Hello one and all, and welcome to Racing 24-7.net’s season preview of the 2019 World Rally Championship. In this piece we will focus on what the 2019 WRC season will bring over the next 14 WRC events, but first, a recap on the 2018 season.
2018 saw a Teutonic battle for the championship go down to the wire at the season finale in Australia, between Thierry Neuville, Ott Tanak and the evergreen Sebastian Ogier. In the end, it was Seb Ogier who predictably took another Championship title after a reliable, consistent run to his 6th championship title with co-driver Julien Ingrassia. Thierry Neuville, always the brides-maid but never the bride, finished in second place thirteen points adrift of Ogier. Toyota clinched the Manufacturers championship after a sublime season for Ott Tanak, Jari Matti Latvala and rising star Esapekka Lappi. The championship also saw high drama mid-season as fan favourite, Kris Meeke, was unceremoniously ejected from his seat at Citroen, causing anger and dismay amongst fans, a decision Citroen may come to rue in 2019.
So, onto the 2019 season and just what is in store for us this year. First off, there are some adjustments to the calendar for 2019, which sees Rally Chile added to the calendar. It also marks the first visit of the WRC to Chile with the new gravel event starting May 9th and finishing May 12th and headquartered out of Concepcion. There are further adjustments to the championship with shorter rallies as well. The maximum total distance of Special Stages has been reduced from 500km to 350km; drivers can choose a permanent number similar to Formula 1 & MotoGP, although the reigning champion will retain the coveted number 1. There is also a reduction in the amount of testing allowed, with a reduction from 55 days of testing to 42, no doubt as a result of the ever present spectre of cost cutting. Now, to the main course:
Ford M Sport WRT come into 2019 having achieved back to back Championships with Sebastien Ogier. But, they come into 2019 after a paradigm shift within the team. Ogier has departed Ford, returning to where his WRC career began at Citroen. This has left Ford with a young driver line up with little experience compared to the competition. Elfyn Evans, Teemu Suninen & 2017 WRC2 champion Pontus Tidemand fulfil the teams driving duties; Gus Greensmith will join the team in Portugal as a wild card entry.
Elfyn Evans is already a Rally Winner, having taken a historic victory at Wales Rally GB in 2017 on home turf. Unfortunately he failed to win in 2018, dogged by bad luck which scuppered any chance of a championship assault. Evans has pace and consistency, but it remains to be seen how he will cope with the pressures of being the team’s lead driver, but it presents a golden opportunity for Evans to develop into a title contender and for Ford to groom the next generation of potential Champions.
Teemu Suninen’s first full season in 2018 was very much a learning year, making the jump from a 300bhp WRC2 car to a full fat WRC car with nigh on 400bhp and significant downforce is no easy task. Sunninen acquitted himself well in his first season with a 3rd place in Portugal, 4th in Turkey and 5th in Germany. There is promise in the young Finn and it will be interesting to see how he develops throughout the 2019 season.
Pontus Tidemand is the junior of the 3 drivers in the young team. A WRC2 champion in 2017 and runner up in 2018, Tidemand has been groomed for greatness over the past couple of years in WRC2 by Skoda, his WRC2 speed & consistency are without question. But, and it is a big, round but. The performance gap between WRC & WRC2 today isn’t so much a gap, more a yawning chasm and because of that, only time will tell and Tidemand will need to prove himself quickly at Ford.
The Ford Fiesta WRC itself is a fine machine; it’s well rounded and adaptable to the gamut of conditions WRC cars compete in and has been reliable and consistent. Toward the tail end of the 2018 season reliability issues started to creep in, and the Fiesta didn’t look to have the pace of the Hyundai i20 & Toyota Yaris. The car however, has the most impeccable pedigree of the 4 and behind it the fountain of motorsport knowledge that is M-Sport.
Short summary? Driver line up lacking experience compared to rivals, despite a good team and well-rounded car, 2019 will be an uphill battle, they will very much be the underdogs this year, but there is immense opportunity to nurture a team of future stars/potential champions.
Citroen, one of the most successful brands in WRC is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a company in 2019, but the past 2 years have not been kind in the WRC. Starting with the car, the C3 WRC has not been a successful package, the car proving to be wayward leading to a lack of consistency and speed. Yes, there have been wins for the car but Citroen have yet to mount a credible championship challenge and 2018 was a challenging year, the sole win coming at Catalunya with temporary shoe in Sebastien Loeb. The Kris Meeke saga mid-season didn’t help matters either and was a PR disaster for the team.
