WRC Rally Monte Carlo, Sebastien Loeb & Ford victorious in electrifying curtain raiser for WRC’s new hybrid era.

2022 is a year of change for the World Rally Championship. The biggest news, the new regulation cars. Gone are the high downforce record breaking monsters that ran from 2017 to 2021, replaced by a new breed of hybrid rally cars, more on that later. Sebastien Ogier, who has won 8 drivers championships, steps back from full season competition for 2022; Welshman and 2 time championship runner up Elfyn Evans now leading the Toyota world rally team. 9 time world champion Sebastien Loeb returns to do a partial season at Ford after not competing in the top category during the 2021 season & Craig Breen makes a full season return to WRC with a rejuvenated Ford M Sport squad.

So, what of the new cars? Compared to last year’s cars, the chassis of the cars have a more standardised safety structure. What does this mean? Lower costs, but a set of cars that are even safer than the ones that went before, this incorporates a scaled chassis based on production cars rather than having to adapt a chassis to fit a roadgoing model. The ubiquitous screaming 1.6 litre 4 cylinder turbo engines remain for the new rules, producing approximately 400bhp. This year though, the engines are augmented by a brand new Hybrid system developed by Compact Dynamics producing 100kw, or 136bhp in old money. The hybrid system is used to travel around the service park, between stages and around urban areas, allowing the cars to slip silently between stages. During the stages though, the hybrid system is used to provide a significant power boost with the engine, so fully lit, the new gen WRC cars have well over 500bhp with the hybrid system on full boost; that’s 100bhp more than last years cars and makes the new cars the most powerful cars since the monstrous Group B cars of the 1980’s.

But, what is given with one hand is taken away with the other. The cars have a simplified 4 wheel drive system this year, the clever active centre differentials from last year’s cars are gone. That means less traction and less grip; 5 speed sequential stick shift gearboxes replace the old 6 speed paddle shift gearboxes from the old cars, it means the drivers need to work harder to extract the performance from the cars. The other big change is the aerodynamics, the huge winglets at the front of the cars are gone, so are the huge diffusers at the back of the cars and rear wing has been simplified; Less downforce means less cornering and braking performance and cars that will move & slide around more at speed, slowing the cars but also giving the drivers a bigger task to tame the cars at full speed.

But, what of this year’s runners and riders? Ford will utilise the new Puma, this being the first time since 2011 that the eponymous Fiesta hasn’t been used as Ford’s steed in the top category. M Sport Ford have endured a challenging last 2 years, lacking the star drivers and ‘blank cheque’ funding of Hyundai & Toyota, but Malcolm Wilson and the boys and girls at M Sport are wiley old foxes and began developing their 2022 car far sooner than their rivals; a line of thinking that saw them win back to back titles when the rules changed in 2017. Their driving line up is stronger than it has been for the last 2 years. Irishman Craig Breen heads up the team with his vast experience, rising superstar Adrien Formaux supplemented Breen alongside another rising star, Gus Greensmith. Mr WRC, 9 time champion Sebastien Loeb will support the team at selected rounds this season. 

Ford Puma WRC1, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

Toyota, the team that has won every drivers championship since 2019 will be looking to make it 4 in a row this year. Toyota will use the new Yaris GR as its 2022 car, the road going version the darling of petrolheads and car influencers alike. 2020 & 2021 champion Sebastien Ogier remains with Toyota, but only doing a partial season, the team leader reigns being handed over to Welshman and championship runner up for the last 2 years, Elfyn Evans, who will once again be vying to win his first WRC title and become the first Welshman to win the WRC title. Kalle Rovanpera, Toyotas young hotshot will be a shoe in for championship glory as well. Toyota’s homegrown driver Takamoto Katsuta will once again compete for Toyota, but the young Japanese driver will need to perform this year and silence his critics after challenging 2020 & 2021 campaigns with the Japanese manufacturer.

Toyota Yaris GR WRC1, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

Hyundai comes into 2022 using the latest i20N with a largely unchanged driving line up, spearheaded by longtime driver Thiery Neuville & 2019 champion Ott Tanak. They are joined in 2022 by long standing driver Dani Sordo who will share a car with one of the WRC’s most exciting prospects, Oliver Solberg, son of 2003 champion Petter Solberg. But, Hyundai comes into 2022 as a team in flux. Longtime team principal Andrea Adamo departed Hyundai in December 2021, and while other senior members deputise his role, it’s not a good time to lose a team principal during a major rule change. Hyundai also found themselves struggling with their car in the run up to the 2022 season. This places Hyundai in an unenviable position of having the best driving line up in Neuville & Tanak, but a car that is behind the curve compared to Ford & Toyota and a team grappling with major managerial changes.

Hyundai i20N WRC1, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

Monte Carlo is always a challenge, its mix of conditions, narrow tarmac stages that in one instance can be slow, technical and covered in snow & ice and within a few miles can become wide open flat out blasts on dry tarmac roads. It’s an event that over the years has seen even the greatest drivers come unstuck in an event like no other.

