It’s beginning to feel a little more real, isn’t it? The stars of the 2023 World Rally Championship have all been out testing this week, preparing for their first onslaught: the Monte Carlo Rally.
And tantalizingly it’s all set to begin just one week from now.
So as the drivers dial themselves in and the teams do their final preparations to their respective Rally1 cars, we’ve been wondering: which manufacturer heads into the season with the best roster of drivers?
And there’s plenty to ponder, given no team will field the same lineup in 2023 as it did in 2022.
Here’s who our team of writers believe has the best WRC driver lineup this year:
Toyota, or Toksport!
For fired-up drivers and potential fireworks, I’d say Hyundai. Thierry Neuville lands into round one as the boss of that team. He’s spent more time in an i20 than anybody else in the last nine years and now it’s time to make that count.
He knows that. He’s desperate for the title and, on paper, he shouldn’t get too much grief from his team-mates.
It won’t work out like that. Esapekka Lappi’s been through the frustration of a part-program and doesn’t want to go back and Craig Breen ‘enjoyed’ his first full year in 2022 and has now been forced to go back to a part-program. Both have plenty to fight for and both have the ability to voice a view or two if things aren’t falling into place for them.
Does that make them the best lineup? From where we’re sitting, almost certainly.
In terms of the team most likely to break the tape in the makes’ race, that’s Toyota. Yes, there’s scope for fireworks from the quartet of GR Yaris Rally1s, but there is also – in my view – a wider understanding of what’s needed and what success means at a corporate level from the Toyota drivers.
Toyota’s management structure is more mature and potentially more empathetic towards the drivers and co-drivers. That combined with a more cohesive approach will deliver another title – or titles – to Japan.
Or maybe the more straightforward answer is Toksport.
Toyota even without Ogier
It can’t be anyone other than Toyota really can it? It has the reigning world champion, Elfyn Evans could still be a force to reckon with, and although Takamoto Katsuta won’t be expected to be winning multiple events in 2023, he showed last season how useful and dependable he can be.
And that’s before you get on to one Sébastien Ogier, who will be dipping in from time to time.
But looking beyond Toyota, I’d argue that M-Sport perhaps has the stronger lineup compared to Hyundai.
Hyundai might have three cars, but I sense there could be more friction afoot in the team this year. Esapekka Lappi won’t want to settle as a number two driver, while Thierry Neuville will expect to be outright team leader.
Whereas, at M-Sport, there’s no disputing that Ott Tänak is the team’s talisman, and with Pierre-Louis Loubet supporting him the team can focus on going full tilt at the title without having to keep too many people happy.
I could be very wrong with this prediction, but either way, it’s one of the most tantalizing line-ups we’ve had for a few years.
Evans makes the difference
The three Rally1 teams in this year’s World Rally Championship are fairly closely matched on paper. Each has a solid lead driver, with decent crews in place to play a de facto ‘rear gunner’ role – and it’s these additional drivers that’ll make the difference.
We know Kalle Rovanperä is an astonishing talent in the Toyota, and I’m having a hard time looking past him this year, although Ott Tänak should be able to properly unlock the M-Sport Puma’s potential and with Thierry Neuville once again leading the Hyundai charge, that team can’t be written off completely either.
But when you look at who’s in the other cars, Toyota once again looks the strongest.
Elfyn Evans is arguably the only other championship caliber driver outside of that aforementioned ‘big three’ right now. He’s absolutely no number two, and that only goes to cement Toyota’s position as my team to beat – and that’s before we chuck in a part-time Sébastien Ogier.
Tänak’s quality means M-Sport
It’s fair to say the WRC as a whole has a very strong set of drivers. Hyundai has the consistency of Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo, and has brought in more experience in the form of Esapekka Lappi and Craig Breen. A set of fresh faces could be what the team needs after a year where there were a few issues.
Toyota has kept its stability, and who can blame it? WRC’s new champion Kalle Rovanperä will be gunning for a second title, while Elfyn Evans will no doubt be keen to start off strong and keep it that way after a tough outing last year. Then there’s Sébastien Ogier making select appearances throughout the year, and if 2022 is anything to go by, he’s still got it.
And now there’s Takamoto Katsuta to rely on for points at the occasional event this time around. He was impressive last season, it will be interesting to see how he goes now there’s that little bit more pressure on his shoulders. But I’m sure he will soak that up.
As for M-Sport? It’s got my backing as the best lineup. Ott Tänak’s comeback will have pumped confidence back into the team after a tough year. Sébastien Loeb’s switch to part-time in 2022 left it without a champion in its ranks for most of the year. Now, it’s got one again.
The ex-Hyundai driver will be hungry for a title after a season where he was clearly unsettled at his former team. It’s a fresh environment with a mix of the past as he heads back to Dovenby Hall. This year I believe he will thrive.
Then there’s the young blood within the team in Pierre-Louis Loubet. A season where he quietly ebbed away earned him a full-time seat in the Puma Rally1. He’s got the perfect team-mate in Tänak to learn from, and we should see a glimpse of what Loubet can offer in years to come as he finds his stride.
Statistically it’s Hyundai
It may not boast any drivers’ world champions (yet anyway) but looking at full-time entries for the coming season, statistically, it’s Hyundai.
OK, that’s largely down to Neuville’s 17 wins and 55 podiums and statistics don’t always tell the whole story, but looking at the second half of last year, the team is on an upward trend again. The team is built around Neuville and, in some ways, he’s without pressure. Rovanperä has a title to defend and Tänak has been tasked with returning M-Sport to the top.
New full-season driver Esapekka Lappi showed strong form in a partial 2022 and, if he gels with the i20, could provide consistency, while part-season drivers Dani Sordo and Craig Breen are no slouches either.
M-Sport most improved, but Toyota best
If the question was which team has improved its driver lineup the most over 2022, M-Sport Ford would be a clear winner. And that’s somewhat ironic given it’s slimmed its number of permanent entrants from three to two.
But in Ott Tänak it has one of the WRC’s so-called ‘A-listers’ (something it didn’t in 2022) and therefore a very real shot at at least the drivers’ championship.
However, that wasn’t the question. I should know as I set it for the rest of the team!
I’d love to pick something different from most of my colleagues, but Toyota has the advantage in terms of driver lineup for me, too.
I’d argue that, strangely, Toyota’s roster is weaker than last year without Lappi but Hyundai’s is also weaker now it’s poached him. That’s because Lappi is a more proven quantity over Takamoto Katsuta for Toyota, and Tänak is a more rounded driver than Lappi.
But ultimately Toyota wins out because it likely has two title contenders (Kalle Rovanperä and Elfyn Evans) compared to Hyundai and M-Sport Ford’s one. It’s basically as simple as that.