Esapekka Lappi joins the team for 2019, after being Toyota’s bushy-tailed rookie in 2018 who won in Finland in 2017 and claimed a hat-trick of 3rd place finished in 2018, including a smattering of top 6 finishes, Lappi came of age in 2018 and finished 5th in the championship despite 2 retirements. Lappi is quick, but like the dominant Ogier, he’s consistent and in a championship that punishes inconsistency more than any other, that counts for an awful lot. Under the tutelage of Ogier and Citroen it’s clear Lappi is being developed into a future champion, so many eyes will be watching Lappi’s performance closely through the 2019 season.
Sebastien Ogier, the name that sends fear into his competitors. Ogier returns to where his WRC campaign began in 2011, with Citroen. It’s a move that some have questioned with the C3 being the weakest car in 2018. But, if anyone can weave their magic through the car and the team, then it is Ogier and to have a French driver, with 6 titles in a French car is also going to play mightily well at Citroen’s PR department, especially during the manufacturers 100th anniversary. It’s trite to go into detail about Ogier, Blinding speed, immunity to bone-crushing pressure and metronomic consistency. The only way Ogier won’t be challenging for the title in 2019 is if the Citroen is either disastrously slow and/or unreliable.
Short Summary? A 6 time champion and one of the most consistent & competitive rookies in the field, but judging by 2018 the car needs a good deal of work to match the competition, strong but not the favourites, the season will show if Citroen have addressed the C3’s shortcomings.
Some say if you look up the phrase “so close, yet so far” there is a picture of a Hyundai and Thierry Neuville. The Hyundai i20N took 3 wins in the hands of Neuville in 2018 on snow & gravel, clearly favouring the more traditional rally terrain. It was reliability in Australia that cost Neuville the championship, something the team will have been working feverishly on over the winter. The team enters 2019 with nearly man Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo, Andreas Mikkelsen and a certain Frenchman called Sebastien Loeb, the 9 time champion returning to the WRC for the full season, his first in 7 years.
Thierry Neuville is undoubtedly going to be in the hunt for the championship in 2019, he is the consummate package, brutally quick when called for and marrying that with consistency and zeal. Providing Hyundai give him a strong car like they have done for 2 years now, could the 3rd time be the charm under the new rules?
Dani Sordo is adored by his fans; the charming Spaniard is one of the most experienced drivers and has driven through 3 different sets of regulations and for no less than 4 different manufacturers as a factory driver. Sordo however has not won a rally since Germany in 2013, and 2018 saw Sordo sharing Driving Duties with Hayden Paddon throughout the season. While Sordo has plenty of experience, a championship challenge is unlikely, but that significant experience is invaluable in developing a car.
Andreas Mikkelsen enjoyed a conservative but steady 2018 season, with several top 6 finishes and one podium, but Mikkelsen is in a similar situation to Elfyn Evans. He’s a good driver, who has a good amount of experience, but hasn’t quite taken that next step like Neuville and Tanak that took them from mid fielder to Championship challenger. Mikkelsen however is only his second season in a current spec WRC car, so one would expect to see more in 2019.
Last but not least, the icing on the cake, not just for Hyundai but for the entire championship in 2019, Sebastien Loeb. Loeb returns after 7 years away from full time WRC competition, in that time he has raced McLaren GT3 cars; his team has raced in LMP2 at Le Mans and as a driver, broke the Pikes Peak Hill climb record, competed in World Touring cars and the Paris Dakar. Loeb is very much the Michael Schumacher of Rallying, hugely successful, a canny operator and not to mention stupidly quick and consistent. Loeb, like Schumacher makes it look so easy, like he’s driving to the shops to get a pint of milk, a true sign of a great driver. There are niggling doubts that maybe Loeb won’t be the championship challenger he once was, that 7 years is a long time away from full time competition and that he may need to settle back into things. However, Loeb won Rally Catalunya in 2018 for Citroen, in a car that was not on the level of its rivals, so to see what Loeb can do in the second best car in the field is a tantalising prospect. Loeb is almost certainly going to be a sure fire bet for the 2019 championship, and with a stronger car than Ogier, a betting man would put strong money on Loeb taking his 10th championship title.
Short summary? 9 times World Champion, Multiple Championship runner-up, a very quick & well proven car and highly experienced team, Hyundai come into 2019 as the Championship favourite.
