World Rally Championship 2020 season preview

Credit: WRC

It only felt like yesterday that the 2019 World Rally Championship came to a close amid unusual circumstances in Australia, the event being cancelled before it got underway due to the bushfires around the New South Wales area. Those fires, even after more than 2 months are still raging and have ravaged Australia in one of the worst natural disasters the country has ever seen.

Onto more pleasant topics though, and on January 23rd, the WRC winds itself back into life for the first round of the championship in Monte Carlo, and the championship sees some notable changes for 2020 and a rather dramatic off season. But first, why don’t we re-cap on the 2019 season? It was a historic one and one that will go down in the annals of WRC history as one of the greats.

Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

Starting from the beginning, the 2019 season was punctuated by Sebastien Ogier’s departure from Ford to Citroen, something which was seen by many as a questionable move for the frenchman. Citroen had not exactly enjoyed a lot of success in 2017 & 2018, but the renewed vigour for the team saw victory in Monte Carlo for Ogier and Citroen. Hyundai & Toyota strengthened their teams for the 2019 season. Sebastien Loeb joined Hyundai while former Citroen driver Kris Meeke joined Toyota. Ford were the odd ones out, Elfyn Evans was pushed into the spotlight as the team’s lead driver for the first time. Teemu Sunninen joined Evans for the 2019 season, leaving Ford with a young, developing driver line up.

2019 saw a battle royale throughout the year break out. Ogier stole an initial march in the Citroen, but it wasn’t long before the Citroens strong start to the season was eroded by a magnificent Ott Tanak who dominated the middle portion of the championship in his Toyota Yaris. Thierry Neuville in his Hyundai enjoyed a string of success, but a monster crash in Rally Chile dented Neuvilles confidence. A string of sub-optimal results followed, compounded by the non-finish in Chile, Neuville would spend the second half of the season playing catch-up to Tanak and a metronomic Ogier.

The final part of 2019 saw Neuville back on form, rapidly closing the gap to Ogier and Tanak. Ogier meanwhile was down on pace compared to the competition, the early season advantage Citroen enjoyed was a distant memory as the Citroen lacked the pace of Hyundai & Toyota. Ford, who had a challenging 2019 by seasons end were giving Citroen problems as well with their pace. The penultimate event of the year, Rally Catalunya would see Ott Tanak crowned champion, the first time in 15 years a french called Sebastien hadn’t won the WRC crown. Hyundai were crowned manufacturers champions as Rally Australia was cancelled.

Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

What transpired in the off season was the surprise transfer of Ott Tanak over to Hyundai for 2020 shortly after seasons end, this was swiftly followed by a long period of rumour milling as to who would fill Toyota’s vacant seats, as rumour was rife that Kris Meeke & Jari-Matti Latvala would not return for 2020. The who was sorted in a bizarre twist of events. Citroen, the pall-bearers for ugly PR outbursts in the WRC announced a shock exit from the sport, all but confirming the rumours that Seb Ogier was off to Toyota. Reading between the lines, Citroen effectively blamed Ogier for not winning them the championship, they cited their exit from the sport due to a lack of a suitable number one driver. In other words, Citroen had their excuse to leave and in doing so threw some serious shade at their number two driver Esapekka Lappi and the younger contingent in the WRC. It was a spiteful exit from the sport which saw a large swathe of Citroens loyal fans taking to social media to voice their discord at Citroen.

The surprise piece news came at the tail end of November, whereby Rally Chile, although still on the calendar has been cancelled for 2020. This came amid price rises for the capital’s transport system, which sparked outrage amongst the populous and lead to rioting. A state of emergency was declared as a result and Concepcion, where the 2019 event was based out of was the scene of civil unrest as well. The decision was taken early doors as the event, in the words of Sergio Giacaman, mayor of the Biobio region stated “ we consider it prudent to postpone this date-it needs an adequate(political) climate to perform.” Organisers are hopeful that the event will return in 2021.

