“Since becoming world champion I have never been able to defend the title and I will not rest until I have done it”. Thus, on the eve of the 91st Rallye Monte Carlo which kicks off this evening at 20.05, the Estonian driver Ott Tänak, who together with his compatriot Martin Järveoja, the navigator, had conquered the world title in the 2019 rally with Toyota and who for the three seasons later he raced for Hyundai. The Monegasque round opens the season and Tänak’s move to M-Sport, which competes with the plug-in Ford Pumas (the hybrids adopted for the premier class since last championship) is the most important news before the start of the World Rally Championship (WC). Malcom Wilson found an understanding with the Estonian, whose career in motorsport that matters had begun right at M-Sport, the team with which, in Sardinia, in 2017, he had won the first world rally.
Hyundai has instead hired a new team principal, the 45-year-old French Cyril Abiteboul who brings with him three decades of experience with important roles in motorsport, including Formula 1, both in Renault and in Caterham. Abiteboul essentially replaces the Italian Andrea Adamo, who left at the end of 2021.
In the premier class today at the start of the WRC (13 rounds, the sixth in Sardinia at the beginning of June, and the last on November 16 in Japan) there will be 10 cars: four Toyota GR Yaris, 3 Hyundai i20 N and 3 Ford Puma . The spotlights are focused on the outgoing champion, the youngest the rally has ever known, the 22-year-old Kalle Rovanperä, the latest scion of the generous Finnish school: 7 different world champions out of a total of 19. He is a driver who can write new pages of history because the numbers are on his side: the “cannibal”, Loeb, won 9 world championships in a row, but the first came at the age of 30.
“We know it won’t be easy to defend the title. We have seen that the level of competition is getting higher and higher and so we have to try to raise our level too and keep pushing hard,” summarized Rovanperä. His teammates will be Elfyn Evans and Takamoto Katsuta, but Sébastien Ogier will also be on the Côte d’Azur, the eight-time world champion who won the Rallye Monte Carlo with five different cars: Peugeot 207, Volkswagen Polo R, Ford Fiesta, Citroen C3 and Toyota Yaris.
Hyundai’s top driver remains Thierry Neuville, the Belgian under contract with the Korean team since 2014 who has been vice world champion five times and third in the overall standings twice. What he and the team lack is the drivers’ laurel: “I spoke to the crews – said Abiteboul – and they painted a clear picture of the insidious nature of this rally and what it takes to win”. In addition to Neuville, the Asian manufacturer is fielding the Spanish Dani Sordo and Esapekka Lappi. Apart from Tänak, M-Sport lines up the French Pierre Louis Loubet, who brings Nicolas Gilsoul, former navigator of Neuville, back to the WRC, and the almost 59-year-old Greek Jourdan Serderidis. Both Hyundai and the British team shop in Italy for the braking system, supplied almost entirely by Brembo: to the Korean team with the exception of pads and pedals, to the M-Sport with the sole exception of pads.
Between Rally2 and Rally4, there are more than a dozen Italian crews at the start: apart from the Skoda Fabia, they use French or German cars from the Stellantis group (Citroen C3, Opel Corsa and Peugeot 208). Alpine seeks glory in the GT class with only French drivers.
The first stage of the world championship is assigned after 18 trials for a total of 325 timed kilometres: the 15.12 km La Bollène-Vésubie / Col de Turini will be covered three times and constitutes both the first and also the last stage, the one which assigns the points of the Power Stage.