The wait is fi­nally over…

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It’s ar­rived. The two words ‘ Twenty’ and ‘ Seven­teen’ have come to mean some­thing spe­cial in our world. And we haven’t even started yet. The wait­ing’s over. Wel­come to 2017. Wel­come to the new world. The hype’s been all-en­com­pass­ing for the last 18 months – ever since that first pic­ture of a be­winged Polo was shot fly­ing through the Fin­nish forests pi­loted by Mar­cus Gron­holm. Youtube and Twit­ter have be­come the deal­ers of choice for those drawn and then ad­dicted to the ’17 car.

Make no mis­take, these cars have all the pres­ence many felt was miss­ing from the ones that went be­fore them.

Quite how the hum­ble ’ 16 car has been for­got­ten is posed per­fectly by Citroen’s Craig Breen. The Ir­ish­man will drive a DS 3 WRC this week, rather than the mon­strous, leg­end-cre­at­ing C3 WRC.

“Peo­ple are ask­ing me how dis­ap­pointed I am to be in the DS 3 rather than the C3,” says Breen.

At this point, Breen makes the face of a man who has been asked a very silly ques­tion. And it’s a face that’s quite hard to put into words.

“I mean, se­ri­ously?” he adds. “The DS 3’s hardly a slow car is it? It’s a fac­tory World Rally Car for good­ness sake; it’ll still be go­ing pretty quickly!” Seven­teen is king now though. And not without good rea­son. The cars are vis­i­bly quicker in medi­um­speed cor­ners; they will be back to mak­ing a proper noise and, here’s the best bit, they look prop­erly dif­fer­ent.

Al­ready, peo­ple are talk­ing of the re­birth of Group B. Not true.

These things are way quicker than Group B and a whole lot safer: there’s no sit­ting on fuel tanks this sea­son.

Group B cars had – and still have – the abil­ity to stop you in your tracks. Se­ri­ously, give it a go: try walk­ing past a Mar­tini-dressed Delta S4 without stop­ping. It’s im­pos­si­ble. The same can be said for M-sport’s Red Bull-coloured Fi­esta WRC.

Hap­pen upon a Citroen BX 4TC, how­ever, and it would likely have the op­po­site ef­fect. Your pace would be quick­ened without a sec­ond glance. The same, I’m afraid, could be said for Toy­ota’s Yaris WRC. That is, of course, not to con­demn Tommi Maki­nen’s pride and joy to the same sport­ing in­con­gruity as the BX 4TC suf­fered. Toy­ota and its mil­lions will make the Yaris fly – the Ja­panese gi­ant will have learned too many valu­able lessons from its fail­ings in For­mula 1 to let that hap­pen again.

Re­turn of the reds

Toy­ota’s first re­turn to the World Rally Cham­pi­onship since 1999 has, nat­u­rally, taken up plenty of head­lines in the months run­ning up to the start of this sea­son – but it’s not the only WRC ti­tan com­ing back. Re­mem­ber Citroen?

The French firm’s sea­son-long sab­bat­i­cal could have been missed due to reg­u­lar, high pro­file and – on two oc­ca­sions – vic­to­ri­ous out­ings for a pri­vately run pair of DS 3 WRCS.

But ac­tu­ally, Citroen’s been miss­ing for quite a lot longer than just the last sea­son. Citroen hasn’t re­ally been at the races in terms of car devel­op­ment and com­mit­ment since Sebastien Loeb de­parted full-time ral­ly­ing in 2012.

The Parisians gave rac­ing a go, dom­i­nated the World Tour­ing Car Cham­pi­onship, then re­mem­bered that ac­tu­ally, they were born to rally. Hence, they’re back. And they’re back with the same level of en­ergy and in­put that de­liv­ered eight man­u­fac­tur­ers’ ti­tles in just 10 years, not to men­tion the nines­traight years that Loeb wore the driv­ers’ crown.

Watch­ing Citroen’s prepa­ra­tions for this year has been tremen­dously re­fresh­ing, not least be­cause all that en­gi­neer­ing bril­liance from the likes of Alexis Avril and Di­dier Cle­ment – men who had a hand in the Xsara, C4 and DS 3 – has come to the fore once more. The C3 WRC has a tough act to fol­low, but there couldn’t be a driver more de­ter­mined than Kris Meeke to ful­fill that po­ten­tial.

Craig Breen and Stephane Lefebvre have both been handed the golden ticket that is a seat at Citroen’s driver devel­op­ment ta­ble. Both have the po­ten­tial to go all the way and their pro­gres­sion through the sea­son will add another fas­ci­nat­ing facet to the year ahead.

