The World Rally Championship (WRC) stands at a crossroads and 2017 could be a make or break season. During the heady heights of the 80s and 90s, world rallying regularly made headline news and drivers were household names. Over the last decade or so, the sport has appeared a bit rudderless, suffering from debacles like the former promoter going into administration and a team exodus. Rallying just wasn’t interesting or relevant enough for manufacturers to back the series. In an effort to reinvigorate the championship, the FIA have sanctioned the biggest rule shake-up since the death of Group B.
Even the most ardent world rally fan will admit that the series has been in the doldrums for a prolonged period of time. When Petter Solberg snatched the driver’s title in 2003, in a final round showdown, rallying appeared to be in a very healthy state. Seven fully-supported manufacturer teams fielded at least 16 drivers in each round, a third of whom would have had serious championship ambitions. World Rally Cars would have made up at least 20 of the entries.
However, 2003 appears to have been somewhat of a high water mark. In fact, the incredible ascendancy of the two Sebastians, Loeb and Ogier, has created a period of persistent domination that has almost strangled the life out of the championship. In nine consecutive years, Loeb and Citroen won everything that could be won. Even a broken arm and a team hiatus couldn’t stop Loeb racking up the world titles.
When Loeb left the podium, his onetime protégé, Sebastian Ogier exerted his own vice-like grip over the world’s stages, aided by the big spending and all-conquering Volkswagen team. For too long, the WRC has had an air of inevitability about it – no matter what happens, a French bloke called Sebastian always wins.
The championship was ripe for a proper overhaul and the new regulations have attracted a returning manufacturer in the shape of Toyota and also have the potential to level the playing field for all teams. The dramatic rule changes have been designed to make rallying more visually and aurally appealing to spectators, TV cameras and commercial sponsors. The cars will be wider, more powerful and louder.
The next generation cars will retain the same familiar layout -1.6 turbocharged engines coupled to a four-wheel drive layout. However, there is one small, but fundamental change. The inlet restrictor on the turbo will increase from 33mm to 36mm. The net result is a 20% increase in air flow, which boosts power output to 380bhp. Patrick Davesne, Engine Manager with Citroen Racing recently told the FIA:
“With the new restrictor, we have more power at higher revs. If the stage is quick, like in Finland, they [the drivers]said it’s an evolution but not a revolution.
On tricky roads, the increase of the power creates greater acceleration and the feeling of the drivers is ‘wow, it’s another world’.”
Engineers have been afforded much more freedom over the aerodynamics and shape of the car. The FIA has extended the “free zone” around the body shell, which means cars will be much wider than current iterations and teams can run bigger front and rear wings. Electronically operated centre differentials also make a comeback.
All four manufacturers have unveiled their 2017 WRC cars. YouTube is awash with videos of teams in pre-season testing. The cars are incredibly wide and purposeful, especially in super-low tarmac trim. The silhouettes are dominated by big overhangs, multiple wings and massive cheese grater style diffusers. The FIA have already managed to achieve one objective. No-one can argue that the cars aren’t spectacular.
“Seeing one of these cars in action will really set the heart racing and that’s exactly what was intended.” says Rally Director, Jarmo Mahonen.
There is simply no comparison to the current breed of bewinged rally machines. Imagine a swarm of batmobiles crossed with stealth bombers and you’re not far away. The inevitable Group B comparisons have been made and it’s not hard to understand why.
Despite the increased engine performance, it looks like the aerodynamic developments will be the key to success. The limits on boost pressure will place boundaries on what can be achieved with engine outputs. Whereas the new found freedom to shape the front and rear of the car, pretty much as teams see fit, mean that big gains could be made with every wing redesign or tweak in the wind tunnel.
Everything hinges on the cars being much more dramatic and the competition being much closer. As fans, we want the cars to break traction, move around and powerslide at will, rather than stick rigidly to the road. My own fear is that the bigger aero along with the return of active diffs will tame any power increases. Over to Ogier:
“As a racing driver, you are always looking for more performance. I think the larger wing and new aerodynamics will give the car a bit more downforce, more grip and more speed going into the corners.”
Ah, more grip. Darn it. Higher corner speed, though. That could be very interesting indeed.
Other subtle changes approved by the FIA include the ability to nominate three cars to score points for the Manufacturer’s Championship; the best two finishers will determine the points scored. Finally, teams have a reason to enter a proper three car team again. So we will see an additional “works” car on the stages from Citroen and Toyota which otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
The days of Privateer teams are numbered, though. Only drivers entered by Manufacturers are eligible to drive 2017 World Rally Cars, with the approval of the FIA. The message is clear: next-gen WRC cars are for elite drivers only.
So will this new breed of car be enough to bring back the glory days? Only time will tell. The biggest problem with the Championship in recent years was the lack of competition, not necessarily the machinery. We need closer finishes and powerstages that decide rallies, rather than 3-minute leads and podium lock-outs. The current team set-up also creates another level of elitism than is even harder for young drivers to break into. If Andreas Mikkelsen can’t secure a 2017 WRC seat, what hope for those toiling away in JWRC and WRC2?
To the FIA’s credit, the R5 category has been a roaring success, revitalising regional championships and making WRC2 a tough and fiercely contested battleground. Crucially, the cars are designed to be cost effective to buy and run. Maybe if R5 replaced the top-level class, it would have been viewed as a retrograde step, but it would have given talented national championship drivers a fighting chance to shine on the world stage. No need for a new car, no need to try and elbow your way to a seat at that top table. Just take your current ride, enter a WRC round and try and beat them at their own game.
Change is welcome, change is good and change in world rallying is long overdue. When the new season begins in Monte Carlo in just over a month’s time, there is much to be excited about. Not least, the prospect of seeing local heroes Kris Meeke and Craig Breen taking to the stages in the Citroen World Rally Team. The new cars need to put on a show like no other motorsport can. But moreover, we need mammoth fights throughout the top order and rallying that goes right to the wire and