For the first time in almost two decades, there’s a real buzz around the new World Rally Championship season.
Four of the world’s biggest car manufacturers are represented, having created the fastest rally cars the world has ever seen driven, which will be driven over all surfaces by a dozen or more of the world’s finest drivers. Here are five reasons why this year’s WRC should be one of the best ever.
Losing Volkswagen was a big blow, but the return of Citroen on a full-time basis and the arrival of Toyota after an 18-year absence means the WRC can boast four factory-level teams, stocked full of major driving talents.
Ten new-generation World Rally Cars will be present at the Monte Carlo season opener, however as deals are confirmed and more cars are built, rallies later in the year will boast up to 16 examples of the latest WRC-spec machinery.
The departure of Volkswagen means that we are guaranteed to be crowning a new manufacturers’ champion for the first time since 2012.
The rationale behind the new WRC regulations was to create wilder, more exciting, more interesting cars and judging by the vast amount of testing footage out there, we’d say it’s definitely mission accomplished.
Opening up the restrictor has allowed the cars to rev harder and make more power. The wild wings and wider tracks have also increased grip levels, however thanks to the WRC’s fondness for slippery surfaces, the cars are sliding and wheelspinning more than ever.
The return of electronically-controlled centre differentials also allows each driver to tailor the car more to their driving style, so each car will look slightly different depending on whether it’s driven by the neat and tidy Thierry Neuville or aggressive Jari-Matti Latvala.
For the first time since 2011, we’re almost guaranteed a titanic fight for the driver’s crown. For the previous four seasons the best driver (Sebastien Ogier) has been driving the best car (VW Polo) so it’s unsurprising that he has captured four titles on the trot.
Now, however, the form book is wide open. As ever with a new set of technical regulations, it’s possible that one manufacturer will have a decisive advantage, but unlike F1 regulations are tight enough and the teams are close enough in terms of budget and expertise for that to be unlikely.
Not only that, with Sebastien Ogier’s decision to join M-Sport, the sport’s top talent is distributed evenly across the four teams. Ogier (M-Sport), Meeke (Citroen), Neuville, Paddon and Sordo (Hyundai) and Latvala (Toyota) are all proven rally winners, with Meeke and Neuville possessing the speed and experience to mount a season-long challenge to Ogier. Game on.
Promotion has been a weak point for the WRC in recent years, with the excellent WRC+ subscription service accessed by far too few people. Red Bull has rectified this for 2017, offering free daily highlight packages as well as a live stage every Saturday at each rally.
For hardcore fans, combine this with the WRC+ service and that’s an hour of highlights each day along with up to four live stages per event.
While the title fight will be between established stars, a number of young guns could trouble the podium this year. Citroen’s Stephane Lefebvre will be fast on tarmac, while teammate Craig Breen proved his speed with a podium in Finland last year.
Over at Toyota last year’s WRC2 champion Esapekka Lappi will appear on most European rounds while fellow Finn and 2016 WRC2 runner-up Teemu Suninen is tipped to appear in an M-Sport Fiesta.