But what about Toy­ota? What can we re­ally ex­pect? In short: not much. A year ago, there was talk of win­ning ral­lies this sea­son, such talk has long since faded with the re­al­i­sa­tion that there’s still plenty of devel­op­ment to do with the Yaris – as you’d ex­pect from a car that only turned a wheel in April and a team which was still be­ing es­tab­lished this time last sea­son.

Toy­ota’s ar­rival in WRC should be looked upon in terms of what Hyundai did when it came back in a hurry in 2014: it’s a sea­son of learn­ing that lies ahead be­fore the op­por­tu­nity to push on and chase for­mer glo­ries in 2018.

Mu­si­cal chairs

Com­ing into the fi­nal Euro­pean round of last year’s world cham­pi­onship, there re­ally wasn’t much to talk about in terms of the driver mar­ket. Ott Tanak was be­ing pro­moted back to the main M-sport squad with El­fyn Evans most likely to take his DMACK seat. Had Thierry Neuville not re-signed with Hyundai, the think­ing is that the Welsh­man would have slot­ted into the Korean out­fit.

There were still a few ‘t’s to be crossed at Toy­ota, but Es­apekka Lappi was a done deal, with Teemu Suni­nen close be­hind.

Then that Volk­swa­gen thing hap­pened and the WRC driver mar­ket went into spec­u­la­tion melt­down. After years of blokes wear­ing the same threads year on year, there have been more changes of team kit over this closed sea­son than for years be­fore.

The ob­vi­ous head­lines are Sebastien Ogier to M-sport and Jari-matti Lat­vala to Toy­ota, knock­ing Lappi down to the role of tester and open­ing the door for a Suni­nen move to an M-sport Fi­esta R5.

Mads Ost­berg and Martin Prokop have teamed up in a pair of ’ 17-spec Fi­es­tas. The Nor­we­gian will be out in Swe­den, but the Czech driver’s maiden 2017 out­ing has yet to be de­cided on.

The big loser is An­dreas Mikkelsen, who starts the sea­son in a Skoda Motorsport Fabia R5 – which seems a pretty harsh re­turn for the driver who fin­ished third in the cham­pi­onship last year and turned in a sub­lime drive to beat Ogier last time out in Aus­tralia.

The rapid Nor­we­gian is thought un­likely to spend too much of his sea­son in a Skoda, with de­vel­op­ing op­tions un­der­stood to be found in a pri­vate Volk­swa­gen Polo R WRC (yes, that saga’s still go­ing on, but it looks like things will come to a head very soon) or even a sec­ond DMACK Fi­esta along­side El­fyn Evans.

El­fyn’s back

Evans’ re­turn to a full-time World Rally Cham­pi­onship seat is fan­tas­tic news for the British rally-watch­ing pub­lic. And, you have to say, he de­serves it.

He rolled with the big­gest punch of them all 12 months ago, ac­cepted his lot – didn’t agree with it, but ac­cepted it – got his head down and cracked on. He won the British Rally Cham­pi­onship with DMACK and just missed out on the WRC2 ti­tle with M-sport. He should have had both.

While he was get­ting busy win­ning ral­lies at home, he was also learn­ing lessons and tough­en­ing him­self up. The evo­lu­tion of El­fyn has been one of the suc­cess sto­ries of last sea­son. He’s de­vel­oped an edge and just that bit of at­ti­tude needed to re­mind folk that he’s one of the world’s most tal­ented driv­ers.

The com­bined de­ci­sion of DMACK and M-sport to re­tain him over Mikkelsen must have filled the Welsh­man with self-con­fi­dence, while leav­ing a few scratch­ing their heads around the world. The think­ing is sim­ple: there’s a big­ger pic­ture com­ing for DMACK in the very near fu­ture and what it needs in 2017 is some­body will­ing to drive to a de­vel­op­ing strat­egy through the year. Evans knows the British-made tyres in­side out now and he’s been privy to plans be­yond the end of this sea­son.

That’s not to say Mikkelsen wouldn’t be the ul­ti­mate team player (he’s shown him­self to be just that in four years at Volk­swa­gen), but he’s in a dif­fer­ent place in his ca­reer right now, he wants and needs to be in with a shot at win­ning ev­ery rally. That wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily tally with the re­al­is­tic aims and ob­jec­tives of the DMACK team.

All of which means a seat in one of only 10 cut­ting-edge World Rally Cars goes to Evans. And the seat next to him in that Ford Fi­esta WRC goes back to Dan Bar­ritt as the pair re­new the part­ner­ship they both en­joyed be­fore.

The fu­ture’s here

What about those cut­ting-edge cars?

Res­i­dency of another planet would have been re­quired for you not to have no­ticed the change of tech­ni­cal reg­u­la­tions planned for this sea­son. For fans of our sport, 1986 means the end of Group B; 1997 the start of the World Rally Car era and now the year 2017 is about to be writ­ten and spo­ken of with sim­i­lar weight and grav­i­tas.

