2017 has dawned, excitement is building ahead of the new World Rally Championship season and all the twists and turns it will take. The World Rally Championship has introduced a new breed of cars reminiscent of the glory days of Group B rally cars. With their aggressive styling and with increased power, the FIA has taken the decision to limit access to these cars to factory teams only with privateers confined to running 2016 WRC spec cars. The new car aerodynamics has been taken to a whole new level, with rear spoilers and rear diffusers that wouldn’t look out of place on a space rocket never mind a World Rally Car. The manufacturers have undertaken extensive testing throughout 2016 with their new monsters in the hope of gaining an edge over their competitors. Starting with a fresh line up of new spec WRC cars we will not know who has gained the advantage and who is playing catch up until the flag drops in Monte Carlo.
Volkswagen’s withdrawal from the championship was unexpected after four years of domination, this put the driver market in to free fall as they had the four times world champion, Sebastian Ogier, on their books plus two other drivers who can compete and win at the highest level.
Ogier in particular had been the topic of much speculation with rumours of Citroen, M-Sport, Toyota and a privately financed Volkswagen team all in discussion with him. In the end Ogier signed a one year contract with M-Sport which is a fantastic opportunity for the Cumbrian outfit to show its rally winning potential. Since losing Ford’s financial input this presents Malcolm Wilson’s best opportunity to potentially clinch a World Championship. Could a couple of early victories by Ogier entice Ford to get the cheque book out to boost the development of the new WRC Fiesta? Teaming Sebastian with Ott Tanak in the Fiesta could well be a masterstroke by Malcolm Wilson and his team, I expect these two drivers to bring the best out of each other. Tanak will not be as easily manipulated as other previous teammates of Ogiers! The third car at M-Sport is still leading to much speculation, what we do know is that Elfyn Evans is in for Monte Carlo, but nothing confirmed beyond.
With all the wheeling and dealing in the driver market it is interesting to note that Ogier has only committed to M-Sport for one year, this has left the door open for exit at the end of the year. The Fiesta has looked very poised and fast in testing and hopefully M-Sport have the resources to keep developing the car as the year unfolds. If the car doesn’t perform as he hopes some of the other main drivers should be very worried as every team boss will be clamouring to get his signature on a contract. Interestingly Nasser Al-Attiyah had been in discussions with Volkswagen to take over the financing of the VW manufacturer team but due to time constraints was not able to get everything agreed with the Qatar wealth fund who were interested in financing the project. These discussions look set to continue with a view to putting a VW team in place for 2018, if this does happen they would have the funds available to attract Ogier.
High expectations are on Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle shoulders this year as the DS3 has been developed under Kris’s guidance. If results don’t fall in their favour, could a French man find favour within a French team once again?
Citroen with the DS3 WRC have the most interesting driver line up from everyone in Ireland’s point of view, Kris Meeke is the lead driver and has completed the majority of the testing in the new car along with his co-driver Paul Nagle. Alongside Kris is Craig Breen and Stephane Lefebvre two young guns that are expected to be very worthy challengers as the year progresses. Citroen Racing took a year out last year to concentrate their efforts on this year’s car and they look extremely strong in testing. Citroen have been playing down their expectations ahead of this year saying they want to fighting for victories this year and looking for titles next year, but surely they have to be setting their sights on the main prizes this year. Meeke has shown he has the pace to win rallies and last year seemed to settle his wild streak. This probably due in no small part to the reassurance of having a three contract in his pocket. Could Ireland be celebrating a World Champion in our midst by the end of the season?
Another Ex-Volkswagen driver Jari Matti Latvala has been signed on a multi-year contract by championship returnees Toyota. Under the stewardship of ex four time world champion Tommi Makinen, the Toyota team has designed and built a car in approximately 18 months. The Yaris has been at the forefront of the aerodynamic revolution, how quickly they will get up to the ultimate pace remains to be seen. The car initially seemed to be lacking in comparison to others, but since Latvala’s arrival the recent test videos seem to show a car more in tune with the conditions. When Jari Matti is in the groove and feeling ‘SISU’ he can be unbeatable, maybe with Makinen as boss and being away from the whirlwind that is Ogier, Latvala will shine bright and he will regain his confidence and rhythm which has been lacking last season or two. Juho Hanninen has been one of the main test drivers for the team, Hanninen showed rally winning pace and capability of building a championship bid in his time with Skoda in the Intercontinental Rally Championship (the fore runner to the European Rally Championship) but lacks WRC experience. Also Esapekka Lappi, will drive the third car which will come on stream later in the season, he is a young guy that big things are expected off and comes into the 2017 season on the back of a strong 2016 with the Skoda team with whom he won the WRC2 title.
