WRC 2021 season preview

Monte Carlo, Credit: Red bull content pool.

The 2021 World Rally Championship is primed to get underway, just 7 weeks after the close of the 2020 season at Monza. It’s one of the shortest time lapses between 2 seasons due to the delayed 2020 season finale.

Technical regulation changes are set to take come into force in 2021, the major one being the change of tyre supplier from Michelin to Pirelli, who will now supply both the WRC & WRC2 cars for the duration of the 2021 season & beyond. The change in tyre suppliers could throw a major spanner in the works, the different performance characteristics of the Pirelli tyre compared to the Michelin could see the balance of power shift from Toyota to Hyundai or Ford.

The other changes will also see a new championship for teams, alongside the already established Drivers & Manufacturers championships, it will also see manufacturers eligible to score power stage points for the first time in 2021. 

Even before the 2021 season gets underway, the resurgent Covid19 pandemic has already affected the 2021 season. Whilst the first round of the championship looks set to take place in Monte Carlo, despite a revised schedule to accommodate the current covid19 restrictions imposed by the French government. Rally Sweden meanwhile was cancelled prior to the start of the 2021 season due to the ongoing Covid19 pandemic, further changes to the calendar will see Rally Ypres replace Wales Rally GB in 2021 due to the lack of support for Rally GB moving forward. 

2021 sees Rally Mexico & Argentina conspicuous by their absence on the calendar. Arctic Rally Finland take the place of Rally Sweden, marking the first time the event has featured on the WRC calendar while Croatia takes up the round 3 slot normally occupied by Rally Mexico.

The new season will likely see another close fought championship, manufacturers will continue to use the cars they ran in 2020 as part of cost cutting measures, which should see little in the way of performance differences between Toyota, Hyundai & Ford moving into 2021. The regulation change posed a problem for Toyota, who spent significant time and money developing its 2021 car, based on the new 4 wheel drive Yaris GR road car, which Toyota can’t compete with. 

2021 Toyota Yaris WRC, Credit: Toyota Gazoo Racing.

Toyota, fresh off winning the 2020 drivers championship is set to field an identical team to what it ran last year. 2020 champion Sebastian Ogier will seek to defend his championship title and another title to his already outstanding CV. Elfyn Evans, after a brilliant bid for the championship in 2020 will be looking to clinch his first championship in 2021. Evans proved in 2020 that he has stepped up from being best of the rest, to being a genuine championship challenger. Evans has matured and grown into a stunningly quick, consistent & well rounded driver. 

Kalle Rovanpera will continue with Toyota after a strong opening season, the young Finn will be looking to build on the impressive form he showed during the 2020 season. While Rovanpera is unlikely to be a championship challenger, there is certainly the potential he may be able to snatch a podium finish or two along the way in his 2021 campaign.

Toyota’s final seal is filled by Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta. The young Japanese driver endured a challenging 2020 season, struggling for pace in the Toyota and having a few too many excursions into the scenery. Whilst it was Katsuta’s first season in the top category 2020, Katsuta will need to prove he is worthy of the Toyota seat he finds himself occupying in 2021.

2021 Hyundai i20 WRC, Credit: Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team.

Hyundai’s 2020 WRC campaign was a real rollercoaster, the signing of 2019 champion didn’t render the success the Korean manufacturer expected. Tanak took time to adjust to the different handling characteristics of the Hyundai, a point aptly demonstrated when Tanak had a monster crash at Monte Carlo, flying off the road at over 100mph & wiping out a large tree and tumbling down a cliff face. Tanak was shaken but ok, but took time to get up to speed.

Ott Tanak came on strong at the resumption of the 2020 season and was able to mount a last gasp championship challenge. Tanak, now up to speed with the Hyundai will be a real contender for the championship. The 2019 champion has the pace, consistency & resolve to clinch another championship, although he will need to temper himself to avoid a repeat of last year’s dramatic Monte Carlo accident.

