Rally fans don’t have long to wait before the start of the 2020 World Rally Championship (WRC) season in Monte Carlo on 23 January, but there has been plenty of drama away from the stages to keep fans occupied this winter, not least the shock news that Citroen has pulled out of the WRC with immediate effect.
Citroen’s decision is a major blow to the championship, leaving it with just two manufacturer teams, Hyundai and Toyota, plus privateers M-Sport (with backing from Ford). Long-term, this has to be a real cause for concern, especially as Citroen have said they have no plans to return when the new set of technical regulations come into force in 2022. Hopefully the switch to hybrid rally cars will attract at least one new manufacturer in their place, but I have my doubts.
The current WRC cars are spectacular to watch, and since their introduction in 2017, when participation levels were relatively high with four teams each running three cars, the issue of cost seemed largely irrelevant. Suddenly, things don’t look so rosy, with a field of just eight cars expected in Monte Carlo. Yet in the R5 class that sits just below the WRC, manufacturers seem to be falling over themselves to bring out new models. There’s an argument that even these cars are too expensive, but the healthy competition and variety of metal raises the question of whether these slower, less complex machines would be a better model for the WRC.
Despite the reduced entry, Monte Carlo promises to be a fascinating opener to the 2020 season, especially following the shake-up to the driver market brought about by Citroen’s withdrawal and reigning champion Ott Tanak’s surprise move from Toyota to Hyundai. It will be interesting to observe the dynamic between Tanak and his new teammate Thierry Neuville, runner-up for the past three seasons and, until now, Hyundai’s undisputed lead driver. Can the pair work together, or will the inter-team rivalry give boss Andrea Adamo some serious headaches as the season unfolds? And will six-time champion Sebastien Ogier add one more title to his collection before he retires from rallying at the end of the year?
Next season will also see the return of some iconic events to the WRC, the most intriguing of which has to be Kenya. While the Safari Rally had a reputation for the ultra-high demands it placed on cars and crews, the new rally will not seek to replicate the brutally tough events of old given the requirements of the modern WRC. However, the sight of World Rally Cars charging through the African landscape once again will surely be one of the highlights of the year.
The other countries making their WRC comeback are Japan and New Zealand. Confirmation of the former’s place on the calendar was expected for some time, given Toyota’s presence in the championship, and if reports from the test event in November are anything to go by, the Japanese fans will create a fantastic atmosphere. Unfortunately for fans in New Zealand, the country’s return may be short-lived, effectively a stop-gap while Rally Australia looks for a new location. It will nevertheless be great to see the Auckland-based event back on the global stage, and with the chance to showcase its flowing gravel stages that are loved by drivers, could it secure a permanent place on the calendar?
As exciting as it is to see new rallies in the WRC, it is always a shame to lose historic European events like Corsica. Combined with the loss of Spain, I am concerned about the lack of tarmac rallies for 2020. Excluding Monte Carlo, there are just two tarmac events, the first of which (Rally Germany) will not take place until October. It’s particularly disappointing given how striking the current generation of cars look in tarmac spec – the closest the WRC has got to the wild excess of the Group B era.
I’ll leave you with my predictions for the 2020 season. I’m going for a fairytale ending to Sebastien Ogier’s glittering career with a seventh title for himself and co-driver Julien Ingrassia, starting as they mean to go on with victory in Monte Carlo for a seventh successive year. In the manufacturer’s championship, Hyundai’s incredibly strong driver line-up of Tanak and Neuville with the reliable Dani Sordo and nine-time champion Sebastien Loeb sharing a third car makes them my favourites. The WRC field may be diminished following Citroen Racing’s demise, but expect the competition in 2020 to be as fierce and thrilling as ever.