The 2023 World Rally Championship season has its first chapter in the books, and there’s plenty to mull over and discuss.
So consider this column your rally-orientated book club, as we examine what we learned from this year’s Monte Carlo Rally:
Ogier undisputed Monte master
Just like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in soccer (although Messi’s World Cup win with Argentina makes it a much harder sell nowadays for the Ronaldo bunch), the Sébastien Loeb or Sébastien Ogier debate over who was the greatest will keep rally fans talking for generations to come.
But when it comes to the Monte Carlo Rally, few can dispute that it’s Ogier who’s king. Even when Loeb moved level to match Ogier’s tally of eight wins last year, it was a rally Ogier could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, won. And it always felt like a temporary draw in the record books for the two legendary Frenchmen.
Ogier was in a class of his own last weekend. Leading from start to finish, the only time his victory looked even remotely under threat was when Kalle Rovanperä produced a masterful stage time on Saturday evening.
From the second Ogier blasted his GR Yaris Rally1 off the first start-line, it was all under control. And off the back of a win in Spain and pace strong enough to win in Japan, Ogier has proved he is unquestionably still the benchmark on asphalt.
That’s if he’s not still the benchmark full stop.
Evans back on pace
There was a bit of debate on the DirtFish newsdesk when discussing the entries for our new ‘winners and losers’ column as to where Elfyn Evans should filter in.
Rob Hansford felt he had to be considered a winner given his pace was very much there, whereas I argued that he had to be classified as a loser given he had the speed for a top result but yet again came home with less.
Either way, there’s no denying that Elfyn can take great encouragement from his Monte.
Yes, were it not for a puncture he’d probably have finished second, but the fact he proved himself to be the quickest driver bar Ogier through the early stages counts for a lot in a championship season Ogier won’t play a consistent part in.
He may trail both Rovanperä and Neuville in the standings, but that gives him a better start position for Sweden and after all, the 15 points he holds now are a damn sight better than the four he had 12 months ago.
Rovanperä the title favorite
However, having said all of that, Kalle Rovanperä is still looking every bit the title favorite after a strong Monte Carlo performance that makes him the net championship leader heading to Sweden for the second year in succession.
It wasn’t a maximum score, but it’s hard to think of a better way for Rovanperä to start his season than with second and a powerstage win behind a driver who won’t trouble him in the championship race.
The defending champion felt that dry asphalt pace was his biggest weakness from last year, and on a dry asphalt rally he proved himself to be capable of fighting at the very front – and able to finish ahead of all of his long-term rivals.
Yes, Evans was unfortunate, Thierry Neuville and the Hyundai clearly have more pace and Ott Tänak and M-Sport are yet to hit top gear, but the signs are already looking very ominous.
For all this talk of a sensational 2023 title battle, Rovanperä’s rivals really need to raise the bar – and soon – if they’re going to stop him.
Tänak/M-Sport needs time
Ott Tänak never targeted a victory as early as round one, instead suggesting that a podium in Monte Carlo would be a good way to begin his M-Sport Ford reunion. But he finished over a minute and a half shy of the podium and 2m34.9s down on the winner.
Clearly, this rekindled partnership needs time to fully gel.
Tänak identified that his best chance at success on the Monte was if the weather was mixed, reducing the importance of an intimate driver/car bond, but unfortunately what he got was a dry event. With no perfect setup for him yet, Tänak was never going to flourish.
The bigger worries may rest on the technical side, given Pierre-Louis Loubet’s water leak on Sunday and Tänak’s intermittent power-steering problem on Saturday. Tänak can’t fight for the title if the Puma proves to be unreliable.
The first few events are all about him finding his feet in the car and trying to minimize the lead the others, who are better gelled in their respective environments, pull out on him. But with the pace of the WRC so hot, Tänak needs more than fifth in Sweden if he’s to live up to the promise of his M-Sport move.
Hyundai needs to dial it in
M-Sport isn’t the only team that departs Monaco with some issues to resolve though, as Hyundai was far from perfect. Toyota was really the only team which aced it.
Hyundai’s rally was a peculiar affair. While Thierry Neuville was able to power the i20 N Rally1 to two stage wins on Saturday, Esapekka Lappi and most pertinently Dani Sordo struggled to extract any consistent feeling or pace from the car – and Neuville wasn’t grinning from ear to ear either.
A bad setup appeared to be the root of the problems. It wasn’t that the car was slow, it just wasn’t dialled in properly for the rally and Neuville felt that cost him the chance to pile pressure on the Toyotas.
Lappi’s struggles were more natural given this was his first rally for the team (and his first Monte Carlo in three years to boot) but Sordo was bereft of his usual assurance and confidence.
A two-day hybrid problem that team principal Cyril Abiteboul appeared to suggest was of Hyundai’s own doing on the second day didn’t help either. Not its cleanest weekend, but by no means a disaster like last year.
Loubet’s new deal is well founded
Pierre-Louis Loubet has nothing to show for his Monte Carlo in terms of points on the board, but read between the lines and his performance was actually deeply impressive.
OK, he made a mistake on Saturday morning when he clouted that bridge in the ice – there’s no dressing that up – but Loubet won himself plenty of fans when he valiantly fought on through Friday afternoon with no power-steering.
Unfortunately, we never really got a proper read on his speed, but for him to be seventh before his rally unravelled is actually quite positive considering he’s only ever done the Monte once before and never in a Rally1 car.
M-Sport’s strategy this year is clear – pour every ounce it can in supporting Tänak’s bid for a second drivers’ title. Loubet always seemed like he’d be a promising and reliable wingman for that cause, and the clean stages we did see from that at the weekend certainly didn’t disprove that.
WRC2 will be ace in 2023
Before the season started, many rally fans predicted that WRC2 would be worth just as much of their attention as the overall battle out front. And they were all right.
There are plenty of exciting drivers and headlines names in the Rally1 category, but the lack of numbers was felt at times on the Monte. In WRC2? No problem.
And what a battle we had on our hands. Nikolay Gryazin was clear for ages until a puncture pegged him back and awoke something within Yohan Rossel, inspiring a tense final day where Gryazin clung on to win by 4.5s – only for that result to be overturned in the stewards room! That ding-dong battle between Pepe López and Stéphane Lefebvre was extraordinary too until Lefebvre punctured.
The tantalizing thing is the Monte was bereft of several of the big hitters too. Oliver Solberg (competed but not for WRC2 points), Emil Lindholm, Sami Pajari (supposed to drive but fell ill before the rally), Teemu Suninen and Gus Greensmith are all yet to get their campaigns underway.
And as much as Škoda’s new Fabia RS Rally2 won 16 of the Monte’s 18 stages, it’s not streaks ahead of the competition either. The battle we all wanted looks like it is about to unfurl.