It would seem World Rally Championship rounds are now like London buses: you wait for one to arrive and then two come at once.
Round five of the 2020 season is now firmly in the history books, but that won’t stop DirtFish analyzing just what went down on a topsy-turvy Rally Turkey that could have had potentially huge ramifications for this year’s title battle.
Here’s what we learned from Rally Turkey 2020:
The WRC needs rough rallies
This might seem like a peculiar place to start given there were few complaining about Turkey’s inclusion on the calendar – or the rumored return of the legendary Acropolis Rally – but this year’s Rally Turkey highlighted the impeccable variety on offer in the WRC.
The lightning-quick tracks of Estonia that hosted round four couldn’t have been more different to the punishing, deceptive and rock-strewn passes in the hills above Marmaris. Being a rally driver is about more than just being the fastest: it’s being able to adapt to all of the different circumstances all of the time.
Turkey was a rally for the thinking driver, and it’s great to see different elements of a driver’s skillset tested and also different drivers prospering depending on what’s thrown at them.
The element of car reliability is a factor lost from most modern day motorsport disciplines too, so it was refreshing to see that come to the fore in Turkey at the weekend. Talking of which…
Çetibeli now has its place in history
It may not have a particularly sexy name that rolls off the tongue like ‘Ouninpohja’ or ‘Whaanga Coast’, but Çetibeli has surely now cemented its place in WRC folklore after such a dramatic opening pass on Sunday morning.
Çetibeli has been used on both of the WRC’s previous visits to the Marmaris-based Rally Turkey but featured on Friday’s itinerary in the past. While it proved a stern challenge, it kind of blended into the rest of the concoction and didn’t really stand out among so many other tricky and long stages.
But not this year. The shortened itinerary and the decision by the organizer to move it to the head of Sunday’s action transformed it. Now, at 23.7 miles it was the standout stage in terms of length, the standout stage in terms of roughness and a rude awakening for the WRC stars who are used to a fairly casual Sunday in comparison to the other days of the rally.
Çetibeli 1 was one of the most dramatic stages ever seen in the WRC. Ten Rally1 cars started the test, and only three – arguably two if you factor in Ott Tänak’s broken intercom – made it through unscathed: Elfyn Evans and Gus Greensmith.
Rally leader Thierry Neuville and Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier all picked up punctures, as did fifth-placed Kalle Rovanperä and seventh-placed Esapekka Lappi.
Teemu Suninen and Pierre-Louis Loubet fared even worse. Suninen was forced to park up his Ford Fiesta WRC with a broken damper and a rear-left wheel sitting at a nasty 135° out of its arch, while Loubet was slowed by an engine issue.
And if that’s not enough drama for you, Ogier’s engine gave way on the repeat pass, costing him third place and the championship lead. It was truly palpable drama, and will surely be talked about for years to come.
Evans can be fortunate too
Too often Elfyn Evans has been robbed of victory. Rally Argentina 2017 immediately springs to mind, where a moment approaching a suspension bridge contributed to him losing 1.3 seconds to Thierry Neuville and with it the rally win by 0.7s.
Corsica last year is another prime example. Evans – again battling Neuville – set a barnstorming time on the penultimate stage to open up an 11.5s lead, only for a pothole he missed on recce due to having to overtake a civilian’s car destroying his tire and relegating him to third.
Isn’t it ironic then that Evans should win in Turkey, an event that by all accounts Neuville probably deserved to win.
There’s no doubt that Lady Luck did Evans a solid in Turkey in that he was the only lead runner not to puncture on Çetibeli. But in sport, and especially in rallying, luck has a funny habit of repaying itself.
Consider this compensation for the victories Evans was robbed of in the past.
The title race is now even more exciting
It would be wrong to try and detract from Evans’ victory, even if he himself admitted it wasn’t “the sweetest” of his career. He still had to drive the car and manage the risks, and he did that impeccably.
Perhaps more importantly though, Evans’ win has moved him into an 18-point championship lead with Ogier in second despite not scoring a single point in Turkey. It’s the first big break any single driver has had so far in 2020, which has sent British rallying fans into a combined mix of joy and apprehension as now Evans has something very real to lose with potentially just two scheduled rounds left.
