Rally season hits the road hoping for fewer potholes

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Toyota Yaris WRT’s French rally driver Sebastien Ogier and French co-driver Julien Ingrassia compete in the third stage of the FIA World Rally Championship. AFP

Even before the World Rally Championships start in Monte Carlo on January 21 the organisers are again battling to keep their show on the road.

The heart was ripped out of last season by the coronavirus pandemic with only seven rallies raced instead of the planned 13.

Sebastien Ogier grabbed a seventh title by winning the final race at Monza, leaving Elfyn Evans, who had started the last weekend in the lead, the previous season’s champion Ott Tanak and Thierry Neuville, who crashed out of the final rally, with unfinished business.

Filling the slots for this season as the pandemic continues to rage is already proving a challenge. On January 18, the organisers confirmed the August dates for the inaugural Ypres Rally in Belgium. It replaces the UK leg of the championship which had been scheduled for Northern Ireland.

That takes the total for the season to 12 races, although the organisers have said they have several potential back-up sites ready in Turkey and Europe if they are forced to cancel races.

Last season, Tanak launched the championship in spectacular fashion along the snow-covered mountain roads behind Monaco. Approaching a hairpin, the Estonian slid off at high speed, cartwheeled through trees and somehow landed his wrecked car the right way up on the road beneath.

It wasn’t long before the entire championship followed Tanak into the trees and it took a while to get going again.

‘We need to succeed’

The troubles started with the annual rally on snow and ice in Sweden which was rerouted and curtailed because there was neither snow nor ice. A bigger pothole lay ahead.

The third event in Mexico was also cut short because even the rally cars could not outrun the global spread of Covid-19.

The pandemic forced a break until September and the organisers only managed to run four more races.

Evans, in a Toyota, entered the final round in Monza with a 14-point lead but finished 29th. Belgian Neuville, who could also have won his first title, crashed his Hyundai. Frenchman Ogier won in his Toyota to edge Evans by eight points.

Among other changes forced by Covid-19, the second race, the snow rally, has been moved from Sweden to Rovaniemi in Finland just south of the Arctic Circle.

Even before it arrives at the town the Finns claim is the home of Santa Claus, the championship will find plenty of snow around Monte Carlo.

Frenchman Ogier lamented the fact that fans will be banned.

“This year it will feel different to usual,” he said on the Toyota team site. “For me there has always been massive support, but even if they will not be there physically at the side of the road, I’m pretty sure my supporters will cheer from in front of the TV and I will try to make them happy.”

Although Hyundai won the manufacturers title last year, Belgian Neuville is still chasing his first title after finishing second four times.

“We have been close many times, now we need to succeed,” he told the WRC web site.

Neuville, 32, who won the opener last year said the formula was: “Push as hard as we can without making many mistakes. That’s the main thing in Monte Carlo especially as there seems to be a lot of snow this year.”