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So, 2020 then. The calendar has seen a notable shake up, there are returning events to the calendar, the Safari Rally returns based out of Kenya for 2020 after a lengthy hiatus from the championship, taking place on the 16th to the 19th of July and makes up round 8. Round 10 sees another events returning after a shorter hiatus, Rally New Zealand, taking place on the 3rd to the 6th of September. After being slated to join the roster last year, Rally Japan returns to the calendar and will be the final round of the championship, taking place 19th to the 22nd of November. However, room had to be made and Rally Catalunya has been cut from the 2020 season along with Corsica & Australia.

Rally Japan will be run on tarmac as opposed to gravel as has traditionally been the case. The Safari Rally will run out of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, though it will not be the marathon it once was due to the FIA’s limits on stage miles. Rally New Zealand will return to its traditional base of Auckland, where the event has been based out of for many years before it was pulled from the calendar in 2012.

Onto the runners and riders for 2020 and defending champion Ott Tanak is now with Hyundai’s ‘super-team’ alongside Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo & Sebastien Loeb. There is absolutely no doubt that Hyundai are the favourites for both Drivers and Manufacturers championships in 2020, there hasn’t been a team with such a depth of talent and experience in the WRC in a very long time, not since such partnerships as Colin Mcrae & Carlos Sainz. Hyundai were also the first team to start testing in preparation for Monte Carlo, a serious show of intent for the upcoming year.

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Toyota come into 2020 with a totally new driving line-up. Sebastien Ogier joins as the number one whilst Ford’s premier from 2019 Elfyn Evans has joined the team, re-partnering with Ogier after a 1 year break apart. Toyota has also signed on WRC2 ace Kalle Rovanpera, team manager Tommi Makkinen keen to develop the promising Finn into a future champion. Based on last year’s form, Toyota should have the best car to open up the season with. Ogier is the doyen of the WRC and has been for a long time, whilst Evans finally has the car beneath him and the autonomy at Toyota to stage an outside bid for the championship. Rovanperra meanwhile is a classic case of wait and see, but there is real expectation on the young Finn to perform well out of the box.

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Ford come into 2020 amid another major shake up. In 2019 the team no longer had Ogier, this year the team has lost Elfyn Evans. In Evans place is ex-Citroen number two Esapekka Lappi, who comes off a mixed year with the Citroen squad. Teemu Sunninen is retained at Ford after a slightly shaky start to the year, but one where Sunninen showed progress as 2019 continued. Young up-start Gus Greensmith will run 9 rounds of the championship with Ford this year, Greensmith had some additional outings in the WRC in 2019 after a back injury sidelined Evans for a number of events. Whilst it feels like things will be a rinse and repeat of 2019 for Ford, there is always the opportunity for Ford to spring surprise on the goliaths that are Hyundai and Toyota.

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Citroen? Well, you’re out of luck I’m afraid. This year there won’t be a single Citroen WRC entry, a privateer team has not stepped up to the plate to run the Citroen’s as Kronos Racing did in 2006, which leaves three constructors in WRC. Citroen will continue to run the C3 in the junior WRC2 division and support its customer teams.

Once again, here at Racing 24-7, we look forward to bringing you continued coverage of the World Rally Championship for the 2020 season, and we hope for another thrilling year of competition on the mud, gravel, snow, ice & tarmac of the worlds stages.

2020 WRC Calendar:

  1. Monte Carlo – 23rd-26th January
  2. Sweden – 13th-16th February
  3. Mexico – 12th-15th March
  4. Argentina – 30th April- May 3rd
  5. Portugal – 21st-24th May
  6. Italy/Sardinia – 4th-7th June
  7. Kenya – 16th-19th July
  8. Finland – 6th-9th August
  9. New Zealand – 3rd-6th September
  10. Turkey – 24th-27th September
  11. Germany – 15th-18th October
  12. UK/Wales – October 29th – November 1st
  13. Japan – 19th-22nd November
Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

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