and never lying lower than seventh thereafter. Sixth overall was where he finished after what was a superb drive.
The same can be said of several drivers on the periphery of the WRC at the moment, but Mikkelsen once again showed the world the promise that netted him three WRC victories with Volkswagen and two Intercontinental Rally Challenge titles with Škoda.