The first chapter of a new season of world rallying has now been completed, and it kicked off in the same fashion as the last one ended with Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia at the top of the tree.
The Monte Carlo Rally has always been the pair’s favorite World Rally Championship event, and now they can call themselves the most successful crew in the rally’s proud 110-year history with eight victories, one ahead of Sébastien Loeb and Daniel Elena.
This success was far from the only storyline to emerge from round one however, and here DirtFish looks back at what we learned from the 2021 Monte Carlo Rally.
Ogier is back to his peak form
There can be no denying that this year’s Monte Carlo belonged to Ogier and his Toyota Yaris WRC. The reigning world champion was fastest on more than half of the event’s stages, winning tests by supreme margins such as 17.8 seconds on Saturday’s opening run of La Bréole – Selonnet.
His record-breaking victory was richly deserved, but it signals a lot more than just Ogier’s supreme skill on his home event.
Even when team-mate Elfyn Evans was leading, you just knew Ogier was going to beat him; and that’s a feeling that’s been lost over the years as the likes of Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak have risen to Ogier’s level.
But might that almost inevitable factor in an Ogier victory be creeping back? The pack is a lot closer to him than during his domineering years at Volkswagen, but now it has had a season to mature the Ogier-Toyota axis is looking increasingly formidable.
He’s not going to have it easy, particularly within his own four walls as Evans is looking every bit the title threat once again, but the reigning champion certainly didn’t kill the theory that he is the favorite for yet another World Rally Championship crown last weekend.
Rovanperä will be a title contender in 2021
What did we just say about Ogier’s title challengers coming from within his own team…?
Last year, Evans joined the WRC’s group of A-listers alongside Ogier, Tänak and Neuville, but Rovanperä’s performance on this year’s Monte underlined the belief that this exclusive club could be about to welcome its fifth member.
The 20-year-old remained in slim but mathematical title contention for the vast majority of his debut season in 2020 such was the unique nature of the significantly reduced campaign. But there’s every chance Rovanperä will be there until the end of a full campaign this time around.
Nobody expected him to be leading the Monte Carlo Rally, but that’s exactly where Rovanperä and Jonne Halttunen were positioned after three stages.
It did decline from there, with a 10-second time penalty on the very next stage for arriving to the time control late, a costly slide into a field, and then a puncture restricting them to fourth, but it was still a mature performance.
After his Sunday morning puncture, Rovanperä realized he shouldn’t push and so didn’t go chasing Neuville in a desperate attempt to bag a podium. Hoovering up the points can only stand him in good stead in the long term, as will his searing turn of pace. Second on the powerstage means he’s actually only one point behind Neuville in the standings.
What’s more, Arctic Rally Finland is up next. Rovanperä won there last year when it was a non-WRC round and was third on Rally Sweden in similar conditions. Make of that what you will.
Tänak and Hyundai are yet to get the best from each other
For all the obvious signs of delight over at Toyota, that was contrasted by a deeply disappointing Monte Carlo Rally for Hyundai which team principal Andrea Adamo admitted “we cannot be proud of”.
It was quite the comedown from Neuville’s emotional victory in 2020, although the Belgian’s presence on the podium (more on that below) will be a minor boost after tricky rallies for both Tänak and Dani Sordo.
Tänak’s retirement is a particular sore point given he was leading the rally at the end of the first day and had he carried an extra Pirelli in the trunk of his i20 on Saturday morning he’d have been able to continue. But even before that, all was not well.
The 2019 world champion complained about an engine that was losing boost on Friday, hampering him on the exit of hairpins, suffered a misted-up windshield on one stage, and just generally lacked confidence. To put it somewhat bluntly, we aren’t seeing the same Tänak who was crushing the opposition in a Toyota.
Whatever the reasons are, you get the feeling that the Tänak-Hyundai partnership has yet to really hit its stride. At least both parties will be hoping this isn’t the peak. In eight Hyundai starts Tänak has only won one event. Within his first eight Toyota starts he had two victories and would boost that to four from 10 on the next two rallies.
There’s no doubt Tänak is still a very competent title challenger, but he perhaps isn’t the shoe-in he was two or three years ago. He’s certainly already on the back foot, 30 points adrift of Ogier in a season that could again be heavily reduced as the world continues to battle COVID-19.
Neuville can drive with his head
Neuville had a truly unique set of circumstances to overcome on the Monte Carlo Rally. Just days before the recce was set to start, it was announced that his co-driver of 10 years, Nicolas Gilsoul, was out, and somebody else was in. That’s difficult on a small national rally, but a complete curveball on a four-day world championship bill.
Hyundai and Neuville called upon Martijn Wydaeghe, who was parachuted in to do the recce and then, with no shakedown, got his first competitive drive alongside Neuville on the very first stage of the rally.
Talk about jumping in at the deep end. But Wydaeghe learned to swim, and despite some intercom issues the 28-year-old was rewarded with a maiden WRC podium and the seat alongside Neuville again for Arctic Rally Finland.
It wasn’t just an impressive display for Wydaeghe though: Neuville had to adapt at the last minute to a completely new voice and character in the car beside him. He admitted “it was a strange feeling” after the pair’s first stage together but as the stages were ticked off, the confidence grew.
