The 2021 World Rally Championship has got off to a complicated start even before the first stage of the Monte Carlo Rally. Rally Sweden is gone, replaced by the Arctic Rally: an event so good they’re having it twice (the first one took place last weekend, with Finland’s Valtteri Bottas among the stars).
Rally GB (which was actually due to take place in Northern Ireland in August, upsetting geographical pedants worldwide) is being replaced by Ypres in Belgium. Finally, the Monte Carlo Rally, which was hanging in the balance until the very last minute, has been neutered to become the shortest ever, thanks to French curfew laws that mean everything has to finish by 6pm.
The backdrop to all this was Covid-19, but the pandemic is also responsible for ensuring that Sébastien Ogier continues his career as reigning champion, rather than walking away at the end of 2020 as planned. Last year was an unusual and muted season, he reasoned, and he wants to end his career on a high after a more normal year. Let’s hope he gets his wish.
Whether or not the Frenchman begins his final season as championship favourite, having claimed seven titles already, is a moot point. His team-mate Elfyn Evans headed into the final round of 2020, unusually at Monza, with a 14-point advantage – before a small mistake had big consequences. But it was probably Evans who had the more consistent season, despite driving something other than a Ford for the first time in his top-flight WRC career.
It’s not just Ogier’s swansong this year but also that of the current-generation World Rally cars, which will be replaced in 2022 with a more open hybridised formula: designed to keep costs down and encourage more manufacturers into the sport.
It’s once more Toyota versus Hyundai this season, because while M-Sport stays on with the Fiesta WRC, its chances have taken a blow with the departure of lead driver Esapekka Lappi – leaving the British squad to rely on the relatively unproven combination of Teemu Suninen and Gus Greensmith.
Hyundai is aiming for its third straight manufacturers’ title. Like Toyota, the Korean firm’s driver line-up is largely unchanged from the end of last year – having dispensed with the services of Sébastien Loeb – but it’s all change on the co-driver front. Just before Monte, Thierry Neuville split with Nicolas Gilsoul, while Dani Sordo announced that Monte would be his last rally together with Carlos del Barrio.