The curtain has come down on the 2021 World Rally Championship season. Sébastien Ogier retained his crown, Toyota took the manufacturers’ spoils from Hyundai, and the rallying world waved goodbye to the World Rally Car.
It’s fair to say that the 2021 Monza Rally will therefore be remembered as an event of great historical significance. But what did we learn from it? Plenty, as we’re about to share with you.
Ogier’s form dip was a blip
Ogier looked off-color on Rally Finland and Rally Spain, just as Elfyn Evans had found a real run of momentum. He suggested in his pre-Monza media call on Wednesday that “some kind of tiredness” had perhaps cost him but, no matter what the reason, Ogier hadn’t looked like his usual self on recent events.
He didn’t need to be his usual self at Monza in order to secure an eighth world title, but he absolutely was. Toyota team principal Jari-Matti Latvala noticed it early, saying he “could see a different guy” on Friday morning before SS1 than he had seen in Finland and Spain.
Even though Ogier kept reiterating the point that he was only focused on his own rally – and not an intense ding-dong battle with Evans for the rally win – his performance was classic Ogier: calculated, clean, and devastatingly quick.
It was a fitting way for Ogier to end his glittering career with Julien Ingrassia. While Ogier will do some rallies next season, Ingrassia is stepping away from the WRC and so it was perfect for the duo to clinch yet another world title together by winning a 54th WRC event.
Toyota has amazing team spirit
Although the 2021 title decider was hardly a classic for the ages with the points situation heavily favoring Ogier ahead of the contest, the fact he and Evans were so relaxed and open with each other – despite what was at stake – pointed to a very harmonious team atmosphere.
Latvala has done a superb job since taking the team principal role from Tommi Mäkinen, a title double is all the proof you need of that. And it was wonderful to see him leading the celebrations from the front as the entire team toasted their collective success underneath the famous Monza podium immediately after the rally.
Kalle Rovanperä deserves the most kudos though. Some may feel Latvala’s request for Rovanperä to drive so conservatively in order to bank the manufacturers’ title (with the team only needing to score five points at Monza to seal it) was a bit extreme, but there was no fuss from Rovanperä. He just got on with it and did it, driving an entire event – the last in this special generation of World Rally Car – like a “granny driving to church”.
That wasn’t lost on Evans, who was quick to thank Rovanperä at the end of the powerstage for allowing him and Ogier to dispute the rally win and drivers’ title. Making such a sacrifice can only help Rovanperä’s reputation within the team (if it even needed improving) but more than that, suggests that Toyota is a very well-knit and happy place to be in the WRC.
Suninen has Hyundai potential
Teemu Suninen didn’t make the headlines on Monza Rally, but that’s likely a good thing as with such limited experience of the i20 Coupe WRC the only way he was realistically going to do that was by crashing.
Instead, Suninen chipped away and made some clear improvements through the weekend that should leave him pleased with himself.
His biggest struggle was the braking points, especially on the circuit with such inconsistent grip. But aside from a tap of the barriers on Saturday that rearranged the rear-left of his i20 Coupe WRC slightly, there was no mega effort to drive around the problem or frustration that he maybe wasn’t as fast as he’d have liked to have been.
And when he was confident, the pace was there. Two top-three stage times is nothing to be sniffed at, and importantly Suninen came out on top of a battle with his old M-Sport team-mate Gus Greensmith – despite Greensmith’s best efforts to potentially psych Suninen out via text message.
Suninen believes December will be crucial for discovering his 2022 future, but based on this debut Hyundai could do a lot worse than keeping the Finn on its books – in WRC2 or beyond.
Solberg’s critics are wrong
Oliver Solberg has come under some scrutiny recently due to a bad run of form including driver errors and mechanical failures. Some had even wondered if next year was too soon for him to be sharing a Hyundai i20 N Rally1 with Dani Sordo.
Monza proved them all wrong. Solberg was awesome last weekend, taking fifth place at the start and holding it for the remainder of the event. It was the ideal result – and performance – to round out a disappointing season and carry crucial momentum into a rather important one.
