With the 2017 World Rally Championship, only just getting out of the blocks there have been surprises and shocks in equal measures. The new regulations gave engineers more freedom in designing and building the new breed of World Rally Cars resulting in increased size of turbo restrictor, reintroduction of electronic diffs and more vivacious aerodynamics.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year so far has been the resurgence of the Toyota team, with lead crew Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila. Latvala is currently leading the drivers’ championship after a fighting second in Monte Carlo and a very accomplished victory in Sweden. We have seen a much mentally stronger Jari-Matti so far this year. Tommi Makinen has given him a car that he can get in and drive and not get caught up about the set up and probably more significantly a team were there is no mind games to overcome. When Jari-Matti is feeling ‘SISU’ he can fly and there is probably no other driver who can match him. Hopefully Jari and the team can continue their excellent start to the season. On the other hand not everything is going to plan in the Toyota camp with Juho Hanninen who has had a poor start to the season, going of the road in both events. Partnered by Kaj Lindstrom they have had more time in the car but lacks the experience of the technical events in Monte and Sweden; his times have been sporadic up to now with a couple of third fastest times in Monte have been his best showing. No doubt more will be expected of Hanninen and Lindstrom in the upcoming events and it will be interesting to see what kind of times Esapekka Lappi can set when he gets his chance in the car. He was on the VW/Skoda books until mid-2016 and was being tipped to take a seat this year with the VW team but he took the risk of moving to Makkinen’s fledging Toyota team.
Hyundai have had a promising start to the year, and I would argue they have the best car at the minute. Theirry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul have been the class act on the first two days in both Monte and Sweden having set twelve fastest times over the two rallies to date. With a lead going into the last stage on Saturday on both rallies Neuville has made small errors that have had big consequences. He has picked up a few points on the power stage but he was in a position to have been leading the championship comfortably at this point in the championship. Dani Sordo co-driven by Marc Marti has had a lack lustre start to 2017 and Dani seems to lacking confidence in his new car. Saying that he has had two solid fourth place finishes and has picked up the majority of the team points so far, he can be relied to have a steady drive and bring home valuable points in the constructors’ championship but so far seem to lack the ultimate rally winning pace. Hayden Paddon has had a very unfortunate start to 2017. An incident on Monte Carlo resulted in a fatality of a spectator and in Sweden he needed to rebuild his confidence; unfortunately this drive was marred by power steering difficulties. Hopefully come Mexico, Paddon and John Kennard will be back to their best.
MSport have taken the fight to the manufacture backed works teams with a double podium on both events so far. Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia had a fantastic debut victory in Monte Carlo. The four time world champion had minimal testing and to be setting top times and looking comfortable shows the class of the guy. Malcolm Wilson had almost the dream result in Monte with Ogier leading and Ott Tanak riding shotgun behind in second place, with three stages to go Ott’s car lapsed on to two cylinders and after much working on the car by Ott and his co-driver Martin Jarveoja they battled on and drove the stages off their lives to manage to keep third place overall with a very sick car. It could be argued that Tanak had the stronger drive off the two Fiesta drivers in Sweden; Ogier was hampered by road position on day one in Sweden but even in days two and three he seemed to struggle. Ott reeled of three fastest times on the Saturday morning where as Ogier hadn’t set a scratch time since the Satuday afternoon in Monte Carlo. This year has not seen the steam roller that is usually Sebastien. He normally sets and controls the pace as others try to catch up. This will probably change as he gets more acclimatised to the car and the quirks of setting it up. Elfyn Evans & Daniel Barritt have settled in well after getting a last minute call up to the MSport team, it had long be mooted that he was getting the third seat but it was only confirmed two weeks before Monte Carlo. He had a torrid first leg in Monte but once he got the tyres working he flew on the second leg, climbing from a lowly eleventh overall up to sixth, setting three fastest times along the way, he remained in sixth to the finish. Sweden brought a puncture and a loss of almost two minutes and the guys battled back to sixth overall and again a solid haul of championship points.
This video demonstrates some of Citroen troubles both Meeke & Breen were having. They are on the brakes after the jump, all the other crews were fully committed to next corner. Great video by Ernest Cooke
Perhaps the biggest shock of the 2017 season has been the pace or lack of from the Citroen Racing Team. Much had been made of the team taking a year out in 2016 to build and develop this year’s challenger. Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle where spoken about as possible World Champion in 2017 but things are not looking rosy in the team at this stage. The car seems to lack poise and is reported to be down on power compared to the competition. Pre-season video clips showed a car that looked to balanced and exceptionally quick but somewhere along the way the team seem to have gone down a blind alley. Monte Carlo started with a couple of top four stage times and then an off road excursion saw the end of the first day’s rallying. Returning for leg two times were steady if not earth scattering punctuated by an electrical issue which cost more time and their misery was compounded when they were sideswiped on the road section after the last service of the day and the damage put them out of the event. David Evans from Autosport suggested that the team seemed to be struggling with the setup. At a section he was spectating on, the car seemed to be bottoming out and Kris needing to change down a gear where every other crew was pinned in sixth. We hoped above hope that somehow they would be back on track in Sweden. Again in Sweden, Kris seemed to lack his usual swagger and his stage times were not at Kris’s normal level. Whilst lying fifth overall on Saturday afternoon the Citroen crew took an innocent left hand corner when the back of the car suddenly seemed to step out and the Kris and Paul slid off the road and were stuck for over 7 minutes. On Sunday Mr David Evans once again reported that Kris was in foul humour and was having a torrid time with the handling. Whatever the problem is with the car is it possible that it is related to the aero package? We all marvelled at those early test videos and thought this was going to be a world beater. As the aerodynamics got more refined was this the point that things started to go wrong? Can Citroen and Kris get on top of the issues and become the realistic title contenders that we dared to dream off. Craig Breen as he has said this year is living the dream; he started Monte Carlo in last year’s Citroen DS3 instead of the latest spec C3 with Scott Martin on the notes. He kept his head down and drove a brilliant rally to take a fine fifth overall. In Sweden he finally got his hands on the C3 and was hoping this would take him closer to the top off the timesheets. He set mid leader board times throughout the weekend and also seemed to struggle with the rear of the car, which seemed to have a mind of its own at times. Stephane Lefebrve had the latest spec C3 at his disposal in Monte Carlo; unfortunately he slid of the road on the Thursday evening and was on the back foot for the rest of the weekend. His times were average on Friday and Saturday and on Sunday he had one quickest and one second quickest time and by the finish he had clawed back up to ninth overall. In Sweden it was his time to step back to the 2016 DS3, Stephane has limited knowledge of driving on snow and his times reflected this as throughout the weekend his time were in the lower reaches of the top ten, by Sunday afternoon he had claimed eight overall.
Drivers of the calibre of Andreas Mikkelsen are on the sidelines eager to get back behind the wheel of a world rally car, there was hope of a privateer VW team but that is dead in the water for 2017 at least. It is unlikely that he will be parachuted into any of the teams to provide an extra steel edge during the 2017 season. He finished third on last year’s championship, claiming two victories plus four other podium finishes, he certainly has the CV to warrant his place at the WRC table, hopefully he came secure a competitive drive for 2018.