The Monte Carlo Rally from the sidelines
The Monte Carlo Rally saw the return of a factory-backed Citroen team… and all-new cars which revealed themselves to have been hastily developed.
THE MONTE CARLO RALLY, the World Championship’s season opener, told us almost nothing about who’ll be the front-running crews this year. But it sure was fascinating being there to watch it unfold.
This years’ cars are a whole new level of intensity from last year’s. They have more power at about 280kW, clever centre diffs, broader tracks covered by cartoon-width arches and a whole new realm of aerodynamic downforce. New too for this year are two more factory teams.
The sport famously lost Volkswagen at the end of last year. But Toyota is here now. Citroen, which supported in a semi-detached way a team last season, has stepped fully up to works status again.
Hyundai is the only top-level works team to carry on from 2016. The M-Sport team, running Ford Fiestas, is still here too. Anyway, each of the four squads had to build all-new cars for the new rules and no-one knew who’d made the best job of it.
None of these cars’ drivers looked fully at ease on at least the first day of the rally. Not even multiple world champion and Monte winner Sebastien Ogier. He’d only recently signed for M-Sport following VW’s departure, and was badly spooked by the Fiesta’s setup on the early stages.
Last year’s cars, ostensibly slower but more fully developed and clearly easier to drive, were snapping at the 2017 cars’ heels over the tighter slower stages.
But even absent all these changes, the Monte’s surfaces and weather always make this rally a game of chance. This year even more so.
It wasn’t one of those persistently snowy times for which it’s best known. But it wasn’t all dry either. A clean asphalt road would turn to black ice to snow and back again, often during a single corner. And there are 10,000-odd corners in the event. Tyre choice is always critical on the Monte, and always it’s a throw of the dice. This year it was a total lottery.
Spectating on the Monte takes endurance. But you’re surrounded by friendly souls. The feral atmosphere of Mount Panorama at night, or the dark heart of Tuff Street in the Summernats, is notably absent. The Monte Carlo is run almost entirely through the southern French Alps. It’s not just thoroughgoing rally fans who come either. It’s for local families.
Before the roads are closed for competition, people come from their little villages and farms, wrapped warm like Michelin men and women with their Michelin children. They dig themselves in where they find a good view of a stage. Time to gather wood for a fire, break out the baguettes and local cheese, a bottle or two of red. And there they sit, for as long as it takes.
And this is the reason Citroen, Ford, Hyundai and Toyota are here. Rallying keeps it real. I ask Linda Jackson, Citroen’s CEO, why she signed up to spend all this money. “Rallying is in line with Citroen’s position, as it’s not an elitist sport.” Which applies as much to Hyundai, Ford and Toyota. They’re all mass-market brands. Jackson goes on, “Rallying shows we can do endurance and quality. That has a link with road cars. And we’re launching the new C3 so it made absolute sense to rally it.”
Rallying has a big voice too. Jackson says, “Rallying is the number two motorsport globally for popularity.” Motorsport money is hard to justify, and in the past it’s often seemed like car companies enter a category just because the boss fancies it. But Jackson isn’t a sport enthusiast – nor indeed a petrolhead at all – so entering WRC was a pragmatic decision. “These days you can measure the coverage, and the online activity. You can’t directly measure sales as a consequence, but yes you can put a value on the coverage.”
So what exactly is the cost? Citroen is part of the PSA Group along with Peugeot and DS. PSA’s CEO Carlos Tavares was also at the rally. I asked him to name the cost. He wouldn’t exactly, but did say it’s good value at about one-tenth the budget of a Formula One team.
Seeing the world champion in a new car and new team left loads of questions before the start. After VW closed down, Ogier had spoken to both M-Sport and Citroen.
Tavares says he wasn’t signed to Citroen because the team is loyal to its drivers. “It’s great that both he and Loeb were young drivers at Citroen. So, with due humility, I say we contributed to his development. Bust when VW pulled out, we’d already committed to our drivers, Meek, Lefebvre and Breen. We are committed people. That’s our ethics. Our relationship with Ogier is great. I congratulate him on his titles, and one day he might be back.”
Also, Citroen had been developing the C3 WRC for more than a year, with Kris Meeke, a trained engineer, as a vital part of that process. To a substantial degree the car was built around him.
Plus Ogier would have been an expensive signing for Citroen. He certainly was for M-Sport. “He was a very tough negotiator,” says Wilson.
But, as it turned out, well worth it. Ogier won.
It was tense though. He struggled with the setup on the first day, saying he couldn’t predict what the car would do in tight hairpins. He went off a couple of times, once into a ditch and later across a field, but in both cases he was soon away again, undamaged.
His rivals weren’t so lucky. For most of the rally, Thierry Neuville led in a Hyundai i20 Coupe, but he crashed and damaged his suspension late on the third of the four days. Fixing that mid-stage cost him time, handing the lead to Ogier and dropping him to 15th.
Team-mate Dani Sordo also lost time on the same stage with power steering failure. But he still finished fourth overall.
The true tragedy was with the third Hyundai. On the very first stage, Haydon Paddon hit black ice and rolled. Paddon and his co-driver were unhurt, but a spectator was killed.
Citroen had lousy luck, but not in the human sense. Lead driver Meeke had a crash early on. He blamed himself for misreading the hard-to-read surface, a patch of ice with a light snow covering. Back in the event on the second day, he started making decent times, but then early on day three stopped with a misfire. Moving once again, he was hit by a public vehicle on a transport stage so missed day four entirely.
Still, team-mate Lefebvre did at last set a fastest time near the end, up the celebrated hairpins of the Col de Turini.
Toyota’s team leader, rally legend Tommi Mäkinen, was talking down their chances before the event, calling 2017 a development year. But Jari-Matti Latvala smoothly drove to second place. The Yarises, developed with Makinen’s driver input, are without doubt the strangest-looking of the 2017 cars. Their meek supermini bodywork is crazily extended with manga spoiler-work at pretty well every surface. The noise is something too, their anti-lag fireworks turned up well beyond 11.
The two other M-Sport Fiestas did well. At one point Ott Tanak was second, until late in the event he had a misfire and dropped to third.
By the end of the event, all the teams could find something consoling to say, with stage wins and purple patches shared among the cars, if not shared equally. Anyway all had reasons to be cautious about whether those high points really mean anything long-term.
It’s pretty clear though that rallying is going to be closer this year than for ages, as well as more spectacular.