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World Rally Championship: big show at Monte-Carlo

D. SAULNIER/DPPI

FThe fireworks and smoke bombs set the night ablaze in the Bayons Tourniquets, offering impressive scenes, enhanced by the enthusiasm of the public on the occasion of the first round of the world rally championship. Images of this sector located in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department have gone around the world. On the road, the spectacle was just as captivating. Belgian Thierry Neuville and Frenchman Sébastien Ogier fought for four days, until the last kilometer, for the final victory. The Tricolor was aiming for a tenth success in the most famous rally, but he had to lose by 16 seconds to the Hyundai driver, after 324 kilometers timed on small mountain roads. Neuville obtained his second success in the Principality, four years after the previous one, already acquired after a duel against Ogier.

“We don’t have the words, exclaimed Neuville.

It was expected to be an easy rally, without snow, but it turned out to be very difficult, with incredible and tricky conditions. The team did what was necessary for me to get this victory. The car ran great, I was 100% comfortable.” After a long embrace with his driver, the president of Hyundai Motorsport, Cyril Abiteboul, former director of Renault in Formula 1, showed his pride: “The Monte-Carlo is one of the icons of motorsport that we want to win. We live for these moments. It was a masterful lesson from A to Z. There are twelve rallies left this year, there is still a lot of work, but we have already done a lot of work.”

Partial participations

The world championship really needed a significant launch to emerge from the gloom in which it has been stuck for several months. The move to hybrid two years ago was a failure. Not only have costs increased for the manufacturers present (Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport Ford), but it has not attracted new brands. At Monte-Carlo, and as is often the case for the rest of the season, there were only eight cars in the premier Rally1 category. A field far too weak to excite the crowds and the media. In addition, the discipline suffered the partial withdrawal of its last two champions. For the third year, Sébastien Ogier, 40 years old, WRC legend with eight world titles, is carrying out a reduced program, which should include around eight participations out of thirteen rallies on the calendar. His successor, Kalle Rovanperä, titled in 2022 and 2023, decided to imitate him this year. “For the championship, it’s true that it’s not good news, recognizes Ogier. But I totally respect Kalle’s decision. He may only be 23 years old, but he has been flying since childhood. He mentally needed a break. He has many years ahead of him to return full-time and rack up wins and titles. For this 2024 season, it’s not fantastic to have a few part-time drivers and not many top cars at the start. We would have to find solutions, because I would like there to be more than eight of us at the start in Rally 1.”

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B. PENAS FERNANDEZ/NURPHOTO/AFP

V. HACHE/AFP

B. ROUX/DPPI

Absent from Monte-Carlo, Rovanperä will participate in the next rally, in Sweden, in place of Ogier. By not competing in all the races, their chances of winning the title are almost zero. The crown should therefore be disputed between their teammate at Toyota, Elfyn Evans, already three-time vice-champion, and the two Hyundai drivers entered full-time: Thierry Neuville, five-time vice-champion, and Ott Tänak, 2019 world champion, who returns to the Korean manufacturer after a one-season break at Ford. “Tänak has a better car this year, so he will clearly be back in the title fight, and Elfyn Evans has been for the last few years, Neuville advances. So we will be three drivers sharing the victories most of the time. But with Ogier and Rovanperä alternating, or sometimes both present at the same time, it is certain that they will take big points and that this will not be easy for us. ” The result of Monte-Carlo, with Neuville winning, Evans third and Tänak fourth, confirms the prediction of the Belgian, who dreams of a first world title. Thanks to Hyundai’s progress in recent months, the goal is achievable. “I don’t really like the status of favorite, but, above all, I don’t like to hear that obtaining the title will go without saying and that the absence of a victory would be a failure, asserts Abiteboul. To start saying that success is planned would be to take away credit from the pilots who are going to fight. It’s particularly nice to win the Monte-Carlo, because you could have considered that finishing second in all the rallies behind competitors who don’t compete the whole season could be enough to be champion in the end. But this attitude lacks adrenaline. Finally, having achieved this victory shows that we like taking risks. It is not just an arithmetic victory, it is also the victory of audacity. I know that our Neuville-Tänak driver duo will give me gray hairs, but it is also a choice to spice up a season that will need it.”

A new points system

Since his arrival in the world of rallying, Abiteboul has shown a desire to dust off the discipline, in order to win back an audience. For him, the notion of spectacle is essential. The championship promoter and the FIA* have introduced a new points system aimed at keeping the stakes up until the final moments of a rally. From now on, points are awarded based on the general classification on Saturday evening, then others are distributed only on the classification of the day on Sunday, and, finally, points reward the five fastest in the final timed special. (see top table) .In other words, there is no allocation of points based on the final classification of the rally. “It’s stupid, there’s no other word, Ogier slices. He is possible, in certain scenarios, that the winner of the rally is not the one who scores the most points, and for me this is clearly an aberration. ” Indeed, a leader with a large lead in the clock on Saturday evening could ensure his victory on Sunday and only score 18 points, while the second overall could “win” the day on Sunday and the Power Stage, and thus obtain at total 27 points.

“I’m not sure it was the change the league needed, recognizes Neuville. Surely there were other things to tackle first. I’m not against it either, in the sense that it will be positive if it brings suspense and novelty. ” In Monte-Carlo, we did not experience this extreme scenario, but Katsuta, seventh overall, scored more points than Mikkelsen, sixth, who nevertheless finished three minutes ahead of him. “We have something complex, difficult to understand, but I want to ask everyone, media and rally enthusiasts, not to shoot at the ambulance, tempers Abiteboul. We try to do things for the good of the sport. We have made proposals to the FIA ​​to simplify and resolve certain weaknesses in the system introduced, let’s wait and see what happens. ”

Whatever the regulations, one driver shows his happiness at being back in the premier category: Adrien Fourmaux, 28, gets back behind the wheel of the Ford after a 2023 season in the lower category. The Frenchman started his season brilliantly with a fifth place, equaling the best result of his career. “We are really happy, it’s super positive for a return to the highest level, did he declare. We know that we have areas to improve on the car and on ourselves. We will work on it during the season. ” This year, Fourmaux will be the only tricolor entered in all the rounds of the season.

* International Federation of Automobiles.

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