“Did we know Ogier was testing in Portugal?”
Scrolling through the pre-event testing footage kindly supplied to us by Toyota Gazoo Racing, DirtFish videographer Eliot Barnard had noticed something.
Tucked away in all the clearly-labeled Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta footage sneakily lay shots of the eight-time world champion, putting his GR Yaris Rally1 through its paces the week before a round of the World Rally Championship he was not meant to be doing.
Eliot’s instincts were correct: tell the journalists!
My initial reaction was one of surprise.
‘That’s a bit strange.’
But then it dawned on me. And my mind at least was thrown back to November and Rally Japan last year.
Specifically, a transcript from an interview with Toyota technical director Tom Fowler.
“I don’t know if you’re aware,” Fowler said, “but the regulation for testing next year changes a little bit in the, let’s say, nuances of it.
“So at the moment we have this one day per driver per European event which is basically 21 days testing, and next year the regulation is [just] 21 days testing.
“You can still only test in European countries, but at the moment if the rally the driver is entered in is Japan, you couldn’t nominate a test for that driver because it’s for Japan. Our Japan test was part of our Spain test so we nominated Spain as the test and then the work we did was for Spain and Japan.
“Whereas next year you don’t worry about nominating which rally the test is for, it’s just a number of days so it doesn’t matter driver, rally, whatever.”
Back then, this was news. Today, it’s anything but. However there’s a reason your favorite corners of rally Twitter have only featured images and clips of M-Sport Ford’s Puma Rally1 testing in Sardinia this week. Shots of the Hyundai were in Finland, and there was nothing online of a Toyota at all.
And it’s the same reason Ogier was testing in Sardinia before Rally of Portugal had even happened.
Portugal and Sardinia are the first two back-to-back events with similar characteristics this season, so the pinch of the regulation tweak has been felt by the WRC’s two major manufacturers.
With test days at a premium, neither Toyota nor Hyundai elected to do a specific test for round six.
That, according to Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, is going to make things particularly tough – especially since he didn’t appear to be on top of his i20 N Rally1 in Portugal.
“It’s hard to develop a lot when you have no test days left,” Neuville told DirtFish.
“We are going straight from here [Portugal] to Sardinia without any real testing, so… yeah, we know it’s going to be another tough event ahead of us.
“There’s only a couple of days of testing during the season so we have to choose the events, and there’s no PET for Sardinia.”
Hyundai (and Toyota) have the option to test at their permanently nominated test site – which Hyundai did – but nothing on-location.
M-Sport on the other hand?
The very same strategy that makes it difficult for it to compete for this year’s manufacturers’ championship massively repays itself in terms of testing. Hence Ott Tänak and Pierre-Louis Loubet were able to test in Italy this week.
With all teams allocated 21 test days – regardless of how many drivers are in the lineup – M-Sport’s decision to run just two full-time pilots in 2023 means each driver gets more test days than their counterparts at rival teams.
In any scenario, that’s a bonus. But for a driver like Tänak, who left Portugal with a clear list of things he’d like to see improved on the car, that’s a big bonus.
And all drivers will tell you that the best thing they can get between rallies is seat time – particularly if it’s in conditions relevant to their next event.
How much of an edge the more relevant test gives the M-Sport drivers compared to their rivals once they all engage launch control next week remains to be seen, but it can’t really be argued that Tänak and Loubet don’t have some form of advantage heading into the event – even if it is only psychological.