Thursday evening saw the first stages in the dark, the fans thronging the stages on all sides after being unable to attend the event in 2021 due to Covid lockdowns & curfews in France. Immediately, it became apparent that Ford & Toyota’s new cars had an advantage over Hyundai. Sebastien Loeb & Ogier set the pace with Elfyn Evans & Thierry Neuville in hot pursuit.

Sebastien Loeb, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

Friday would see the first full day of running, it was a furious battle between the two Seb’s, turning back the clock to 2011 when the two drivers battled it out at Citroen, the pair traded fastest times but it was apparent that Loeb held a small advantage over Ogier in his Toyota. Elfyn Evans continued to give chase to the leading pair, staying close but finding the indomitable Seb’s hard to keep pace with. Conditions on Friday were certainly unusual, the lack of snow and ice on the ages and unseasonably high temperatures and dry stages threw a curveball for everyone. The stage’s quicker than anticipated. Ford’s Adrien Formaux found the limits of grip on stage 3, sliding wide at high speed, bouncing off an earth bank, clearing the armco lining the side of the road and flying off into a gully. Formaux and his co-driver were fine, but it was the end of Formaux’s rally and an apt demonstration of the new WRC safety features that both driver and co-driver walked away unharmed. Gus Greensmith hit a career milestone on Friday, setting his first fastest stage time in the WRC. Ford wound out Friday with Loeb leading from Ogier and Elfyn Evans in 3rd, it was a day to celebrate for Ford even with a big chunk of the event left to run.

Gus Greensmith, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

Saturday was where the Monte bore its teeth, temperatures dropped, patches on ice began to appear on the stages and snow higher up; tyre choice suddenly became a major factor, not just for staying competitive but simply being able to stay on the stage. Oliver Solberg found out of stage 10 how tricky the conditions were, slipping off the stage and into retirement. Stage 11 saw conditions worsen even more, snow and ice blanketing the upper part of the stage. Solberg’s teammate Ott Tanak slithered off the road, damaging the front of his car and eventually breaking the suspension on his Hyundai and retiring, a scene that was all too familiar in 2021 for Tanak.

Elfyn Evans’ day went badly wrong, a small error on an unsighted right hand turn saw the Welshman spin down a bank and become hopelessly stuck; The result? Over 20 minutes lost and Evans plunging down to 34th place, not how Evans wanted to start his 2022 championship campaign. At the head of the field, Ogier had managed to leapfrog Loeb for the lead, punctuated by Toyota claiming 3 fastest stage times in the morning, it would remain that way for the rest of Saturday with Ogier leading heading into the final day. Loeb lay in second, a whisker behind with a 1 minute gap back to Craig Breen in 3rd, Kalle Rovanpera in 4th and Gus Greensmith in 5th place. Thierry Neuville’s run of hopeless Monte luck continued with a broken damper for the Belgian, for Hyundai, it was an event to forget and move on from.

Sebastien Ogier, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

Sunday dawned with identical conditions to Saturday, challenging conditions higher up the stages with snow and ice blanketing everything, steadily giving way to cold yet dry tarmac. Ogier continued to eke out his advantage over Loeb in the morning stages, but disaster struck on the penultimate stage for Ogier. A puncture saw Ogier’s comfortable advantage wiped out giving Loeb an advantage of 9.5 seconds heading into the final stage. Sunday’s Wolf Power stage saw Loeb romp home comfortable to victory with new lady codriver isabelle Galmiche at his side, making it Galmiche’s first WRC win as a co-driver, Loeb’s first win since Spain 2018 and Ford’s first win since Rally GB on the streets of Llandudno in 2018. Ogier’s torrid luck from the penultimate stage rolled over, with Ogier getting a 10 second penalty for jumping the start on the Wolf Power Stage. Craig Breen wound up finishing in 3rd, putting 2 cars on the podium for Ford. Kalle Rovanpera finished in 4th after a steady run through the entire event, Gus Greensmith picked up a 5th place finish, a good start to his 2022 campaign. 

Bonus points from the Wolf Power Stage saw Kalle Rovanpera pick up 5 points, Elfyn Evans 4 points, Thierry Neuville 3 points, Sebastien Loeb 2 points & Sebastien Ogier snatching the final point.

The WRC circus returns on February 24th, this time to the snow filled forests of Sweden.

Sebastien Loeb & Isabelle Galmiche, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

WRC Monte Carlo results:

  1. Sebastien Loeb
  2. Sebastien Ogier
  3. Craig Breen
  4. Kalle Rovanpera
  5. Gus Greensmith
  6. Thierry Neuville

WRC Drivers championship

  1. Sebastien Loeb – 27 points
  2. Sebastien Ogier – 19 points
  3. Kalle Rovanpera – 17 points
  4. Craig Breen – 15 points
  5. Gus Greensmith – 12 points

WRC manufacturers championship

  1. M-Sport Ford WRT – 42 points
  2. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 39 points
  3. Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT – 13 points

    Ott Tanak, Credit: Red Bull Content Pool.

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