We all know how musical chairs works. When the music stops, everyone rushes to find a seat and whoever’s left standing is out.
Now this isn’t quite how the drives were settled for the 2023 World Rally Championship, but the effect is the same.
Some stayed put, but plenty were on the move and others were left out in the cold.
But who were the winners and losers from the off-season shakeup? We cast the rule over the field.
Wanted a move out of Hyundai. He got it. Wanted a car and team capable of giving him a second world title. He thinks he’s got it in the Ford Puma Rally1 and M-Sport.
Ott Tänak is one of the biggest winners from the WRC’s late silly season. In many respects he held the key for plenty of other moves as the biggest player on the open market, but it’ll all count for nothing if Tänak doesn’t claim the second title he so badly craves.
Tänak’s return to Cumbria is of course a massive coup for M-Sport itself, too.
There’s clearly potential in its Puma Rally1 but in 2022 it didn’t consistently have a driver lineup capable of extracting the best results out of it. Although M-Sport’s put nigh on all of its eggs in the one basket, it can’t have any such complaints with the 2019 world champion behind the wheel.
There’s of course added pressure in welcoming a driver of Tänak’s caliber into the fold, but M-Sport is desperate to rediscover that winning feeling which has grown ever more distant of late so that’s a by-product it’s more than willing to accept.
It may at first appear strange to include one of the few drivers who hasn’t moved an inch in the winners column, but consider the context and it’s hard not to feel that Thierry Neuville has come out of this a winner.
With all due respect to his new team-mate Esapekka Lappi, he’s unlikely to pose the same internal threat as Tänak did for the last three years at Hyundai, which means Neuville can enjoy being the undisputed focal point of Hyundai’s campaign.
Hyundai’s priority is of course the manufacturers’ title and by extension that makes it a high priority for Neuville too, but with five runners-up medals in the WRC for over the years Neuville has never been hungrier to claim the drivers’ title for himself.
And with a car that’s very clearly well sorted and a team that’ll fully back him, has he ever had a better shot at glory?
Lappi may not be in prime position to win the world championship alongside Neuville at Hyundai, but he’s got a better shot now than he’s had for years given his calendar has just become twice as busy.
Trading half a season at Toyota for a full one at Hyundai has to make Lappi a winner here. Although there is an air of caution surrounding the move given how comfortable Lappi has looked at Toyota.
Can he produce the same run of form now he’s wearing Hyundai colors?
In some respects, Takamoto Katsuta’s program hasn’t changed. He was always going to be driving a factory-spec Toyota GR Yaris Rally1.
But Lappi’s migration to Hyundai freed up a space in Toyota’s manufacturer squad for half a season alongside Sébastien Ogier that Katsuta will now fill.
It’s a subtle shift but earns Katsuta full works driver status for the first time, and naturally makes him a winner of the off-season shakeup.
From an eight-round European-only campaign to a full season in M-Sport’s fold, Pierre-Louis Loubet’s career turnaround has been immaculate.
While others have either left or been demoted within M-Sport’s lineup, Loubet will be new signing Tänak’s only full-time team-mate this season.
There’s no way this can be considered anything but a win for the young Frenchman and new co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul who’s finally back in the WRC after two years away.
The biggest player in the silly season has managed to secure itself a strong array of four drivers to field its i20 N Rally1s, and new recruits Lappi and Craig Breen bring with them knowledge of both the Toyota and M-Sport cars.
But while these are clear plus points for Hyundai, compare its lineup for 2023 with 2022 and this season’s roster doesn’t compare as well with the omission of Tänak.
And it can’t be forgotten that it was Tänak’s choice to leave. But all things considered, Hyundai’s lineup does still look fairly level with its chief rival Toyota.
Hyundai’s decision to not renew its partnership with Oliver Solberg for 2023 is the move that ultimately kick started the late silly season in 2022.
But sadly for Solberg, he hasn’t managed to find himself a Rally1 drive for the new year. That has to make him a loser, but a season in WRC2 in a Toksport Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 may well be the dream ticket to return in the future.
Perhaps a slightly harsh entrant for the losers column as it could be argued that he’s in fact a winner in securing a Hyundai drive, but considering the simple fact that Craig Breen had a full-time program in 2022 but just a partial one again in 2023, he finds himself in this section.
But Breen could well have made the necessary step to reverse the tide of his WRC career. Hyundai worked for him before, so why can’t it work for him again?
The same logic has to apply to Gus Greensmith as it does his now former team-mate Breen. In Greensmith’s case, going from a Rally1 to a Rally2 drive in 2023 can’t make a Greensmith a winner of the off-season.
But just like Breen, this is an extremely harsh labeling – because it doesn’t necessarily make him a loser either.
While seeing Greensmith in a Škoda and not a Ford could take some getting used to, the switch could well prove a backwards step on paper to be a forwards step in reality.
Another to fall from a Rally1 seat to Rally2 for 2023, but unlike Solberg and Greensmith Adrien Fourmaux has kept ties with his 2022 employer M-Sport.
But like his rivals, Fourmaux’s regression could well be the making of him – competing in a less pressured environment.
As it is though, Fourmaux can’t be considered a winner when he’s been demoted within the team.
Arguably the biggest loser of all, Andreas Mikkelsen is conspicuous by his absence for this month’s Monte Carlo Rally season opener.
Within touching distance of a return to Hyundai (the last team he drove for in the WRC), Lappi’s sudden availability cost Mikkelsen a Rally1 drive this year.
Currently it’s unknown if he will return to fight for the WRC2 title for a third season.