This year’s cars will be faster and more dra­matic than ever, largely thanks to an ex­tra three mil­lime­tres in the di­am­e­ter of the air re­stric­tor feed­ing the turbo. Rarely, if ever, has three-mil had such a dra­matic ef­fect on a sport. Power will be boosted by just over 20 per cent with 380bhp and around 450Nm of torque on tap.

Har­ness­ing that power will be made slightly easier by the de­ploy­ment of an ac­tive cen­tre dif­fer­en­tial, which will of­fer the driv­ers greater free­dom in tun­ing the car to the road ahead – they will have three ’ diff maps to choose from – while po­ten­tially build­ing in more re­li­a­bil­ity cour­tesy of less stress on the trans­mis­sion as a whole. Slow­ing them down from what will be the high­est speeds ever seen from a rally car will be made marginally more straight­for­ward by big­ger brakes.

Vis­i­bly, the big­gest dif­fer­ence comes with the ad­di­tion of big­ger, wider and longer wings, skirts and dif­fusers. The car it­self is 55mm wider with 60mm and 30mm more over­hang at the front and rear re­spec­tively. Oh, and it’s 10 ki­los lighter too.

All that aero is sure to add to the drag down the straights, but in the cor­ners… well, on dry tar and sticky boots, they’re on rails and trav­el­ling very, very quickly.

As well as the all-round per­for­mance hike, the FIA has worked hard with the man­u­fac­tur­ers to raise the level of safety in the new cars. Seat cell tech­nol­ogy has taken another step for­ward and po­si­tion­ing the crews fur­ther in­side than ever will help as well. Fill­ing the gap be­tween the crew and a po­ten­tial im­pact point on the side of the car, there’s a wider steel beam run­ning through the sill and more en­er­gyab­sorb­ing foam than ever be­fore.

Sport­ing changes

The World Rally Cham­pi­onship’s big­gest reg­u­la­tory over­haul in 20 years hasn’t been con­fined to the tech­ni­cal side of the sport. The FIA has in­tro­duced a raft of changes de­signed to even things up and con­tain Sebastien Ogier’s ir­ri­ta­tion and frus­tra­tion at spend­ing much of his sea­son as road-sweeper.

To that end, the cham­pi­onship leader will only be forced to run at the head of the field on the open­ing day of each WRC round. Run­ning or­der for this week’s Monte Carlo Rally will be set by cham­pi­onship or­der from last sea­son – with the ex­cep­tion of third-placed Mikkelsen, who will be dropped back down the or­der given that his Fabia R5 will be no match for the might of a 2017 World Rally Car.

Last sea­son demon­strated the FIA had gone a step too far by forcing the ta­ble-top­per to open the road on Satur­day as well and the gov­ern­ing body should be con­grat­u­lated for its con­sump­tion of hum­ble pie. While the FIA tucks in, the rest of us can look for­ward to a more re­al­is­tic fight at the front of the field – a fight which re­flects where the true pace of the se­ries is.

There will be more points on of­fer for this year’s pow­er­stages. The top five will score on the tele­vised fi­nal test, with a scratch time earn­ing five points and fifth quick­est one.

M-sport has re­taken con­trol of the Ju­nior World Rally Cham­pi­onship and will re­turn the se­ries to an ar­rive­and-drive set-up.

Ford Fi­esta R2s will be used on the JWRC rounds in Cor­sica, Italy, Poland, Fin­land, Ger­many and Spain, with seven WRC2 out­ings on of­fer in an M-sport Fi­esta R5 next sea­son.

More live telly

There’s more good news this year when it comes to tele­vi­sion cov­er­age. Red Bull TV is send­ing Mike Chen – one of the ser­vice park’s best-known faces – to front its all-new WRC cov­er­age. There will be high­lights shows on Fri­day and Satur­day evenings along with an ex­tended Sun­day night wrap. The re­ally cool bit, how­ever, will be a 75-minute live show from the ser­vice park on ev­ery Satur­day of ev­ery event. This will in­clude live stage ac­tion, in­ter­views and spe­cial guests, the first of which this week is Mark Web­ber.

Red Bull TV is avail­able ev­ery­where for free – in­clud­ing all sorts of Ap­ples and tablets and even on the telly it­self. And if you miss it, you haven’t missed out – it’s still avail­able on de­mand. ■



Toy­ota is back, but don’t ex­pect great things too soon

Breen starts in a ‘still fast’ DS 3 WRC

Citroen will go all­out for WRC glory

Will VW’S nascent ’17 Polo get a rally?

Ogier won’t be sweep­ing the roads at each round

Evans is back in the top flight

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