Red Bull Motorsports
There's anticipation and there’s this. This season marks the half century for the World Rally Championship, but rarely in that time has there been such technological change as what's planned for 2022.
The rules that governed the WRC for the last five years delivered the fastest-ever rally cars, but they didn't deliver sustainability. Rally1 – the name for the new dawn – does just that. Now the cars are hybrid, running on 100 percent sustainable fuel and almost as quickly as their predecessors.
The Monte-Carlo Rally gets the show on the road again, with Sébastien Ogier chasing a ninth victory in the Alps. The Toyota star won't be gunning for a ninth WRC title however – he's a part-timer this season. Talking of part-time programmes, Sébastien Loeb's dash from the Dakar Rally to Monaco will be one of the round one stories, as the megastar Frenchman makes his debut with the M-Sport Ford World Rally Team.
What makes this year so exciting?
Ogier: "Nobody knows what can happen."
A bit of ambiguity among the teams is nothing new when the season rolls over the start ramp in Casino Square. But this is on another level. The only thing that stays the same is the 1,600cc turbocharged engine. Everything else is new. Primarily, there's a centrally supplied hybrid system and battery to be bolted into the car. This adds another 134bhp (or 100kW), taking the cars to an impressive 520bhp – but only for a very limited period in the stages.
The transmission has also changed: gone is an active centre differential that simplified dialling the car into the sort of ever-changing conditions and grip levels typical of motorsport's muddier side. And there's the return of the gear lever. No hydraulically operated paddle shift here – and no sixth forward ratio either. It's five-speed, sequential gearboxes all around.
Add in reduced suspension travel and trimmed back aerodynamics and you end up with cars generating less mechanical and aero grip, which is bad for the drivers, but great for the spectacle and great for us.
Great for the drivers is a tubular chassis, which replaces the use of a production-based shell that had been a feature of the WRC's sharp end since 1987. World motorsport's governing body – the FIA – is all about improving safety standards and this year it has excelled itself. Research, investment and investigation has delivered what many recognise as the safest rally cars ever for 2022.
The all-new spaceframe approach, which features a more comprehensive safety cell and roll cage than ever before, means a 70 percent reduction of impact intrusion at the front of the car, 51 percent reduction at the side and 38 percent at the rear.
Pre-season, the most impressive demonstration of the new car came when Thierry Neuville slid off the edge of a cliff during his pre-Monte-Carlo Rally testing in December. The Hyundai i20 N Rally1 fell 30m and landed on its roof.
The FIA reported a 115 percent improvement in the energy absorption for a roof impact and Neuville happily testified to that.
"The new cage definitely did its job," he said. "It saved us. After the crash, I was in the workshop and looking at the car – it's very impressive to see how it has saved us."
It is, however, the tech changes that are making the season ahead so unpredictable.
M-Sport Ford team leader Craig Breen put it into context: "Testing is testing. It's when you put the numbers on the doors that it matters. There's so much that's new this year, it's such a big change; really, nobody knows where anybody else is at. It all comes down to that first stage in Monte-Carlo."
Monte Carlo or bust, then?
Absolutely. Rarely have the teams been so apprehensive ahead of the start of a season and the organisers of the world's most famous rally haven't done much to allay those fears.
The route for this year's WRC season-opener brings a southerly shift away from Gap back to a central service park, harbourside in Monaco. Not that the crews will be seeing much of the service park. There’s no midday service on Friday or Saturday, meaning a baptism of fire for the all-new Rally1 cars.
M-Sport managing director Malcolm Wilson smiled a wry smile when he saw the route.
"It's going to be tough," he said. "It would have been nice to have been able to work on the cars at lunchtime, but that's not happening. Even if it was going to be a bone-dry event with consistent conditions and grip, I think we’d be a little bit wary. But it’s Monte-Carlo and we know anything can happen."
The event starts on Thursday night and kicks-off with one of the season's most famous roads: the infamous Col de Turini.
The next three days are flat-chat through the Alpes-Maritimes, with a mighty relieved winner sharing the champagne outside the Prince's Palace in Monaco on Sunday afternoon.
In all the time I've been in this sport, I've never known change like this
Who will win?
See above. Anybody. Any one of the Rally1 crews.
"Reliability will be the key, not just in Monte, but it'll be a key to the title this year as well," says Wilson. "In all the time I've been in this sport as a competitor and running a team, I've never known change like this.”
If – and it's a very big if – all things remain equal, you would expect Ogier to be very much in the hunt. He knows the rally, he's won it seven times in the last eight years and it's likely to be his last WRC event for a while as he takes a break to consider a World Endurance Championship programme and more family time.
Can Loeb take the fight to him? It'd be nice wouldn't it. The master versus, well, another master. It's unlikely, though. Loeb is coming off the back of a big effort in the Saudi deserts and he's been away from the WRC for the more than a year now. But just being able to talk in terms of Ogier versus Loeb adds a certain round one je ne sais quoi.
Outside the French contingent, Neuville and his team-mate Ott Tänak are among the favourites. Yes, the Korean manufacturer's Rally1 development started late, but both have the speed and experience to win – Neuville’' done it before, but the Estonian is overdue a result in a rally he's failed to finish for the last two years.
What about M-Sport? Recent history would certainly favour the Fords. One of the British team's cars has won the first time out following the last two significant homologation regulation changes. And Loeb's influence and experience will surely be felt in the team. But it's Breen who's the more likely. Few have had more time in their 2022 seat than him and he won’t be letting a pre-event testing shunt slow him down.