A spectacular new era begins for world rallying
A NEW ERA
Twenty-five years after their introduction, World Rally Cars were superseded for 2022 with the debut of the revolutionary Rally1 rules. Teams built up new cars from scratch around tubular spaceframe chassis, with the addition of hybrid technology for the first time and a new fully sustainable fuel to power the existing combustion engines.
Drivers had plenty to get to grips with too, including simplified aerodynamics and transmissions, as well as the extra power under their right foot provided by the hybrid unit. They could however count on their Pirelli tyres, the Italian company modifying its range for gravel, asphalt and snow to handle the different demands of the new cars.
For all that was new, arriving in Monte Carlo for the start of the season, there was something very familiar about round one. And we're not just talking about the start ramp in Casino Square or the iconic stages that surround the principality.
SEARCH FOR A NEW CHAMPION
Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier – the two most successful drivers in WRC history – delighted fans with an epic battle for Monte victory on the roads they have made their own over the last two decades. Loeb won out narrowly in the final stage for his 80th career win, and first blood in the Rally1 era to M-Sport and its new Ford Puma.
Both Frenchmen would continue to star on selected appearances over the rest of the year, with Ogier achieving his 55th win in Spain. But with neither contesting the full season, the door was open for a new name to stamp their authority on the championship, just as those illustrious Frenchmen had done before.
Step forward, Kalle Rovanpera. The young Finn made a low-key start to the new era, languishing in 12th overall after the two opening-night stages above Monaco. But his fightback to fourth place, with three stage wins along the way, would mark the beginning of an incredible run of form.
STAKING A CLAIM
On paper, the next three rallies – three completely different challenges on three different surfaces – provided a headache for the teams and drivers as they tried to master the new formula. But not for Rovanpera and Toyota, who took three wins on the trot. While his triumph on the snow of Sweden was straightforward and not unexpected, the way he snatched victory on the final stage on wet roads in Croatia and won on the gravel of Portugal from first on the road was seriously impressive for a driver so young.
With further victories in Kenya – where he led a Toyota 1-2-3-4 on the infamous and arduous Safari Rally – and Estonia, Rovanpera had claimed five victories in seven events and appeared to already have one hand on the championship trophy before the end of July.
Among the three Rally1 manufacturers, it was Hyundai that experienced the toughest start to the season, but the team would stage a strong comeback to enjoy its most successful campaign in the WRC in terms of rally wins, with five.
Leading its charge was Ott Tanak, who scored a first victory in the heat of Sardinia in June, but it was his fearless drive to win the fastest rally of them all in Finland in August – ahead of the home hero Rovanpera – that truly stood out. A further win next time out on the tricky roads of Belgium helped Tanak close the gap to Rovanpera (who crashed heavily), as did second place to team-mate Thierry Neuville on the legendary Acropolis Rally in Greece.
Rovanpera experienced a small stumble by finishing outside of the points on two consecutive events, but would bounce back in style when the WRC travelled to New Zealand for the first time in a decade.
CROWNING KING KALLE
He found the smooth, cambered roads to be to his liking and not for the first time, excelled in changeable weather conditions and grip levels. With his sixth win of the season and the top time in the rally-ending power stage, he clinched his maiden championship title the day after his 21st birthday. He was more than five years younger than the previous youngest WRC champion, Colin McRae, when he won the crown with Subaru and Pirelli back in 1995.
Toyota went on to secure the manufacturers' championship in Spain, where Ogier took the seventh win of the year for the GR Yaris. The season ended with a return to Japan for the first time since 2010, where Hyundai upset the Toyota homecoming with a one-two finish for Neuville and Tanak on demanding asphalt roads.
While the record-breaking Rovanpera made rallying's new era look easy at times in 2022, we could have the prospect of an even closer 2023 season, especially with Tanak returning to the M-Sport Ford team to potentially ensure a three-way fight for glory between the manufacturers. The cars may be different, but the tyres are the same for everyone.