Friday | 15 Apr 2022

WRC at 50: 2010s/2020s

Finland led the rest of the world in breathing something of a sigh of relief: Sébastien Loeb was talking about Formula 1 and it looked like he might be moving on from the FIA World Rally Championship.

Only three times since the start of the drivers’ championship in 1979 had Finnish fans been made to wait more than a year between celebrating their latest home-grown success. Then Loeb landed. And everything changed.

But now, as we progressed out of the noughties, Mikko Hirvonen led the hopes and dreams of a nation. Surely the Tricolore would be put away for a while in favour of the blue cross?

The name Sébastien would be respectfully remembered, but now it was time for Jari-Matti Latvala and his countrymen.

With nine titles won, Loeb did decide to ship his brilliance in the direction of circuits at the end of 2012. But that wouldn’t be the end of his WRC story. It certainly wouldn’t be the end of the story of a Frenchman called Sébastien.

Where Loeb left off, Sébastien Ogier picked up and the titles just kept on coming.

For Hirvonen, the new decade started with plenty of promise. Rally Sweden opened the season and Ford’s Finn moved to the front on Friday afternoon’s Likenäs test and he controlled the rally from then on in.

That win meant Hirvonen had led the championship for five of the last six rounds. Unfortunately for him, the one occasion Loeb had the edge – by a single point – was the final round in 2009. Starting with a win, the Focus RS WRC driver was determined not to let the Frenchman away. He could and would find that extra point through 2010.

Except he couldn’t and wouldn’t.

In the final season of two-litre World Rally Cars, Loeb streaked ahead with eight wins and a seventh straight championship in another vintage year for the Alsatian.

Turkey was one of Loeb's eight wins during a dominant 2010 season. Photo: McKlein

Smaller, but faster
After 14 years of turbocharged 2000cc, it was time for change. That meant smaller cars and a smaller engine, with a blown 1.6-litre motor the all-new power plant.

The shift from C to B-segment cars meant Ford switched from the Focus to its Fiesta, while Citroen left behind the C4 in favour of the DS 3. The emphasis of the change was on making the cars competing in the WRC even more relevant to the general public, while also cutting costs associated with competition.

Part of the budget reduction came from the loss of exotic materials such as titanium and magnesium in the chassis build and a significant alteration in transmission technology. Gone were three all-active differentials in favour of a mechanical front and rear diff and nothing in the centre.

Paddle shifts were also dropped with a return to a six-speed sequential on a lever (the paddle was restored in 2015 – but then dropped again for this season).

The 1600cc World Rally Cars were instantly more entertaining to watch and it wouldn’t be long before they were eclipsing the pre-2011 stage times, despite a 33mm restrictor trimming power output.

New teams joined in 2011, with ex-Formula 1 champion Kimi Räikkönen switching from Citroën’s Junior squad to his own Ice1 Racing outfit with a DS 3.

Later in the season Rally Italia Sardegna delivered more good news with the debut of Mini’s John Cooper Works WRC. Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke would drive the factory cars, with the Spaniard managing podiums in both France and Germany in its debut season.

Sharing the Sardinian spotlight was Volkswagen Motorsport. While the Prodrive Minis were up and running, the Italian island event was where the German car giant confirmed its plans for the Polo R WRC. The Hanover squad would make its debut at the sport’s highest level in 2013, after a season learning the ropes in a Škoda Fabia S2000.

The big question was: who would jump ship? Which drivers would take a gamble on Volkswagen?

Dani Sordo bagged a podium for the Mini John Cooper works in France in 2011. Photo: McKlein

Citroën’s dream team turns sour
After winning the 2008 Junior WRC, Ogier was fast-tracked through Citroën Racing’s ranks and won a WRC round for the first time in Portugal in 2010. It came as no surprise to see him usurp Loeb’s long-time team-mate, Dani Sordo, in the factory squad for a handful of outings later that season.

In 2011, he was installed full-time alongside Loeb. Citroën’s dream team was complete. A French car and two of the world’s best drivers pedalling the DS 3 WRCs was the plan parfait at the top of the decade’s second season.

