Have you caught your breath back yet? We simply could not have asked for a more thrilling start to the World Rally Championship’s new hybrid era: the 2022 Monte Carlo Rally was an instant classic.
Pre-event, all the talk understandably centered on the new Rally1 cars and what each team had managed to produce. While that remained on our minds, the real focus was on a titanic battle of the ages between Sébastiens Loeb and Ogier which eventually was settled in Loeb’s favor.
Here’s what we learned from the 2022 Monte Carlo Rally:
Loeb still has the X-factor
We didn’t expect it – even he didn’t expect it – but he very much delivered it. Sébastien Loeb is now an 80-time WRC winner, sealing his latest triumph nearly 20 years after his first.
To be honest we could leave this entry here, what else can we say other than it was fantastic to see that the Loeb magic is still well and truly alive. Before the rally, based on the evidence of Monte 2020 with Hyundai, we thought he might be a bit washed.
Shakedown suggested this might not be the case, but you have to take shakedown times with a pinch of salt. Loeb’s awesome streak of stage wins on Friday proved he was very much back, and meant business.
There was a shade of fortune in how the victory was earned given Ogier picked up what looked to be an unavoidable puncture. But this was no smash and grab, Loeb was in the picture throughout and didn’t relinquish the spoils once they were handed over. Remember last year when Ogier punctured and breezed past Elfyn Evans, for example?
We don’t know when we’ll next see him or if we even will at all, but what can’t be disputed is Loeb currently leads the championship standings for the first time in nine years. A crazy stat.
And we don’t particularly wish to reopen this long standing debate today, but that ace card Ogier has long held having won with more than one manufacturer? That can no longer be levied against the maestro…
Hyundai is in trouble
From the euphoria of the Loeb comeback tale to the gloomy corridors of Alzenau, this was not an encouraging event for Hyundai. Truthfully, it’s hard to find many positives from an event where the i20 N Rally1 looked to not only be less reliable but also slower than its M-Sport Ford and Toyota counterparts.
There had been growing expectation that this is exactly where Hyundai would find itself on round one due to a rocky period of team management leaving, testing beginning late and then being waylaid by a big Thierry Neuville crash.
Team personnel did their best to play it down – all three drivers Neuville, Ott Tänak and Oliver Solberg insisted Hyundai was not in trouble for example – but deep down, they must have known Monte was going to be a tough one.
It’s actually hard to remember all of the individual problems that afflicted the three i20 N Rally1s as there was never a time where all three got through a stage without any kind of mishap or lingering issue.
Neuville did get the team’s stage win count off the mark on Sunday morning, but that was done while complaining of a broken differential. And he was certainly no happier on the repeat pass of the stage that doubled up as the powerstage, as he gave it his absolute all and didn’t manage to secure any bonus points.
It will no doubt turn the situation around, but Hyundai must act fast before M-Sport and Toyota disappear into the distance.
Greensmith has great potential with the Puma
So long the butt of the joke, Gus Greensmith’s Monte Carlo Rally performance stunned plenty but underlined the strong progressional strides he made throughout the 2021 season.
Greensmith will always remember the event as the scene of his first WRC stage win – a well executed and well deserved achievement given it wasn’t set on a Sunday where some cars aren’t in the running or are backing off to save rubber for the powerstage.
But it can certainly be chalked up as his most impressive WRC performance to date. He was on pace with team-mate Adrien Fourmaux – who began rallying on roads similar to the Monte – and actually quicker than Craig Breen before a puncture and then an engine fault waylaid him.
And that wasn’t a case of Greensmith knowing his surroundings – Breen may not have been at the team as long but his odometer in the Puma Rally1 Hybrid is higher than Greensmith’s.
Greensmith insists he didn’t do anything better than normal last weekend, he was driving a more competitive package. Regardless, it’s impossible to not believe Greensmith can feasibly achieve his next target – the podium – based on what we saw here.
Fourmaux is building a bad reputation
While Greensmith was on top form, this was a bad rally for Fourmaux.
