Another season in the books, another title for Kalle Rovanperä and Toyota. As always, there was plenty of excitement and joy, but also drama, disappointment, and, unfortunately, a casualty. It is time to look back (and forward).
A lot of the 2023 season was spent reflecting and pondering. What should a rally weekend look like? Which cars should the top rally class use? How to attract more manufacturers? How to reach a wider audience?
Is the WRC sustainable?
Well, (some of) the drivers will line up in Monte Carlo in about two months, and everything remains pretty much the same. There are still more questions than answers despite everyone seeming to acknowledge that changes are needed immediately. It is almost as if the FIA is trying to see how far can they get with a clearly dysfunctional series.
With just three serious title contenders for 2024 (later on that in a bit), the situation is as miserable as it has been for years. Any glimmers of hope? Let’s see. Drum roll, please. The winners are …
Nine wins (out of 13), 20 podiums (out of 39), and a third constructors title in a row – their most dominant yet. After beating Hyundai by 59 points in 2021 and then 70 points in 2022, this was supposed to be the year the South Korean manufacturer hits back … only to lose by 116. The Yaris looks unbeatable in the right hands, and they have plenty of those.
Remember the early days of the season? Ogier comfortably dominated in Monte, sat out Sweden, and went 25+5 in Mexico; three rounds in, he was leading the standings, and there was a serious discussion about whether the Frenchman could compete for the title by choosing his battles. A puncture in Croatia was costly before his hopes quite literally slid off in Sardinia, but the soon-to-be 40-year-old still impressed. He, not Kalle Rovanperä, is still the man to beat.
Not too bad from the 23-year-old either, though. Rovanperä was not as dominant as in 2022 (thankfully), but after finding his groove in Portugal, he finished on the podium in seven of the last nine rallies and the title was pretty much wrapped up without a proper battle again. And taking a step back in 2024 to recharge? Kudos to him for a bold move. It certainly would have been easier to just continue driving. Expect him to go full out in Finland, as a home win is still missing from his illustrious CV.
Hyundai (in 2024)
With Kalle Rovanperä going part-time, Hyundai will have the only world champion driving a full 2024 season in Ott Tänak. Luring the Estonian back after he quit just a year ago was a masterstroke in hindsight for Hyundai and possibly for the WRC as well; what the series needs is a very public, very ugly title fight between two drivers in the same stable. A Prost vs Senna all over again in Tänak vs Neuville, shall we say.
The WRC2 or Rally2 is everything the top class is not: fiercely competitive, affordable, and diverse. There are a total of twelve cars (from seven manufacturers + Toyota, who will join in 2024) that can enter the competition. Emil Lindholm, the 2022 champion, finished ninth this time; there are young up-and-comers, there are the old dogs, and there are drivers known for their WRC exploits. Well, this is what the WRC should look like.
As for the losers …
The new cars introduced in 2022 have not helped the series at all. After two years, there is just one of them in private hands (Jordan Serderidis), M-Sport is running a budget operation, Hyundai can not scrape together enough parts to run a fourth car, and while Toyota has offered to rent their fourth to interested parties, it is just not affordable for talented drivers. There is a very real concern we might see just five or six entries at some point in 2024. Not good enough.
It might seem odd to find Elfyn here after finishing second in the championship – with Kalle leaving the table, surely 2024 is his best chance to win a title? But after pushing Ogier close in both 2020 and 2021, Evans has arguably still not found his feet in the Rally1 car despite winning thrice this season. Sure, he can put together a challenge in 2024, but leading the team will be a tough ask. He has made way too many mistakes while under pressure, and it seems unlikely that Ogier and Rovanperä will help much.
The romantic return of Ott Tänak had some memorable moments, none more so than an emotional victory in Sweden, but it never quite worked out. After a somewhat erratic 2022, M-Sport wanted to show they could still mix it with the best, but the two victories and four podiums were more down to Tänak than the car; there were way too many mechanical issues. Rally Estonia summed up the season, as the local hero lost five minutes even before the rally began.
Tänak criticized the team a lot, but results backed his complaints; Loubet, who in 2022 was close to scoring a podium in Sardinia and Greece, finished this season with just 29 points in total. It was a complete disaster. He made some mistakes too, but the car was as unreliable as they come. The two rallies he anticipated the most – the very same ones he excelled in a year ago – both ended due to mechanical problems.
Hyundai (in 2023)
So yeah, 2023 was not their year really. We already touched on their enormous gap with Toyota, but then again, none of the drivers put together a good season either. Thierry Neuville was nowhere near the driver’s title, Esapekka Lappi faltered way too often, and Dani Sordo has not adjusted well to Rally1 while the talent of Craig Breen was lost in a freak accident just as they had him smiling again. A true tragedy.