Toyota Gazoo Racing have enjoyed 2 very good years in WRC and a stellar year in Sports car Racing taking a long overdue Le Mans win, the Toyota Gazoo boys and girls are on top of the world at the moment. The final part of the 2018 season saw Toyota elevate themselves into a position where they were in contention for the Drivers’ Championship and saw Toyota clinch the teams Championship. 3 wins in a row for Ott Tanak on top of a previous win in Argentina was a sign that Tanak had come of age, and that Toyota had turned a good car into a great one. The Toyota Yaris got peoples backs up in the last half of the season; the sheer pace of the car was very difficult to counter. If it were not for engine issues for Tanak in Rally GB, it would have been 5 wins for Toyota in 2018. The legend that is Tommi Makinen still heads up the team coming into 2019 as Team Manager & Principal.
Ott Tanak is probably the most understated driver in the WRC field, but this a man whose driving does the talking. Tanak’s savage pace and steely determination netted him 4 victories in 2018, the quality of those drives were that of a Champion, Tanak has the best car in the championship as his steed for 2019, there is no doubt that Tanak will be in contention for the Championship.
Kris Meeke makes a triumphant return to the WRC in 2019 following Citroen’s brutal public sacking in 2018. Meeke was Citroen’s quickest driver throughout 2018, though there was a propensity for Meeke to either set blindingly quick stage times or fire the car into the scenery, part of this may have had something to do with the Citroen’s wayward handling though. Meeke has his best shot at a Championship challenge in 2019, but he will be a wild card at best.
Jari-Matti Latvala represents the old guard within Toyotas driving line-up. Latvala will be having feelings of De Ja Vu in 2019 as he once again locks horns with old rival Seb Loeb; the Finn has the most flamboyant, aggressive driving style in the field, think Colin McRae levels of aggression and speed making him a fan favourite. Latvala’s 2018 season was steady, with one win in Rally Australia. Although Latvala has yet to take a Championship title, he will be more of a Wildcard for the title instead of a serious contender going from 2018’s performance.
Short Summary? The strongest car coming into 2019, a very strong driving line-up and a team composed of WRC Royalty; they will be Championship Challengers from the get-go.
So, that rounds off Racing 24-7.net’s preview of the 2019 World Rally Championship. The first round of the season will commence in Monaco January 24th and conclude on January 27th. 2019 provides the strongest Championship battle in prospect for a number of years, and there have not been so many potential Championship Challengers since the Halcyon days of the WRC in the mid/late 1990’s. Racing 24-7.net will be providing coverage of the full WRC 2019 season and we look forward to having you along for the ride, please also find below the 2019 Calendar & full season entry list.
2019 WRC CALENDER
ROUND 1 – 24th-27th January: Rallye Automobile Monte Carlo
ROUND 2 – 14th-17th February: Rally Sweden
ROUND 3 – 7th-10th March: Rally Gunajuato Mexico
ROUND 4 – 28th-31st March: Tour De Corse
ROUND 5 – 25th-28th April: Rally Argentina
ROUND 6 – 9th-12th May: Rally Chile
ROUND 7 – 30th May – 2nd June: Rally de Portugal
ROUND 8 – 13th-16th June: Rally Italia Sardegna
ROUND 9 – 1st-4th August: Rally Finland
ROUND 10 – 22nd-25th August: ADAC Rallye Deutschland
ROUND 11 – 12th-15th September: Rally of Turkey
ROUND 12 – 3rd-6th October: Wales Rally GB
ROUND 13 – 24th-27th October: RACC Rally Catalunya de Espana
ROUND 14 – 14th-17th November: Rally Australia
Citroen Total WRT
1 Sebastien Loeb/Julian Ingrassia
4 Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm
M-Sport Ford WRT
3 Teemu Sunninen/Marko Salminen
7 Pontus Tidemand/Ola Floene
33 Elfyn Evans/Scott Martin
37 Lorenzo Bertelli/Simone Scattolin
TBA Gus Greensmith/TBA*Portugal only
JANNE TOUHINO FORD
92 Janne Touhino/Mikko Markkula
HYUNDAI SHELL MOBIS WRT
6 Dani Sordo/Carlos Del Barrio
11 Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul
19 Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena
89 Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger-Synnevaag
TOYOTA GAZOO RACING WRT
5 Kris Meeke/Sebastian Marshall
8 Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja
10 Jari-Matti Latvala/Miika Anttila