The build-up and fever pitch expectation is almost over as next week’s Rallye Monte-Carlo (19 - 22 January) heralds the start of one of the most keenly-anticipated FIA World Rally Championship seasons in memory.
Dynamic new-look World Rally Cars will echo through the mountains of the French Alps as four of the world’s biggest automotive manufacturers begin the fight for supremacy in motorsport’s toughest championship for production-based cars.
The 13-round series spans four continents in an 11-month global tour, encompassing extreme temperatures that can reach a scorching 35°C in Sardinia and plunge to a bone-chilling -25°C in the harsh Swedish winter.
Much is new for 2017, and WRC Promoter managing director Oliver Ciesla believes the powerful and aggressive cars, developed from a blank sheet of paper to upgraded regulations, will be the stars of the show.
“Our fans are going to love the 2017 WRC! Footage from pre-season testing shows just how exciting these new cars are. A more macho appearance and increased performance will bring smiles to fans’ faces, whether they are watching stage side or on television,” he said.
“There’s a hugely positive feeling throughout the WRC family as we head into the season. The series boasts big names from the automotive industry, and it’s a compliment to the championship’s development that they have chosen to showcase their cars in an environment that offers global visibility from January to November.
“What is so great is the feeling of unpredictability about 2017 because nobody knows which teams, which cars or which drivers will shine. New rules, such as the start order and revised Power Stage points, have been put in place to ensure down-to-the-wire competition and I’m sure we will see many thrilling battles,” he said.
Toyota, the world’s biggest selling car manufacturer, returns to the WRC after a 17-year absence. The Japanese giant is joined by multiple champion Citroën, which is back after a year’s sabbatical. Ford, in the guise of the British M-Sport team, and Hyundai, runners-up in both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ series in 2016, complete a stellar line-up.
Aggressive, loud and moody – they are the new lightweight World Rally Cars that will battle for tenths of a second on dirt, asphalt, snow and ice.
They are bigger everywhere with larger bumpers at the front and rear and extended door sills which increase the width and provide increased safety. Larger aero devices, and more of them, including a huge spoiler and diffuser at the rear and a front splitter add to the ‘bulldog’ look.
Beneath the bonnet a wider restrictor on the turbocharger increases power from the 1600cc direct injection engine to 380PS. Electronic trickery in the form of an active central differential gives drivers a helping hand in balancing their cars.
The biggest news of the short end-of-year break was the decision of four-time world champion Sébastien Ogier to sign for M-Sport, for whom he will carry #1 on the doors of his Fiesta WRC. The Frenchman is joined by rising star Ott Tänak and Elfyn Evans.
Toyota has opted for an all-Finnish line-up of Jari-Matti Latvala, Juho Hänninen and Esapekka Lappi, while Citroën has chosen the youth of Craig Breen and Stéphane Lefebvre to join lead driver Kris Meeke.
There are no changes at Hyundai which has kept faith with its strong 2016 squad of Thierry Neuville, Hayden Paddon and Dani Sordo.
The championship comprises the same 13 demanding rounds as in 2016, but the order has been given a reshuffle. Corsica moves forward from September to April to provide a better balance of gravel and asphalt rounds. Monte-Carlo opens the season and Australia provides the finale.
Two rallies have changed their structure. Rally Sweden will operate around a central location at Torsby, while ADAC Rallye Deutschland has a new base at Bostalsee in northern Saarland.
The 2017 WRC will generate more TV content than ever. Over 12,000 hours were broadcast globally in 2016 to a cumulative audience of over 700 million people and this season offers even more for fans.
The Sunday lunchtime rally-ending Power Stage programme, now established as a firm fixture across all rounds, will increase from 60 to 90 minutes. It will feature more interviews, extended coverage of the podium ceremony and reaction to the final result from the service park.
Also new for this year is another regular live stage on Saturday afternoons.
Long-term broadcast partners across the globe have renewed rights deals, eager to relay the news and action from one of the most unpredictable seasons for years. A blend of free and pay TV offers exposure to fans in more than 150 countries.
An updated version of official championship website wrc.com has been launched this week. It offers quicker access to major news stories and video content from the landing page, as well as an easier menu bar from which to locate other key sections.
There is also one-click entry to the popular WRC+ interactive digital service (www.wrcplus.com), which this year offers extended broadcasts from live stages, on-demand highlights programmes, live maps, exclusive onboard videos and much more.
A Japanese language version of wrc.com has been launched by broadcaster J SPORTS. The site will deliver the latest news during a rally, as well as key information including the itinerary, stage times and overall results.
Fans in Japan will be automatically redirected to their own language version when they open www.wrc.com. Outside Japan, it is available at www.jsports.co.jp/motor/wrc/.
eSports WRC Championship
After an inaugural season which ended in a thrilling finale in Britain, the eSports WRC Championship returns for a second year.
Thousands of players chased the title throughout 2016 on the official video game of the FIA World Rally Championship, as the competition ran in parallel to the real-life WRC calendar.
Entries are open for the 2017 eSports WRC Championship, based on the WRC 6 game. Players will accumulate points over the 13 rounds and the best eight will face off in a live final, hoping to succeed 2016 champion aTTaX Johnson. The first round takes place during Rallye Monte-Carlo.
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