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Episode 36

FIA World Rally Championship:

Season So Far

After what is almost certainly the longest mid-season break in motorsport history, the WRC is finally back in action this weekend. Time for a refresher of the season so far, then.

173 days after round 3 of the World Rally Championship was completed, and round four is finally set to get underway. For the first time, the WRC will host a World Championship event in Estonia, the home country of the reigning Champion Ott Tanak, but what’s the situation leading up to the event, and what’s the plan for the rest of the year? Let’s have a look at the WRC season so far.

Round 1 of the WRC was the traditional season opener at Monte Carlo, and plenty of talking points came from the event. Ott Tanak’s title defence could not have started worse, as he had a huge crash which resulted in his brand-new Hyundai flipping multiple times in mid-air. Thankfully, both he and his co-driver, Martin Jarveoja, managed to walk away without physical injury, however I’m sure their pride will have been severely dented.

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It was a mixed event for the Hyundai team, as whilst Tanak was stricken, Thierry Neuville went on to take victory ahead of Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans, both managing a podium on debut with the Toyota team. The best of the M-Sport Ford Fiesta’s was Esapekka Lappi in fourth, with WRC debutant Kalle Rovanpera beating out the most decorated rally driver of them all, Sebastien Loeb.

Elfyn Evans continued his remarkable start to the season in Sweden, taking home the spoils in what was a significantly shortened event due to a lack of snow. Tanak wasted no further time in getting his title defence underway, however, coming home in second place behind the Welshman. Rovanpera, in just his second event with a WRC car, completed the podium, although he was only 3.4 seconds ahead of six-time Champion Seb Ogier. Neuville, after winning the first event of the season, could only come home sixth in round 2.

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The third round of the WRC was also the first flyaway event, in Guanajuato, Mexico. Now, I say the first flyaway, but due to the exclusively European nature of the rescheduled season, it may in fact be the only flyaway race of the season. Nonetheless, the third round brought our third winner, with Sebastien Ogier standing upon the top step come Saturday evening. Yes, I say Saturday evening rather than Sunday, because the final day was cancelled due to the looming travel restrictions, and the event organisers thought it would be better to make sure everyone got home safe. Correct decision, I’d say. Behind Ogier was Tanak for the second consecutive event, with Ford claiming their first podium of the year with Teemu Suninen finishing third.

Much like Hyundai’s opening event, it was very much a rally of contrasting emotions for Ford, as Esapekka Lappi’s vehicle went up in a fiery inferno midway through the rally, with nothing salvageable from the burnt shell. This is likely to significantly hurt M-Sport, as they are effectively still a privateer outfit with just a fraction of the budget of their Asian rivals. This problem would have been compounded by the ongoing global crisis, leaving the team in a less-than-ideal financial situation.

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Regardless, the Fiesta is undoubtedly the third-best car on the stages, as shown by their occupation of the lowly sixth and seventh spots in the championship standings, with Suninen leading Lappi. Above them, reigning champion Tanak is in fifth, two points behind rookie Rovanpera, who is in turn two points behind the leading Hyundai of Thierry Neuville, on 42 World Championship points. Leading the way are the Toyotas of Ogier and Evans, who have amassed 62 and 54 points respectively.

Looking forward to the rest of the season then, and we currently have four events pencilled into the schedule. First up, as previously mentioned, is the inaugural WRC running of Rally Estonia this weekend, September 4th-6th. Two weeks later, we head to Turkey (September 18th-20th), before we head to Italy in October (8th-11th) and Belgium in November (19th-22nd).

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Despite not being a World Championship event in 2019, Rally Estonia had a pretty bumper cast regardless. Ott Tanak won his home event in his Toyota Yaris, with Andreas Mikkelsen in a Hyundai i20 finishing in second, but more than a minute behind. Esapekka Lappi’s Citroen C3 completed the podium, ahead of Elfyn Evans’ Fiesta and Craig Breen’s Hyundai. Winning the R5 category – and the European Rally Championship round – was the young Oliver Solberg, son of 2003 WRC Champion Petter Solberg. Oliver is returning to the WRC this weekend and will be hoping to once again be the class of the R5/Rally2 category. Neither Ogier nor Neuville contested this event in 2019, so it will be interesting to see whether their lack of local knowledge hinders their progress this weekend.

By complete contrast, Tanak failed to finish the 2019 edition of Rally Turkey, whilst Ogier took home the spoils. Of the other two title contenders, Neuville also suffered from issues during the event and finished eighth overall, whilst Evans was ruled out due to his back injury.

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Rally Italia last year was certainly a matter of attrition, as almost all the main runners suffered problems, including Jari-Matti Latvala rolling his Yaris. In the end it was Dani Sordo who won the event from Suninen, with Evans fourth, Tanak fifth, Neuville sixth and Ogier significantly down the order in 41st overall. As a result, it’s difficult to say which drivers will be relishing these two upcoming rallies, as the results were so skewed by mechanical problems.

Not a single WRC machine entered the 2019 Ypres Rally Belgium, so this will once again pose a completely new challenge. It will, however, be interesting to see whether Hyundai draft in Craig Breen for the event to drive in the third car alongside Tanak and Neuville, as the Irishman was victorious outright last year.

In short, the season so far has been almost too close to call, with three winners and a defending champion on a fightback, but with half of the remaining events not featuring in last year’s calendar, the uncertainty could very well cause the fight for the championship to go right down to the wire.

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