So there we have it, after months of nail biting and hours of watching fuzzy 420p YouTube test footage, the latest generation 2017 spec Group B lookalike world rally car machines have done battle in the hills around Monte Carlo. The question is, who has the keys to the best 2017 WRC car?
Well, since we’re only a single rally in to the new season, and the forthcoming events like Sweden and Argentina still have a somewhat specialist agenda (Argentina being renowned for its high altitude and Sweden for its specialist ice driving style) it may be that we have to wait until rally Portugal, the first fast loose gravel rally in the season, to accuracy gauge which team has the sharpest steed in the WRC armoury. But anyhow, there was a smattering of dramas and revelations in Monte Carlo to perhaps hint at who has the best WRC stallion in the service park stables.
Ever since Ford motorsport pulled the plug on its official WRC support in 2012, M sport has gone it alone, taking up the mantle and privately running fiestas in the series for the last 4 years. Since then the Cumbrian based outfit has struggled for success. Neuville’s impressive drive in rally Germany 2013, and Elfyn Evans performance in Corsica 2015 were the best results the team could muster. However all that came to a dramatic end when Sebastian Ogier clinched his fourth consecutive victory, and M sports first win in 5 years at the Monte Carlo season opener.
The new M sport fiesta certainly seems to have potential, Both M sport drivers Ogier and Tanak were on the podium (1st and 3rd respectfully), demonstrating that the once privateer outsider is back fighting at the top. However it is still too early to gauge whether the fiesta is a 100% match for the competition. Squint a bit and the boxy, squared off arches, adored in the Red bull livery of Sebastian Ogier’s car, suggest a hint of VW Polo design influence; which is surely only a good thing? Also the huge front spiller and aero scoops on both wheel arches certainly show no lack of ambition and creativity from the Dovenby based engineers. However given the limited development budget of the 2017 spec fiesta, only time will tell if M sport have a championship winning car.
It is arguable that between 2013-2014, a time dominated by VW motorsport, M sport simply did not have the resources to challenge the big budget German team. For example, VW developed the Polo using Sachs dampers, which cost a horrendous amount of money in bulk purchases. M sport decided to use Reiger dampers, which debatably can’t match the Sachs in terms of adjustability and overall performance. There are still questions in 2017 whether M sport have been able to buy in all the best available parts for the new fiesta. Also given M sport isn’t going to sell the new fiesta WRC to any teams outside of the WRC championship, they will mainly rely of the sales of R5 spec fiestas to fund the business.
If there’s a car that will send the opposition running to the hills, it’s the Hyundai i20 coupe WRC. Hyundai motorsport worked tirelessly to develop the new i20 and, with the exception of Citroen, had one of the longest development schedules. The new car was quick to impress on the Monte, with works driver Thierry Neuville out jousting the world champion Sebastian Ogier for most of the rally. The overall design is a little more conservative, with a slightly narrower track, less complex rear wing structure and more sparsely applied aero features like ducting and dive planes. However there is no denying Hyundai’s new set of wheels is quick out the box.
One advantage Hyundai may utilise over their rivals is that the ‘new’ i20 shares a lot of its parts with the previous seasons 5 door i20 hatch. This will undoubtedly improve the new cars reliability using tried and tested components. Also Hyundai can benefit from set up and technical information from last year’s season. For example suspension geometry, kinematics and the mechanical diff settings may well still be useful for this season’s car. The fact that the 2017 spec i20 still shares the same McPherson strut location points and similar sub frame assemblies as the 2016 i20 suggests Hyundai may have the upper hand in reliability and setup. This seemed to be apparent in the hills of Monte Carlo as Hyundai were the only Manufacture not to have mechanical issues. – Ott Tanak’s misfire, Latvala’s failed engine start and Lefebvre’s clutch issue. Considering Hyundai were the main team chasing the dominant VW Polo last season, in the absence of the German automaker giant Hyundai are in a great position to clinch one of the world titles.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Monte was the competitive debut of the new Toyota Yaris WRC, ‘competitive’ being taken literally. It’s no secret that the Toyota had the most extreme and outlandish aero package, with a truly enormous rear wing and massive vented arches giving the humble Yaris a somewhat Frankenstein monster appearance. But perhaps Toyotas bold interpretation of the new rules will reap all the benefits from new regulations?
Parked outside Casino Square in Monte Carlo the Toyota dwarfed the otherwise intricately engineered cars beside it. Everything about the new Toyota lends itself to rallyings ancestral roots of group B. No other 2017 WRC car illustrates the bold new regulations as well as the Toyota. There was a point when the internet labelled the Yaris ‘a bit overdone’, as footage of Ogier under steering and generally struggling in the Yaris on a Spanish test day surfaced. However ever since the calm hands of Latvala were placed behind the wheel of the Yaris, things seemed to have improved. There were signs that the Toyota was still a bit of an animal in Monte Carlo, with Latvala furiously working the wheel in places to stay in control. Although that may be down to Latvala’s enthusiastic driving style. Certainly the latest test footage ahead of Sweden seems to debunk the myth that the Toyota isn’t competitive.
Let’s not get carried away though, Toyota have spent 18 years away from top line rallying and Toyota’s preparation towards its debut in 2017 was not as thorough as VW preparation back in 2012. For comparisons sake VW completed over 12 months of testing for its polo VW challenger, making its debut in Monte Carlo 2013. Toyota however has had only around 8 months worth of testing with the new Yaris. So expect many minor changes and lessons being learnt over the next few rallies. But consider this, only a few weeks before Monte Carlo Tommi Makinen (Team principle for Toyota Gazoo WRC) revealed he would be happy with a podium ‘later in the year’. Now though after Latvala’s stunning second place and positive feedback, Makinen has suggested victories are now on the cards. And that now seems entirely possible.
Before the 2017 season got underway Citroen looked like the team to beat. They had spent a year’s siesta out of the sport to develop the new C3 WRC. It seemed logical to expect nothing more than ferocious pace from the C3 in Monte Carlo considering the time and resources Citroen racing had put into the C3 project. Yves Matton even ordered Kris Meeke to ‘Win the rally’ which signalled Citroens Stern desire to win a rally home to thousands of French rally fans. But after a somewhat dismal start with Meeke crashing out and Lefebvre burning his clutch in a ditch, is the C3 is overhyped?
In fact as the weekend in Monte Carlo wore on, more and more people started to have doubts over the new Citroen. One unidentifiable source claimed Citroen had ‘brought its touring car to the rally’. Reservations on the C3 materialised after a particularly steady shakedown and stage after stage of spark showering, bottoming out, splitter scraping noises erupted from the red Citroen as it navigated each stage. Set up problem or serious design error, the Citroen was off the pace in Monte Carlo.
If the C3 is flawed Meeke still seems surprisingly confident. Certainly after his Northern Irish testosterone stopped boiling after his crash, Meeke took full responsibility for his error and made no suggestion that the car lacked potential. Considering Mr Meeke, a man with a degree in engineering and vast expertise in rally car development may have an underdeveloped car seems hard to believe. Perhaps Monte’s changing conditions and messy road surface hindered the Citroen more than the competitors, and after watching all the pre season testing it seems childish to suggest Citroen has got it all wrong with its latest WRC challenger.
Overall the opening round of the 2017 WRC season only gives an insight to what car performed best in Monte Carlo, the rally is so specialist and challenging it will never be a proper insight into a new cars performance. But from rally Sweden onwards expect more and more revelations and judgements appearing about the new WRC machinery. If anything the uncertainly and debate on who has the best WRC car makes this season unmissable.
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