Neuville is a low-key shout for the driver of the rally. We’re used to seeing him chuck his Hyundai about at the limit of its capabilities, but on the Monte we saw another side to him as he had to drive with a reserve. Ultimately it paid off. Third place and 16 championship points did nicely given the circumstances.
M-Sport could be in for a long season
You wouldn’t want to have been Teemu Suninen after his stage-one accident, would you? Let’s just say the top M-Sport brass wasn’t particularly thrilled to see his Fiesta WRC parked down a bank, almost resembling a pick-up truck more than it did a hatchback.
Since COVID-19 has hit, M-Sport has been on the back foot in the WRC. Without the same financial resources as the fully works Hyundai and Toyota squads, M-Sport hasn’t been able to develop its car as rapidly and last week had the added challenge of getting to France in the wake of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, making paperwork an absolute nightmare.
M-Sport isn’t a team that takes pride in simply turning up however: it wants to win. But to do that, it needs to find a way to instill confidence in its only full-season driver Gus Greensmith, who at times looked like a broken man in Monte Carlo.
Indeed, he openly admitted he felt it “was the worst performance of my career so far”. While he didn’t chuck the car off the road, it’s hard to disagree that this performance didn’t exactly reflect Greensmith’s peak capabilities.
For an outfit that three seasons ago won the drivers’ championship and a year before that took the drivers’ and manufacturers’ crowns, finishing eighth, 8m21.1s off the lead and behind even a Rally2 car on merit isn’t what the team members get out of bed for.
For morale if nothing else, M-Sport could do with a strong result in Finland next month but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for it to get them against the might of Toyota and Hyundai.
Mikkelsen was right to be so bullish
For the second time in his career, Andreas Mikkelsen has stepped back to ply his trade in the R5/Rally2 class as he bids to recover from being dumped from the WRC’s top tier. The first time it worked and, based on last weekend’s Monte Carlo Rally, history could be about to repeat itself.
Mikkelsen wasn’t mincing his words ahead of the season: “The sole goal for me this year is to dominate in an R5 [Rally2] car, I’m really not so bothered about the titles – it’s about showing what I can do,” he told DirtFish.
Bullish. But he was right to be, because Mikkelsen led WRC2 from start to finish and even bagged seventh overall to boot. That sends a message.
His class victory of 1m52.2s flatters him slightly as M-Sport’s Adrien Fourmaux (whose stock continues to rise) was keeping Mikkelsen honest before he suffered a puncture on Saturday. However, Mikkelsen said he stopped pushing once the pressure was released, so it’s possible he could’ve pulled out such a gap on pace had it been required.
As much as Mikkelsen loves driving Škoda’s Fabia Rally2 evo – and make no mistake he does, telling DirtFish he was “smiling and driving” at the weekend – his goal is to get himself back into a Rally1 seat for 2022.
M-Sport has been linked to his services, but surely a Toyota seat must be the target with Ogier walking away from full-time competition in the WRC at the end of the season? There’d be some poetic justice in that if it happened, as back in 2016 Mikkelsen was snubbed in favor of ex VW team-mate and new Toyota team boss Jari-Matti Latvala for the drive in 2017.
The WRC2/WRC3 divide might finally be right
The WRC2/WRC3 class divide is a debate that refuses to disappear, and can certainly cause significant confusion particularly for some less hardcore rally fans. But the 2021 line-up might finally prove the FIA’s logic all along, with WRC2 now looking much hotter than WRC3.
That wasn’t the case in 2020. In fact, on six of the seven rallies, the WRC3 winner finished ahead of their WRC2 counterpart in the supposed higher class in the overall classification. Quite the egg on face moment for the FIA.
But on the 2021 Monte Carlo Rally, the WRC2 runners flooded the top five in the overall Rally2 classification, with WRC3 victor Yohan Rossel just creeping into fourth, four minutes behind WRC2 winner Mikkelsen.
For a pyramid that is supposed to reflect WRC2 being the superior category, this is how it is supposed to be. But having said that, would many people be opposed to the idea of just throwing out the current system and letting them all just compete in the same category?
Østberg has a future punditry career if he wants it
One of the revelations of the Monte Carlo Rally weekend was Mads Østberg’s presence on WRC Promoter’s All Live streaming service, both as a pundit and a co-commentator alongside Becs Williams.
Throughout the weekend Østberg confirmed that he would be back in WRC2 this year to defend his title in a Citroën C3 Rally2. But after his performance with a microphone at the weekend, several rally fans may now be wishing he wasn’t.
Most other sports include presenting teams of a natural presenter and then ex-professional pundits who provide the expert analysis. The WRC has been missing that, but Østberg fulfilled that role beautifully.
There have been little glimpses of this in the past, with Oliver Solberg appearing for a stage on Rally México last year as he had retired, for example. Tapping into that modern-day experience and knowledge of the cars, competitors and the rallies lifted the coverage up a level, and Østberg’s bubbly personality came across fantastically.
While Østberg can’t be secured for all future rounds with a rallying career still alive and well, WRC Promoter should aim to field a recent or current top-line driver who’s not competing to fill the void that will be badly felt on Arctic Rally Finland if it’s missing.
Either way, Østberg appeared to be a complete pro working for the media, so his post-rally career looks to be sorted if it’s a path he wishes to pursue.