It’s fair to say it didn’t quite play out the way the Parisian paymasters might have hoped. Loeb and Ogier soon developed a rivalry which would end with the younger of the two Sébs departing at the end of the season.

Having enjoyed the services of an entirely understanding and obliging team-mate in Sordo for a number of years, Ogier’s determination to reach the top of the tree immediately caught Loeb by surprise.

Rallye Deutschland delivered a particularly public spat and when Citroën’s top brass came out on Loeb’s side – describing his symbiotic relationship as the rallying equivalent to Paris and its Eiffel Tower – the writing was on the wall for Ogier.

After a Loeb whitewash in 2010, the title fight went down to the wire in 2011. Going into the penultimate round, Loeb and Hirvonen were neck and neck, but victory for the Frenchman in Catalunya was enough to put him ahead with Rally GB remaining. When the engine on the Finn’s Ford let go in Dyfi, another crown was lost.

Frustratingly for Hirvonen, Loeb also retired later in the event after a road accident with a spectator on a liaison section. The atmosphere at Rally GB was an odd one. Loeb had won, but lost. Citroën had won, but lost.

Despite Ogier’s departure, there had still been highlights through 2011 – his Jordan Rally victory over Latvala by 0.2sec the most memorable. But the man from Gap had made his mind up. He was bound for Volkswagen Motorsport via a development season in a Škoda.

Loeb signed off from his full-time WRC commitments with Citroën with an absolute belter of a year, dominating 2012 and winning nine of the 13 rallies.

Ogier's Jordan victory in 2011 remains the closest finish in WRC history. Photo: McKlein

Volkswagen delivers
Jost Capito stood utterly defiant.

“We just don’t know,” he insisted. “How can we know? Yes, we are well prepared, but how can we know where we will be until we start the first rally?”

And actually, Capito genuinely didn’t know. There was something of a eureka moment with the Polo R WRC late in 2012 testing which had given the car a new direction and a fresh edge – but would this be enough to give it a genuine edge.

Latvala had departed M-Sport’s Ford bound for Volkswagen with Andreas Mikkelsen driving a third car on six of 13 rounds.

Ogier gave the Polo the perfect start with an SS1 scratch and an early Monte lead, but the top of 2013 had a familiar ring to it as Loeb won Rallye Monte-Carlo on one of four outings in his part-time Citroën season.

From then on, however, and for the following three seasons, the story was written by one man, one team and one machine: Ogier, Volkswagen and the Polo.

He did precisely what Loeb had done at Citroën, taking the team on and making it his own. He dominated Latvala to the point that the Finn didn’t know which way was up at times in 2016.

Four straight championships and a remarkable win rate – he started 2013 with seven victories and closed his Volkswagen account on 38. Across the four years, he won 60 per cent of the WRC rounds he started in a Polo.

WRC at 50: 2000s

WRC at 50: 2000s

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Put short, Ogier was as untouchable at the height of his Polo power as Loeb was with the Xsara in the early-to-mid noughties.

And there was no sign of that domination diminishing in 2017 as the WRC’s best resourced and financed team for a generation romped towards rule change and an all-new Polo WRC supercar.

Technical director Francois-Xavier Demaison had plenty of tricks up his sleeve for the new car and the expectation was of the fastest rally car in the sport’s history coming out of Hanover.

What happened next rocked the service park to its core. A change of policy within the Volkswagen Group meant the WRC programme was axed. And that all-singing, all-dancing Polo R WRC 2017 would remain forever beneath a dust sheet in a corner of Volkswagen Motorsport’s factory.

Hyundai Motorsport joined the WRC for a second stint in 2014 and – like all of Volkswagen’s WRC rivals – spent the rest of the homologation cycle in the shadow of the German giant. That’s not to say the Koreans didn’t celebrate plenty of success, they did. And quickly too.

