With the start of the most unpredictable World Rally Championship season barely a day away and no meaningful idea as to who might be competitive, surely the hardest thing to do would be to try to predict the end-of-season standings?
But that’s exactly what we’ve done, leaning on the evidence of and feedback from the pre-season tests, each project’s lead-up time, other influencing factors – such as Andrea Adamo’s abrupt exit from Hyundai – and inside information our writers have gleaned from the teams ahead of the Monte Carlo Rally.
For the purpose of this exercise we’ve included the eight drivers who are down to contest the full campaign, plus Hyundai third-car sharers Dani Sordo and Oliver Solberg – the second of whom is due to compete in the i20 N Rally2 when not in the top division – and Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi, who is expected to have a significant part-time schedule.
Sébastiens Ogier and Loeb have not been included, as the extent of their respective programs with Toyota and M-Sport are not known but are likely to be limited to a handful of outings.
DirtFish’s voting panel: David Evans, Luke Barry, Jack Benyon, Alasdair Lindsay, Ida Wood, Stephen Brunsdon, Jack Cozens
10= Dani Sordo
Average position: 10.14
Highest ranking: 9th (IW)
Lowest ranking: 11th (DE, LB)
AL: The ever-dependable Sordo can only do so much. There’s been a few times in the past where he’s been on for stellar results only for the i20 Coupe WRC to let him down. More of the same this year, potentially. And while Sordo will be faster than Solberg this year, it sounds like we’ll see him in a Hyundai less often too.
SB: Sharing the third car means that Sordo will again be the dependable points scorer for Hyundai, but the i20 N Rally1 has got to be up to the task. If it is, Sordo should be up at the sharp end. But that all depends on how many events he will do.
DE: One of the nicest fellas in the service park won’t have enough seat time in stage mode to make much of an impression on the championship standings.
10= Oliver Solberg
Average position: 10.14
Highest ranking: 9th (DE, JC)
Lowest ranking: 11th (JB, AL, SB)
JC: Solberg gets the nod over Sordo for me based on the fact he’ll have the chance to score points in the Rally2 car when he’s not in the top class. He delivered a pair of excellent fifth-place finishes in 2021, so now’s the time to add some of the consistency that was missing.
SB: A first full year in a Rally1 car will be an exciting moment for young Solberg, and a learning experience which he needs to take on the chin. There will be strong moments, there will also be mistakes. But one thing that’s clear is that Solberg is the apprentice, and that might mean swapping a full-attack mode for a prudent approach this season.
9. Gus Greensmith
Average position: 8.71
Highest ranking: 7th (LB, IW)
Lowest ranking: 11th (JC)
LB: With a rejuvenated approach and (likely) a more competitive car, Greensmith’s form should improve this season. Don’t expect him to be at Breen’s pace, but it should be intriguing to monitor his performances relative to Fourmaux. I think Greensmith’s peaks could be lower but his dips far less frequent, which should help him finish ahead.
IW: M-Sport wants him to fight for podiums, and Greensmith probably will. But will he have that awesome boost of confidence we saw in mid-2021 when he has a less experienced co-driver? Probably not. So although Greensmith will improve, I don’t think we’re going to see the very best from him that Chris Patterson so brilliantly extracted.
8. Takamoto Katsuta
Average position: 7.43
Highest ranking: 6th (JB)
Lowest ranking: 9th (LB)
IW: Toyota has split its teams now so Katsuta is in a second-branch squad. It will function at the same level as the one Evans and co will drive for, but Toyota has to keep Katsuta working as closely with its main drivers as possible to make him ready to step into that line-up himself. My most confident 2022 prediction is Rovanperä and Katsuta will be the ones to beat in Kenya.
LB: In all likelihood Katsuta’s season should be less erratic than 2021 with fewer changes of personnel joining him aboard the Yaris. But the WRC is a fiercely competitive environment at the moment and although Katsuta’s speed is impressive, he’s perhaps lacking the raw pace of some of his rivals which could ultimately cost him if the rest don’t falter.
7. Esapekka Lappi
Average position: 7.29
Highest ranking: 5th (DE)
Lowest ranking: 11th (IW)
AL: There’s only one WRC car he looked truly comfortable in: the Yaris. Meager results from his Citroën and M-Sport years might suggest Lappi’s a talent unfulfilled but I don’t buy that argument. There will be podiums aplenty, I reckon – maybe even another win in Finland if he doesn’t get ordered to move aside for another Toyota – and a strong placing in the drivers’ championship to go with it despite missing a few rallies.
JB: This is a tricky one as we have to do a bit of predicting how many rallies the part-timers will do. You have to assume Toyota will come with the best machine, and I think being away from full-time competition will have given Lappi some much needed family time to recharge. His results in 2021 pointed to the potential, although if Sordo ends up doing more rallies you’d have to assume he’ll nudge ahead.
DE: The lack of a full program won’t hinder a Finn who’s found his way home.