The key difference for Solberg was experience. Unlike Safari Rally Kenya or Rally Spain where he also sat in a World Rally Car, Monza was a place Solberg had experience of, having driven a Škoda to seventh overall last year.
From the off, it was clear that was helping, although Solberg was again adjusting to a new co-driver in Elliott Edmondson – something that was easy to forget given the maturity of this drive.
Aside from feeling he was overheating his tires too much on the mountain stages, Solberg couldn’t be faulted at Monza. With experience of almost the entire WRC calendar now, that bodes incredibly well for 2022.
Greensmith and Andersson are well matched
If you’ve followed the 2021 WRC season closely, you’ll know that Chris Patterson had a big impact on Greensmith. The partnership was formed on April’s Rally Croatia and immediately prompted a change not just in Greensmith’s driving but his application and attitude.
Replacing Patterson was therefore going to be tricky, but Jonas Andersson looks like he could be the right candidate. It was perhaps a surprise appointment, but the Swede acclimatized well to reading English pacenotes for the first time since 2007, and his personality complimented Greensmith’s too.
The second stage of the rally caused a brief hiccup as Andersson got a little lost in the thick fog, but Greensmith was left delighted with how things went, which suggests the pair will remain together for next year’s Monte Carlo Rally.
“My plan for the whole weekend was just get all the mileage. And if it meant being a bit cautious then that was it because there’s no point having a new co-driver thinking about 2022 if you’re going to take it off the road on the first day,” he said.
“[It’s been] really good. Good laugh in the car, a bit more my age kind of chat. Less historical sites as it was with Chris.”
WRC needs to better prioritize WRC3
The WRC3 powerstage was epic. Yohan Rossel grabbed the title from Kajetan Kajetanowicz by overhauling him on the test, throwing absolutely everything at it in order to do so. Yet we, as viewers, never got to see it.
Why? Surely this is a superb advert for the WRC and the closeness of the competition, so why wasn’t it shown? Of course, Ogier and Ingrassia’s celebrations as 2021 champions trumped all, but two Rally2 cars – Jari Huttunen and Nikolay Gryazin – started the powerstage first. Why wasn’t that Rossel and Kajetanowicz?
There’s always been a fair bit of debate about the WRC3 class in general and whether it would actually be better served just merging with WRC2. We’re not going to enter that discussion here, but it does seem a bit harsh that WRC2 competitors regularly get some air time on the WRC’s All Live and WRC3 drivers very rarely – if at all – are picked up by the live cameras.
Sometimes it feels as if WRC3 is just being hidden away, as if it doesn’t matter. And that absolutely shouldn’t be the case if the class is to be a part of the WRC’s structure, as the 2021 title narrative was arguably more entertaining than that of WRC2 – it just lacked star names such as Andreas Mikkelsen and Mads Østberg.
Massive kudos to Rossel though, what a way to win a championship. Up against it before the event with his Acropolis disqualification appeal rejected, he was passed on the penultimate stage but remained undeterred and bossed the powerstage to grab the title.
Monza would be a brilliant WRC reserve
For a second year in a row, the Monza Rally stepped in as a last-minute season finale and, just like in 2020, it provided good entertainment.
Conditions were a far cry from the muddy, snowy concoction served up last December, but the rally was still a challenge with constant surface changes and differing stage characteristics.
From a spectacle standpoint, the decision to have two mixed days of mountain stages in the morning and circuit stages in the afternoon was far more captivating than 2020’s itinerary of two full days at the track and one full day near Bergamo.
Stage design remained impressive too. While circuit tests aren’t really true to rallying’s DNA and don’t give the drivers the most joy, they are demanding in their own right and the Monza organizer utilized all of the different road options available brilliantly.
Unlike the Spa-Francorchamps stages of the Ypres Rally for example, there were no massive sections of Grand Prix circuit left for the drivers to tackle. At Monza, the stages regularly cut in and off the main circuit and when on the main circuit, chicanes and hairpins were added to make it more appropriate for rallying.
Monza wouldn’t be the ideal WRC rally in normal circumstances, but it’s proved itself again to be a fantastic reserve that’s capable of providing a far more entertaining spectacle than it should on paper. Massive credit must go to the organizer.