Thierry Neuville’s win in Germany in the i20 WRC’s maiden season was one of the stories of the decade as the Belgian recovered from rolling through the vineyards and all-but destroying his car on Thursday, only for the team to rebuild it in time for him to win on Sunday. An unforgettable result in Trier.

As Neuville appeared to struggle for focus into 2015, Kiwi Hayden Paddon stepped forward to lead the team. His victory over Ogier at the 2016 Rally Argentina was a seminal moment for the New Zealander. At the very top of his game, he’d beaten the best driver of a generation.

A couple of tough results followed and Paddon’s star faded to the point that, when Loeb returned to a part-programme with Hyundai in 2019, it came at the cost of Hayden’s seat.

In all its guises the i20 was an entirely competent car, but 2017 was reckoned to be the big moment for the Frankfurt-based team.

Volkswagen bowed out after Andreas Mikkelsen's Australia victory in 2016

THe fastest generation ever
The 2017 season demonstrated the WRC at its very best. The 1600cc engine was retained, but feeding the turbos more air via a restrictor lifted from 33 to 36mm would ramp power outputs towards 400bhp. Add in a 25kg weight loss and bigger, better and more effective aerodynamics than ever before and you got rallying’s absolute rockets.

These cars captured the public’s imagination in a way not seen since the heady, but entirely unsustainable days of Group B. And the competition totally lived up to the machinery, with seven different drivers (Ogier, Latvala, Neuville, Ott Tänak, Meeke, Elfyn Evans and Esapekka Lappi), winning rallies in 2017 and Ogier, Neuville and Tänak heading into the 2018 Australian finale with a shot at the title.

Volkswagen’s departure had left its drivers scrambling for seats, with Ogier going for two years and two titles with M-Sport Ford, while Latvala landed the last berth at the returning force that was Toyota.

Citroën was also back and winning with Briton Meeke through 17/18, but the chevroned marque came up with a surprise for 2019, when Ogier returned to drive the C3 WRC. For the second time, the reality didn’t quite match the expectation and the Gap star was beaten to the title for the first time since 2012 as Tänak secured a magnificent win in his Toyota Yaris.

The Estonian followed his victory speech with a resignation from Toyota; the champion would take his number one status to Hyundai for 2020.

Tänak’s move allowed Ogier to slide into his Yaris seat, from where the Frenchman returned to winning ways in the Covid-impacted 2020 and 2021 seasons.

While the 2017 generation of cars were undoubtedly the fastest and most spectacular ever – with aero advances and transmission tweaks raising corner speeds to astonishing levels by the end of 2021 – the need to engage in a more sustainable future was at the forefront of everybody’s minds as 2022 came into view.

Ott Tänak, pictured in Chile, interrupted Ogier's title run in 2019

2022 – leading motorsport into the future
If you thought 2017 World Rally Cars were a big step forwards, they had nothing on the all-new Rally1 category which arrived this season.

Hybrid technology had arrived in the WRC, with world rallying’s premier class now able to run under full electric power around the service park and on certain liaison sections.

As well as providing silent, environmentally friendly progress between the stages, the hybrid system also offers a 130bhp power boost providing the driver regenerates power into the battery. Stacking that EV ingenuity to the back of the already rapid 2021 engines means more than 500bhp when Rally1 cars are running at full bore.

And it’s not just under the skin that the cars have undergone a radical overhaul, it’s the skin itself that’s changed too. Gone are production-based shells, replaced by spaceframe, tubular chassis – the cars are now constructed around an FIA-researched and produced safety cell.

The immediate feeling from the crews is of sitting in the safest working environment ever.

Beyond the cars, the WRC has also become the first FIA World Championship to run its field on 100 per cent sustainable fuel. Series partner and supplier P1 produced a fossil-free hydrocarbon-based fuel with a blend of synthetic and bio-fuel components.

Rally1 has set the course to become not only the fastest, but, crucially, the cleanest cars in championship history.

