FULL PREVIEW TO THE 2017 WRC
The wait is finally over…
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.
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.
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.
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. ■
RUNNERS AND RIDERS PROFILED
THE CHAMP’S NEW CHARIOT
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