The FIA World Rally Championship’s all-new hybrid era gets under way this week on the Monte Carlo Rally’s slippery Alpine asphalt, beginning with a pair of tricky night stages today.
The headlining Rally1 cars combine a 100kW (130hp) energy-recovery system with a 1.6-liter, turbocharged engine as the WRC celebrates its 50th season with new regulations to move the championship toward a more sustainable future.
Energy regeneration from the plug-in hybrid system, a 100-percent hydrocarbon fossil-free fuel and sustainable energy supplies are central to the WRC’s commitment to a greener outlook.
The new cars are the most powerful WRC machines since the Group B days of the mid 1980s. Maximum available power will be more than 500hp, and the twisting, sometimes icy and snowy mountain roads in the French Alps will provide a challenging debut for the new Rally1 machines from M-Sport Ford, Hyundai and Toyota.
Adding to the season-opening storylines, two Monte masters — both French, and both named Sebastien — return to renew rivalries as the door opens on a new generation of WRC aces.
Sebastien Ogier, who clinched his eighth WRC crown last year before stepping back to a part-program, goes head-to-head with archrival Sebastien Loeb, whose nine WRC titles make him the sport’s most successful driver. Ogier has eight Monte victories compared to Loeb’s seven.
Ogier drives Toyota Gazoo Racing’s GR Yaris with new co-driver Benjamin Veillas.
“I’m at the beginning of a different stage in my career,” he said, “and as I’m not taking part in the full championship, the feeling is a little bit different to usual for me at this time of the year. But I’m still a competitor and I still want to win.”
“I know the team has been working very hard to be ready with this new generation of car and big steps have been made in every test. It’s quite a big change and it’s an exciting challenge to try and adapt to that. There’s more uncertainty than ever going into this rally.”
Loeb hopes to pounce in his first WRC drive in more than a year in M-Sport Ford’s Puma. He starts less than a week after finishing second on the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.
He’s partnered by co-driver Isabelle Galmiche, following the retirement of Daniel Elena, with whom Loeb has tackled every one of his previous 180 WRC starts.
“It’s a radical change of scenery after spending three weeks on the Dakar Rally,” quipped Loeb, who squeezed in a brief test at the start of the week. “For this rally, I will certainly be less prepared than the other drivers, but the feeling with the Puma Rally1 was immediately very good and everything just came together.”
In a taster of what might be to come over the next four days, Ogier’s Toyota edged Loeb’s Ford by just 0.5s to set fastest time on Thursday morning’s 1.42-mile shakedown test stage.
WRC manufacturers’ champions Toyota also field 2021 drivers’ title runner-up Elfyn Evans and Kalle Rovanpera. Takamoto Katsuta drives a fourth GR Yaris in Toyota’s development squad.
Loeb is joined at M-Sport Ford by new signing Craig Breen, Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith in a quartet of Pumas.
Hyundai Motorsport is fired up after a relatively disappointing 2021 campaign. Former world champion Ott Tanak, Thierry Neuville and youngster Oliver Solberg pilot its new i20 N Rally1 cars.
In WRC2, the second tier of international rallying, American pairing Sean Johnston and co-driver Alex Kihurani begin their sophomore campaign in a Sainteloc Junior Team-run Citroen C3. They’ll face stiff opposition from the likes of reigning WRC 2 champ Andreas Mikkelsen, Marco Bulacia and Nikolay Gryazin, all driving Skoda Fabia Evos.
Unpredictable mountain weather means competitors can encounter snow, ice and dry asphalt within a handful of miles. Cunning tire selection from Pirelli’s available options in such conditions is key, and while the forecast suggests this might not be a true winter Monte, nobody will be lulled into a false sense of security.
The rally starts in Monaco’s refurbished Casino Square on Thursday evening. Starting with tonight’s two special stages of a combined 23.9 miles, competitors will face 17 mountain stages covering 183.9 competitive miles, before Sunday afternoon’s finish in the Mediterranean principality.
Check out WRC.com, the official home of the FIA World Rally Championship. And for the ultimate WRC experience, sign up for a WRC+ subscription to watch all stages of every rally live and on demand, whenever and wherever.