Video: Welcome to the hybrid era

Aside from the cars, the 2022 season brought big change in terms of drivers, with Ogier confirming his retirement from a full-time programme at the end of 2021. The Frenchman remains with Toyota this year, but he’s sharing a Yaris GR with Lappi through the season.

And Loeb’s back. And back with one heck of a bang, a bang like winning the season-opening Rallye Monte-Carlo on his first outing with M-Sport Ford’s Puma Rally1 and new co-driver Isabelle Galmiche.

So, on the face of it, little has changed down the last 13 years. Loeb was winning in 2010 and he’s still winning today. But actually, everything has changed. The cars and the sport are cleaner, safer and faster than ever.

And here’s another big change… unless Adrien Fourmaux finds a stunning turn of speed in the next 11 rallies, the WRC will be won by a non-Frenchman for only the second time in almost 20 years.

And the man in the box seat right now is Toyota’s 21-year-old Kalle Rovanperä. Harri’s son leads the second generation and in some style. He became the WRC’s youngest rally winner in Estonia in 2021 at the age of 20 years and 289 days, snatching the record from team boss Latvala. Petter Solberg’s boy, Oliver, is in the ring alongside him driving an i20.

One thing is for sure as the WRC powers into its 50th year: it’s never been in better health or had such a sustainable future.

Loeb - who else - was fastest out of the blocks in the new hybrid era to win the 2022 Rallye Monte-Carlo

The Experts' View

We enlisted the help of six WRC experts, whose knowledge of the sport’s history is encyclopaedic, to tell us their Greatest Moments from the 2010s and 2020s – and what a wonderfully wide range of views we received.

Record-breaking performances from both ends of the age spectrum feature strongly in their golden memories.

Kalle Rovanperä created history when he won in Estonia in 2021, deposing Jari-Matti Latvala as the WRC’s youngest event winner. Latvala himself and Michel Lizin highlighted the Finn’s achievement.

Sébastien Loeb, in his fourth decade of competition, continued to set benchmarks. Latvala, Lizin and Julian Porter picked out his 2022 Monte-Carlo win in a Ford Puma for praise – the first event of the championship’s new Rally1 hybrid era.

The Frenchman became the oldest rally winner at 47 when he claimed his 80th victory in the French Alps after a fierce fight with Sébastien Ogier. In so doing, co-driver Isabelle Galmiche became the first woman to win since 1997.

The championship’s second visit to Jordan in 2011 produced a thrilling finale. Porter recalls Ogier’s nail-biting win over Latvala by 0.2sec, which remains the closest ever finish.

Hayden Paddon's stunning 2016 Argentina triumph proved popular across the service park

Ten rallies were decided by less than four seconds in this period and Marco Giordo picks out two more. Thierry Neuville’s electrifying drive through Rally Italia Sardegna’s Power Stage in 2018 to overhaul Ogier by 0.7sec and Latvala’s 3.6sec Finland success over Ogier in 2014 top his major moments.

On the topic of records, Porter spotlights Rally Finland in 2016 when Kris Meeke took a memorable victory on the rollercoaster forest roads at an average of 126.62kph. It remains the fastest WRC round ever.

It wasn’t a record but Hayden Paddon and John Kennard’s stunning drive through the iconic El Condor in Argentina in 2016 remains with Reiner Kuhn and David Evans. A charging Ogier was hot on the Kiwi’s heels, but Paddon blitzed the rocky test to claim what Kuhn believes was ‘one of the most deserved wins in 50 years of the WRC’.

When Loeb’s run of nine consecutive titles came to a halt, his mantle was taken up by Ogier, who claimed the first of eight successes at Rallye de France in 2013. Evans recalls the Volkswagen Polo pilot securing the crown on the opening night when the Power Stage unusually launched the event.

Ogier was part of a remarkable afternoon in Britain in 2017 on a day M-Sport Ford will never forget. Evans remembers how, in a matter of minutes, Ott Tänak blasted through the finish of the final stage to deliver the manufacturers’ title, Ogier secured the squad’s first drivers’ crown and then Elfyn Evans completed a stunning treble by winning his first rally.

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