MAKINEN: THIS YEAR’S WRC MOST OPEN FOR YEARS
Toyota boss predicts battle to continue throughout 2017
This year’s World Rally Championship can be one of the most open and entertaining in the series’ history, according to the WRC’S leading team principals.
The first two rounds have shown how close the competition will be with M-sport’s Ford Fiesta WRC winning in Monte Carlo and Toyota’s Yaris WRC taking the laurels in Sweden. Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC has, however, been the fastest driver of the season so far with 12 fastest times – double the number of anybody else. The Belgian has also led for 23 stages so far in 2017. Jari-Matti Latvala is second, with the Finn out front for six. Round one winner Sebastien Ogier didn’t lead in Sweden, but was P1 on round one for five of the French Alps tests.
“The cars are very close together,” Toyota Gazoo Racing team principal Tommi Makinen told Motorsport News. “This is a very, very good situation for the championship, we need to have this kind of close competition. If you look at the teams, it’s good for Sebastien Ogier and Ott [Tanak] to be in the Ford. For me this is so interesting to have so many drivers fighting in so many cars; what could be better?”
Those sentiments were echoed by Makinen’s opposite number at M-sport, Malcolm Wilson, who said: “This is the closest I have ever known the competition since I have been running the team. Given the new technical regulations for this year, it’s incredible to see just how close the cars are. Every one of the four manufacturers is so evenly matched right now. I think we can definitely say that we are in for one heck of an exciting season in 2017.”
Citroen is the team that is currently slowest, with only one fastest time – courtesy of Stephane Lefebvre in Monte Carlo – and no stages led. Wilson warned of writing the French manufacturer off.
“I think it’s fair to say everybody expected Citroen to be right there among the strongest, if not the strongest,” said Wilson. “They had taken the year off to concentrate on development, but listen, they will be back. Make no mistake about that.”
Despite leading for the most number of stages, Neuville has crashed out of the lead on the first two rallies. He and his co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul are determined to bounce back at next month’s Rally Mexico. Gilsoul said: “We’re deeply disappointed, obviously. Disappointed for ourselves, for our fans, but especially for the team, who did an amazing job. We owe you a revenge and we are determined to take it starting from the next rally. In the meantime, I think this is the right moment for me to open a quote book: ‘It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.’”
With icy asphalt and snow out of the way, the teams are all turning their attention to gravel testing this week, with Spain the location for most of the cars. Next month’s Leon-based event will be the first of nine gravel rallies this season. Whoever can make their car work best on the loose will have a significant advantage as the season rolls forward.
Makinen acknowledged there was work to do for Toyota, saying: “In the twisty corners, the engine is pushing on a little bit. This isn’t a massive thing and we started testing some new mapping and engine software on Juho’s [Hanninen’s] car in Sweden. When you are lifting from the throttle, it’s not releasing immediately.”
The Toyota isn’t quite as potent as some of its competitors at lower revs, which has forced the team to run a more aggressive anti-lag strategy. Makinen admitted this could be linked to the problem.
Rally Sweden winner Latvala is also keen to work on differential settings – including the front pre-load as well as centre ‘diff maps – in more rutted conditions.
“I was struggling in the ruts in Sweden,” Latvala told MN, “it was quite frustrating. When we had nice ice on the final day, it was no problem – we were fastest.”
Next month’s Rally Mexico will be a stern test for Toyota. Not only are the stages the roughest its Yaris WRC will have competed on, but the Finnish-based team could also suffer from its lack of high altitude and high temperature testing.
Neuville has led twice, and also crashed out twice too
Toyota has surpassed its expectations already
M-sport has proven fast, and has a win with Ogier