But how can we be claiming the title race is now more exciting given Evans has managed to build himself something of a gap? Simple really. The gloves are now off, neither Ogier, Tänak nor Neuville can afford to do anything other than go flat out.
Ogier is probably the most relaxed with the smallest points deficit but equally will start Sardinia as high as second on the road on Rally Italy Sardinia; not much better than Evans.
Tänak will almost be rueing his championship position as Toyota’s Kalle Rovanperä went level with him on 70 points, but will start one place lower on the road in Sardinia as he hasn’t won a rally unlike Tänak. Had Tänak not been so quick on Turkey’s powerstage he would start behind Rovanperä in Sardinia, but you never know how important the extra points can be.
Neuville has closed to within five points of his new Hyundai team-mate but is still staring at a 32-point deficit to the top. With a maximum of 30 available in Italy, Neuville has to heavily outscore Evans to keep himself in the hunt going into his home event Ypres Rally Belgium. And there’s little doubt that he will be a real victory threat; his pace in Turkey from a similar championship position and his two previous victories in Sardinia the perfect proof.
It will be fascinating to see how Evans soaks up the pressure of his first proper WRC title fight. He led the championship after his victory in Sweden but that was only round two of what back then everybody thought was a 13-round season. The end is genuinely almost here, so he’s the driver with the most to lose.
Loeb can still cut it with the best (on gravel)
A lot of the pre-event talk in Turkey surrounded Sébastien Loeb and his future: would this be the nine-time world champion’s final WRC event as a factory driver?
The jury is still out on that one, but Turkey proved that it doesn’t have to be. In fact had things played out differently, Loeb could have been celebrating WRC victory number 80, and his first not with Citroën, in Marmaris.
Of course, people will be quick to point to Loeb’s favorable road position on Friday, but the Frenchman’s Hyundai leading the way after two stages was a heroic effort. Remember, the hanging dust had his two team-mates up in arms and whinging but Loeb just got on with it, using his experienced head to make his own pacenotes from onboard videos before even heading to recce to master the conditions.
He couldn’t live with the ultimate pace on Saturday but managed to tie with Ogier for second at the end of the day due to his old rival’s electrical gremlins, and was unlucky to puncture on Sunday morning as he was taking no risks whatsoever.
If this is to be his final WRC appearance, then Loeb can hold his head up high. His performance in Monte Carlo this year was shocking for all the wrong reasons and led to him being dropped for Sweden. Questions lingered about whether he’d simply lost his touch.
Not a chance. Loeb was fit, smart, motivated and methodical in Turkey; and it’s difficult to believe that either of the alternatives Dani Sordo or Craig Breen could have done much better with the tools than he did.
Lappi looks lost
Esapekka Lappi bursting onto the WRC scene and winning stages – and a rally at just his fourth attempt at world level – for Toyota when his experience suggested he had no right to, feels like a very long time ago.
Indeed, it was three seasons ago. But the Lappi of today is almost unrecognizable to the Lappi that was touted as a world champion in waiting.
It could be argued in hindsight that leaving Toyota was a mistake, as the Citroën move in 2019 wasn’t exactly a fairytale. Now at M-Sport, he had the chance to finally lead a team and get himself back on track.
To his credit, Monte Carlo and Sweden netted positive fourth and fifth place finishes before a scary fire on Rally México (the last rally before lockdown) stalled his momentum. Since the WRC restarted in Estonia a fortnight ago though, Lappi has been nowhere.
Granted, that comes with the caveat that M-Sport hasn’t been at the races either. It’s clear a lack of testing mileage before events has hurt both driver and team, but from the outside looking in, it appears Lappi is struggling to come to terms with his current set of circumstances.
That’s not what a team leader should be doing. His team-mate Teemu Suninen has been the far stronger driver of the two in recent rallies, and Lappi is letting his infamous frustrations get the better of him. He needs to shake himself off, knuckle down and drive through it; seeking for ways to lift a team that is clearly demoralized and going through some tough times with job losses because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It would be dramatic to suggest that Lappi is driving for his career in Sardinia, but equally a cash-strapped team wouldn’t exactly turn down a talented youngster who can bring some budget to the table. Lappi needs to have a clean rally, not let the issues get him down and prove to the rallying world just what he’s all about.