Thierry Neuville, the WRC’s nearly man, will be another championship contender. Neuville has endured rotten luck over the years, coming painfully close to the WRC crown in 2017 & 2018. Neuville comes into 2020 with a new co-driver, the long time partnership between Neuville & Nicola Gilsoul ending, which sees young Belgian Martijn Wydaeghe partner Neuville for the 2021 season. 

Dani Sordo & Craig Breen rejoin the Hyundai squad for 2021, although Sordo & Breen will only take part in selected rounds. Sordo, on his appearances in 2020 was stellar, taking victory at Rally Sardinia and strong finishes in the other events he contested. Craig Breen will drive the car at alternate events to Sordo. Breen has been a consistent performer in WRC over the years, the Irishman had a great turn of speed at Rally Estonia in 2020. Breen & Sordo’s performances were integral to Hyundai winning the 2020 manufacturers championship, both drivers will be invaluable in helping Hyundai secure another manufacturer championship.

2C Competition Hyundai i20 WRC, Credit: Redbull content pool.

2021 will see the first privateer Hyundai compete in a full WRC season, Pierre-Louis Loubet will compete in the factory supported 2C Competition Hyundai. The 2019 WRC2 champion makes the full time step up to WRC after competing in selected events in 2020, Loubet finished in 7th in Sardinia, a promising showing on only Loubet’s 3rd fully fledged WRC event. Loubet will be looking to score consistently in his rookie WRC season and make an impression in the WRC pecking order.

Ford Fiesta WRC, Teemu Sunninen: Redbull content pool.

Ford comes into 2021 with a new look driving line up. Gus Greensmith graduates into a full season drive after promising showings in the WRC Fiesta during the 2020 season. It will be a year of learning & gaining valuable experience for Greensmith, who is one of the hottest properties in WRC at the moment. 

Teemu Sunninen meanwhile renewed his contract with Ford for another season, Sunninen has shown himself as a driver with the pace and zeal to go very far in the championship. There have been real flashes of brilliance from Sunninen over the past couple of years, but this will be the year that Sunninen needs to step up and score more consistently.

Ford’s newest signing is Adrien Formeaux, who steps from the factory Ford WRC2 squad for 2021, where his efforts netted him a 3rd place finish in the WRC2 category in 2020. Formeaux is totally new to WRC machinery, so it will be a real case of wait and see, but the ingredients are there for a promising opening season for the 25 year old Frenchman. Ford’s 2021 effort as a whole is geared towards building a team of future stars, while a championship challenge is unlikely this year, the Ford M Sport squad are well into the development cycle of their 2022 car, getting a headstart on the competition as they did in 2017.

So, who are the main championship protagonists? Sebastien Ogier is predictable, but for a very good reason, he is the doyen of the WRC and will be very hard to beat.The form of teammate Elfyn Evans is impossible to ignore, the Welshman has matured into a brilliantly well rounded driver. Ott Tanak now up to speed in the Hyundai, along with the evergreen Thierry Neuville will be well in contention. Are there likely to be any potential upsets? Unlikely. Ford’s Fiesta WRC lacks the pace of Hyundai & Toyota’s offerings and the consistency across the different events, along with the driver quality at this stage.

The action gets underway on the wintery mountain roads above Monte Carlo on Thursday 21st January & wraps up on Sunday January 24th.

2021 WRC calendar

Round 1 – Monte Carlo – January 21st-24th

Round 2 – Arctic Rally Finland – February 26th-28th

Round 3 – Croatia Rally – April 22nd-25th

Round 4 – Rally de Portugal – May 20th-23rd

Round 5 – Rally Italia Sardegna – June 3rd-June 6th

Round 6 – Safari Rally Kenya – June 24th-27th

Round 7 – Rally Estonia – July 15th-18th

Round 8 – Rally Finland – July 29th – August 1st

Round 9 – Rentier Ypres Rally Belgium – August 13th-15th

Round 10 – COPEC Rally Chile – September 9th-12th

Round 11 – RACC Rally de Espana – October 14th-17th

Round 12 – Rally Japan – November 11th-13th

Toyota Yaris WRC, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

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