WRC preview: The teams
Is rulemaker’s change Ogier’s only obstacle? By David Evans
Twenty-four words from Paris last September. That could be what defines this year’s World Rally Championship. Seriously.
The communication from the World Motor Sport Council revealed a carefully worded and apparently innocuous statement designed in some part to send Sebastien Ogier directly up the wall.
Or at least it would have done 12 months ago. The world champion’s far more sanguine about such things now. Another barrier in his way is another barrier for him to knock down. He laughs in the face of the FIA’S barriers. The words? “In the interests of both safety and fairness, from 2016 P1 competitors running under Rally 2 regulations will restart last in the P1 group.”
Last year, P1 competitors running under Rally 2 regulations ran at the front of the P1 group on Saturday and Sunday. Translated, Ogier was relieved of his role of Saturday road sweeper when the likes of, for example, Robert Kubica or Lorenzo Bertelli retired on Friday.
Not this time. Those boys will be at the back of the pack. You lead the championship, you open the road on Friday and Saturday. Period.
Make no mistake, this is the FIA trying to even the field, trying to peg Ogier back. There were reportedly voices in that Place de la Concorde meeting that wanted the championship leader (Ogier) first on the road for all three days.
This kind of politicking and scheming against the supersonic Seb almost caused him to walk away from the sport 18 months ago. Fortunately for us, he stayed to provide the kind of WRC benchmark that has become a French tradition in the series for the last 12 years.
Ogier will rightly point to places like Sweden last year, where he won despite being up front for pretty much two days – Bertelli was ahead but shunted early doors Saturday. But this year will test his new level-headed inner peace as much as it will test his pace and performance aboard his VW Polo.
With all of the above accepted, this year offers Jari-matti Latvala his best chance yet of challenging Ogier. His kit’s cut from the same metal and the Finn comes with a new way of thinking this time around. For the first half of the year, Latvala’s focus will be firmly on podiums.
Last year, he was blown away by the end of March. Returning from round three in Mexico, J-ML was 62 points behind his team-mate. You can’t come back from that kind of deficit. Well, you can, but actually we all know you can’t.
So this time around, it’s a consistent and more conservative Latvala until Finland. When he gets home, he’ll be back to his banzai best and chasing a hat-trick and his fourth win in Jyvasklya.
Andreas Mikkelsen will be in the mix this time around, but it’s probably unrealistic to talk of a three-way Volkswagen fight for this year’s drivers’ title.
Now, Hyundai… what do we think? The New Generation looks quick and the team is certainly talking it up. Having delayed delivery by six months, it really has to be on the money.
It would be easy to talk about the World Rally Championship falling into a holding pattern, awaiting clearance to land in a world with more power, more downforce and even more fever in 2017.
That’s not the case, certainly not in the case of the events, with a 50-mile stage in Mexico and a September trip back to China on the cards.
On the stages, if the i20 can challenge the Polo – and the indications are good – then we could be in for a classic season. Volkswagen and Ogier have really had it all their own way for the last three years, so it’ll be fascinating to see how they respond to being beaten. Did I actually just say that?
And then there’s the Alzenau sideshow: Thierry Neuville versus Hayden Paddon. Everybody’s making all the right noises about there being no number one in the team, talking to them these days is almost like having a George Orwell novel quoted back to you.
But don’t forget, some animals are more equal than others…
The struggle for power within that team is almost impossible to avoid and will provide a genuine spectacle this season. And the best bit is that they all have a genuine claim: Neuville was the undisputed team leader until mid-season last year, Paddon’s on the up, doing everything right and has the management on side. Dani Sordo’s the lovely bloke who will upset the order every now and then by caning the pair of them, and then there’s Kevin Abbring waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces. Can’t wait. Mads Ostberg will, no doubt, be back on the boil with M-sport. The Norwegian was caught between two stools last year, trying to please Citroen while risking the speed needed to hit podiums and potential rally wins. This year, he needs to focus his right foot and keep the Fiesta’s throttle pinned. He knows the car, he knows the team and he’s well worth a tenner on round two.
It’s hard to know what to expect from Eric Camilli, but it’ll be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out for the new boy – especially with Elfyn Evans warmed up and ready to leap off the bench at the slightest hint of a hamstring twinge from the Frenchman.
The rebadged Abu Dhabi World Rally Team will tackle the first two rounds with Kris Meeke, but after that, who knows. It could be six, it could be 10 rallies. This year is about next year for the Dungannon man and his Parisian Citroen team.
Either way, there’s rarely a dull moment when Meeke’s around and let’s not forget Craig Breen makes his debut in a factory car this season.
Holding pattern? Are you kidding? ■