Everything was going swimmingly after the first two stages as he lay an impressive fourth overall on Thursday night, and his pace through the opening split of Roure – Beuil certainly caught the eye.
But, an internal “Yes Fourmaux” message from within DirtFish’s virtual office acted as the perfect commentators’ curse as a minute later he was careering into a bank and rolling out of his favorite rally of the season.
More worryingly however is the fact that this was Fourmaux’s third crash in as many rallies. In Spain he paid a high price for a small error, clipping a barrier in an extremely narrow section but on Monza he made almost exactly the same mistake, hitting a road-side bank and being thrown to the other side of the road as he learned how to handle a cross-tire package on his M-Sport Ford.
We all know how high Fourmaux’s potential is, but he’s digging himself into a rut. And the timing couldn’t be worse with team-mate Greensmith getting his act together and the speed of the Puma looking so high. M-Sport can feasibly win both titles this year, but it can’t if there are too many accidents.
Team principal Richard Millener certainly wasn’t pulling any punches when he told DirtFish: “He needs to get it into his head that sometimes we need to see a measured approach and not trying to run at the ultimate speed somewhere where you don’t have huge experience. We need results.”
All young drivers have blips – Sébastien Ogier’s 2009 season was hardly one for the highlights reel. But Fourmaux’s bubble is beginning to burst, and only he can right that by bending less metal on future rallies.
Breen and Rovanperä are real contenders
Although in our pre-season feature predicting the 2022 championship order three of our seven writers had either Craig Breen or Kalle Rovanperä marked down as their eventual champion, we’ve never actually seen them in the thick of a genuine title fight.
And we still haven’t, but both of their Monte Carlo performances indicated we were right to expect them to be right in the mix as they essentially top the championship with neither Loeb nor Ogier committing to a full season.
Breen’s was a superb result that was overshadowed by his team-mate’s outstanding victory, but the game plan was sound and executed to perfection. Having not done the Monte since 2018, Breen decided to walk before he could run and was rewarded with a fine podium place – his fourth in as many WRC starts.
Rovanperä on the other hand was quite shocking on the first night, swallowed by Eric Camilli’s WRC2-leading Citroën C3 Rally2. He struggled to get to grips with his new GR Yaris Rally1 and just had no pace whatsoever.
But the turnaround was immense. From Saturday onwards he was winning stages and blitzed all the way up to fourth overall at the finish, claiming the first powerstage win of the Rally1 era.
It’s hard to assess where Neuville or Tänak will filter in given their Hyundai proved to be less competitive, but both leave Monaco far happier than title favorite Evans who dropped the ball on Saturday and turned a certain third place into 21st and just four points from the powerstage.
It’s a long old season, but Breen’s championship-focused head has already been screwed on and Rovanperä’s pace was a danger. Write either off at your peril.
Hybrid certainly hasn’t dampened the show
It’s somewhat ironic that just as the WRC was embracing a new era, it was the two superstars of the previous one that everybody was fixated on. But this was, quite possibly, the best battle we’ve ever had between Loeb and Ogier and that is something to savior.
The voices grew quieter the more footage of these new Rally1 cars surfaced online, but it certainly can’t be said that all of the WRC’s fanbase was in favor of the hybrid direction.
Nobody can have any complaints if the rest of the season plays out like Monte did though. A refresh is always entertaining and there were reliability problems, but not the sort that made the WRC or its competing teams look pathetic.
Hybrid threw curveballs into the ring as it proved difficult to adapt to for some, broke for others and then kept the service park air cleaner with cars rolling around in electric-only mode.
On the stages, the car sound better than ever and certainly didn’t look like they were going slowly as some may have expected after the thrilling World Rally Cars that have now been retired. To cut this short, Monte was a very positive start to this new beginning.
The incredible Loeb comeback narrative was undoubtedly a key factor, but outside interest in this has been off the charts – it’s no surprise that DirtFish experienced record site numbers across the weekend, each day bettering the previous one.
And this is now a story with relevance. Finally, after years of being in the dark age, the WRC is embracing cleaner technologies and hasn’t sacrificed any of the drama, excitement or spectacle in doing so. Long may it continue.