Race Watch 1
Rallye Monte Carlo 2020
My personal choice of motorsport viewing this week was the curtain raiser of the WRC season at Rallye Monte Carlo. Admittedly, I hadn’t been a huge fan of rallying until I decided to watch last year’s Wales Rally GB event due to the fact a pair of Solbergs, drivers I am a big fan of due to Snr’s World Rallycross endeavours and Jnr’s blistering pace at such a young age, were competing. Instantly I fell in love. The skill shown by the drivers, threading lumps of metal at 100 miles an hour though the middle of a wood was enthralling. I loved the fact the cars were so clearly on edge, pitching and rolling at every driver input. I had to watch more.
Fast forward to Monte, and it was much change in this year’s WRC field. If you also stay up to date with WRC news, you’ll know that over the off-season reigning champion Ott Tanak moved from Toyota to the Team’s Champions, Hyundai. To replace him the Japanese team, run by rally legend Tommi Makinen, signed 6-time Driver’s Championship winner Sebastian Ogier, and bolstered their attack with Welshman Elfyn Evans.
At the end of the first two stages on Thursday Thierry Neuville, who is Tanak’s teammate and has been with the Hyundai team since 2014, took first blood. With the advantage of being familiar with his machinery, unlike the majority of the drivers, he set a blistering pace on SS2. Stopping the clock over 25 seconds sooner than Ogier, the Belgian took a nearly 20 second overall lead into the first full day of the rally.
Friday was Toyota’s day. Evans was in the overall lead for most of the day after winning the first three stages of the day, before teammate Ogier took control, posting fastest times through the next two stages and wrestling back the overall lead at the end of the day. The main talking point of the day, however, came from Tanak. Losing control of his car after taking what turned out to be an optimistic cut in a high-speed chicane, a spectacular wreck occurred. Thankfully both he and his co-driver Martin Jarveoja emerged unscathed, as footage of the rolling, bouncing tumble down the alpine mountain was frightening to watch, let alone experience!
This event leads me onto my first discussion point: Do you think Tanak’s championship defence is already over? After not scoring any points he’ll certainly be playing catch-up for the foreseeable future, and considering the fine margins between the front three this weekend, it might be a tough ask to close that gap. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below!
Once again, on the Saturday, the top three drivers were locked in battle. The overall lead hopped from Ogier to Evans and back again at each interval, whilst Neuville ended the day exactly where he started, 6.4 seconds back, despite winning 3 of the 4 stages.
On Sunday, however, Neuville was a class above. He monopolised the top spot in the stage classifications, taking his tally to nine wins on the 16 raced (including eight of the last nine!), and deservedly took home the trophy at the end of the day. Now, considering that in the last 15 years, two-thirds of Rallye Monte Carlo winners have gone on to win the title, could this finally be Thierry Neuville’s year? Having finished second in each of the last four campaigns, can he finally close in on that elusive championship? Thoughts in a comment below, please.
Other notable talking points I wish to raise from the rally are as follows: M-Sport’s chances this year, Rovanpera’s top-category debut and, lurking further back in the field, Oliver Solberg’s Monte debut.
Firstly, M-Sport. Their season didn’t exactly start with a bang, in fact a hiss is probably more fitting considering the boiling of their water on Thursday night. Leaves covering their air intakes left them a bit hot and bothered, hampering their pace from the outset. More mechanical issues followed for Teemu Suninen, whilst Gus Greensmith took part in one of the slowest crashes of all time, ending in a ditch attempting to recover from a spin. There were certainly some encouraging signs for the team with third place finishes in stages 15 and 16 for Esapekka Lappi and Suninen respectively, but it does seem like this year may be another at the foot of the manufacturer’s table. Personally, with only three different cars running this year I hope to see them improve, and quickly too, but I just don’t see it happening.
Kalle Rovanpera, in the third factory Toyota, looked impressive in his first outing in the premier category of rallying. Whilst (expectedly) not on the pace of his experienced teammates, he showed glimpses of what he will be capable of when he’s adapted to the machinery. His SS7 time was particularly of note, finishing just 6.7 seconds slower than the fastest time. At just 19 years old, it’s scary to think how good he’ll be in years to come.
Speaking of years to come, the aforementioned Solberg Jnr was behind the wheel in his R5 VW Polo this weekend. He drove impressively too. His times on stages 11 and 12 were both 4th best in the R5 category, and had he not suffered suspension damage on SS10 he would have been knocking on the door of the top 15 overall. Having shown promising pace in the American Rally Championship last year along with one-off outings at Wales Rally GB last year and now here, I am very excited to see him commit to a proper WRC campaign in the next year or so, as I think he’ll smash it!
In conclusion, I’d love to read your comments and start a discussion on the weekend’s rally action, particularly: Is Tanak’s title defence over already? Can Neuville finally secure his championship? Can M-Sport close the gap, and how long do you think it will be before we see a Rovanpera vs Solberg title fight?
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