6. Adrien Fourmaux
Average position: 7.14
Highest ranking: 6th (IW, SB)
Lowest ranking: 8th (DE, JC, LB)
IW: He’s fast, very level-headed, and looks cool. But this will be another learning year and you can imagine he will engage a risk-aversion approach when needed to get points at a more comfortable pace.
DE: Will take a wee while to curb his massive enthusiasm to be embarking on his maiden full-time WRC program, but his speed will carry him to a handful of podiums this year.
JC: A lot’s expected of M-Sport’s Puma Rally1 package, but behind team leader Breen its drivers still need time to develop. I expect Fourmaux to have the legs on Greensmith over a full season; a rock-solid run will be good for his confidence too, having plateaued slightly towards the end of 2021 after a hugely encouraging top-flight start.
4= Ott Tänak
Average position: 3.43
Highest ranking: 2nd (DE, SB)
Lowest ranking: 5th (JB, IW)
SB: Arguably the fastest driver in the WRC – a title he’s held for a while now – Tänak will be desperate to right the wrongs of 2021 and come out firing. Is the Hyundai a Toyota beater? Simply, we have no idea with the new hybrid units, but that’s the beauty of this prediction isn’t it? Tänak, in an ideal world, will be right in the mix and should be a contender.
JB: I may have gone too low here, but the recent trend is that Neuville is still top dog at Hyundai. Perhaps Tänak has baked-in some of the things he likes into the new Hyundai, but going off previous form Hyundai will be second best to Toyota and Tänak will be second best to Neuville. After a thoroughly underwhelming 2021 in particular, it doesn’t seem unfair to expect a lot more from him.
4= Thierry Neuville
Average position: 3.43
Highest ranking: 1st (JC)
Lowest ranking: 5th (AL, SB)
JC: His team was the last to commit to the hybrid era, he had a massive off in testing, and he’s without a permanent team principal. But Neuville rode the storm of Tänak’s arrival, and would have been in the 2021 title fight until the end without mechanical setbacks. A repeat of those, not doubts about previous capitulations, will be the biggest obstacle.
SB: It’s hard to know where to place Neuville, such has been his rotten luck recently. An in-form Neuville is almost impossible to beat. He’s a workhorse and will give it everything, but it all depends on how well the Hyundai performs early doors and whether the confidence is there from the off. If Neuville has to play catch-up, the title might well be too far away.
3. Craig Breen
Average position: 3.14
Highest ranking: 1st (AL)
Lowest ranking: 4th (JC, JB, LB)
AL: Craig Breen, World Rally Champion. It’s a callback. Two decades ago it was Marcus Grönholm making the most of one of the greatest cars of his generation, the 206 WRC. This time it’s the Puma. And M-Sport rarely fails to deliver a fast car out of the box. Plus there’s one thing Breen’s got now that he perhaps lacked while running from pillar to post, trying to convince people to let him drive in the first place. Structure. That helps.
IW: If the Puma has a stronger rear end than Breen’s testing off suggests, he will no doubt be one of the top dogs. But he’s also in a development position, and I think there will be moments where the focus will move to bringing the team’s performance up rather than pushing for individual honor. That could reap rewards for M-Sport but stop the kind of risks that could keep Breen contending for his own title.
DE: Waterford’s finest export will find his feet immediately in a flying Ford, a couple of wins and plenty of points will play Craig into the title fight.
2. Kalle Rovanperä
Average position: 2.86
Highest ranking: 1st (LB, SB)
Lowest ranking: 6th (DE)
LB: Everything’s reset to zero, meaning past form or experience almost becomes irrelevant. That means the title favorite simply has to be Rovanperä. On brand-new events last year he proved himself to be one of the fastest (if not the fastest ) and it’s a lack of familiarity with the stages that seemed to be the only element pegging him back in the past.
AL: Rovanperä is extremely talented, there’s no doubt of that. A first world title is not too far away, surely. But will it come in 2022? That dreadful run of form immediately after taking the championship lead in Sweden last year raises a question mark. Consistency wins championships; Ogier finished outside the top five only once in 2021. Rovanperä will be up there on pace but Evans has the edge on consistency.
DE: He’ll win some rallies, but lack of experience in New Zealand will catch him out (please don’t mention this feature if/when Kalle romps home to his first title…).
1. Elfyn Evans
Average position: 2.29
Highest ranking: 1st (DE, JB, IW)
Lowest ranking: 5th (LB)
DE: Has the speed, the consistency and the car to be champion.
LB: I hope I’m wrong, but I envisage a tricky season for Evans. He tends to be uncomfortable to push to his maximum unless things are 100% perfect, and in 2022 things will likely not be 100% perfect for quite some time. Coupled with my expectation that Rovanperä will be champion and therefore be competitive from the off, could that hamper Evans’ confidence further?
JB: Out of Ogier’s shadow, Evans has what it takes to offer the consistency required to bag a first WRC title. Of course, my pick is dependent on Toyota having the best car or at least one in contention, but I think Evans was close to title-winning form against Ogier before and has learned plenty from the eight-time champion.
The individual votes