Hyundai with the i20 WRC has a very strong driver line-up Thierry Neuville, Hayden Paddon & Dani Sordo, these three drivers they are very capable of winning on any surface and the Hyundai team have really upped their game and are seen as very serious contenders for the coveted titles come the season end. Hyundai have been very impressive since they entered the World Rally Championship with 2016 bringing two overall victories, plus second in both the drivers and manufacturers championships. Can they go one step higher in 2017? Neuville seemed to get a little lost towards the end of 2015 and early 2016 but really found his speed again from mid-2016 and has signed a multi-year contract to keep him at Hyundai. Paddon has excelled at Hyundai he took his maiden championship victory last year in Argentina. Sordo is still seen as one of the fastest tarmac drivers in the championship and is a reliable and constant point scorer; could Hyundai be considered a good bet for the manufacturer’s title this year?
The calendar this year sees the crews contest 13 rounds from Monte Carlo in January to Australia in November.
|1||20 January||22 January||85ème Rallye Automobile Monte-Carlo||Gap, Hautes-Alpes||Mixed|
|2||10 February||12 February||65th Rally Sweden||Karlstad, Värmland||Snow|
|3||10 March||12 March||31º Rally Guanajuato México||León, Guanajuato||Gravel|
|4||7 April||9 April||60ème Tour de Corse – Rallye de France||Bastia, Haute-Corse||Tarmac|
|5||28 April||30 April||37º Rally Argentina||Villa Carlos Paz, Córdoba||Gravel|
|6||19 May||21 May||51º Rally de Portugal||Matosinhos, Porto||Gravel|
|7||9 June||11 June||14º Rally d’Italia Sardegna||Alghero, Sardinia||Gravel|
|8||30 June||2 July||74th Rally Poland||Mikołajki, Warmia-Masuria||Gravel|
|9||28 July||30 July||67th Rally Finland||Jyväskylä, Keski-Suomi||Gravel|
|10||18 August||20 August||35. ADAC Rallye Deutschland||Trier, Rhineland-Palatinate||Tarmac|
|11||6 October||8 October||53º Rally RACC Catalunya – Costa Daurada||Salou, Tarragona||Mixed|
|12||27 October||29 October||73rd Wales Rally GB||Deeside, Flintshire||Gravel|
|13||17 November||19 November||26th Rally Australia||Coffs Harbour, New South Wales||Gravel|
Closer to home the Irish Tarmac Championship underwent a major change in 2016 with the introduction of the R5 cars as the main point scoring class. 2016 was seen as a successful introduction with lots of positives. 2016 saw Alastair Fisher and Keith Cronin committing to a full season attack, these two drivers understandably were the yardstick by which others were compared and some of the other crews raised their game accordingly. Who will commit to the championship this year? Rumours and stories are circulating at the moment; Cronin in particular seems to be swaying towards returning to the British Rally Championship with a possible move to a Fiesta R5 being mooted. With two date clashes between the Tarmac Championship and the British Championship plus Donegal in June which comes in the middle of two counting rounds of the BRC it rules crew trying to compete on both championships.
Fisher meanwhile has committed to Galway and a possibility of selected other rounds. The closest challengers to Cronin & Fisher last year were Monaghan brothers Sam & Josh Moffett (recent winner of the Billy Coleman Award); will they be tempted to sets their sights further afield? It will be interesting to see what other crews step up to fill these guys’ wheel tracks.
The championship has also been dealt a blow in 2017 by the news that the Circuit of Ireland is not running; this gave our crews the chance to measure their pace against the best that the European and British Championships had to offer. Unfortunately no other round could be found willing or able to fill the breach. The 2017 calendar will now consist of six rounds, kicking off with Galway at the beginning of February. One interesting addition to the 2017 Championship is the M-Sport supported Fiesta R2 National class, this will pit crews in a one make championship, and this will allow talent to shine as all cars will be built to the same exacting regulations and be equal in performance.
The premium class was well supported last year not just with quality but also quantity as between 10/15crews registered crews started every round. The other supporting classes should be a cause for concern with a lot of the classes attracting 3/5 consistent competitors along with crews who dip in to do the occasional round in their own area. With three of the events not running a full field in 2016, these entries could be even lower in 2017 with the insurance levy hanging heavy in everyone’s thoughts. Thus increasing the financial demands on the organisers of each championship round as clubs cannot afford to run events which are costing them money.
- Galway International Rally – 4-5 Feb 17
- West Cork Rally – 18-19 Mar 17
- Killarney International Rally of Lakes – 29-30 Apr 17
- Donegal International Rally – 16-17-18 Jun 17
- Ulster Rally – 18-19 Aug 17
- Cork 20 International Rally – 30 Sep-1 Oct 17
Photos Courtesy of World Rally Teams and KG Rally Pics