World Rally Championship 2016 Preview
The toughest, most challenging and most spectacular motorsport on the planet returns this weekend.
The World Rally Championship is back for 2016.
The gravel dust has barely settled on an exciting 2015 season that saw Volkswagen claim their third consecutive WRC Manufacturers’ Championship and their star driver Sébastien Ogier capture his third straight WRC Drivers’ Championship.
Not even ten weeks later and the Frenchman is already having to defend his crown once again as the WRC roars back into competitive action.
Not much testing time for the teams then but more than enough time for deals to be done and big changes to be made.
Changes to the cars, the driver line-ups, the team set-ups, even the calendar itself.
This season sees the WRC contested in 14 rounds over five continents, on mud, gravel, tarmac, snow and ice.
The 13 rounds that made up last year’s championship all return once again this year.
A new event will take place in September, with an added visit to China becoming the tenth round of the championship.
China has hosted a World Rally Championship event once before, back in 1999, so this will be an entirely new challenge for the drivers and crews.
The end of the season has a new look to it too, with the final rally of the season now Rally Australia.
This replaces the traditional season-ending Wales Rally GB, which becomes the penultimate round, ensuring that the final round of the championship takes place during the Australian summer.
Let’s be honest, who really wants a star-studded end of season party, celebrating almost a year of extraordinary effort, on a cold, dark and (more likely than not) wet November evening in the UK?
Not the FIA anyway.
The often poor conditions that provide an added challenge to Great Britain’s event should remain however.
The rally remains the final European round of the season, taking place at the end of October.
The 2016 World Rally Championship calendar looks like this then;
Arguably the biggest change regarding teams this season is the absence of Citroën’s works team.
Officially withdrawing from the WRC for the 2016 season, the French manufacturer will still continue to support privateer teams that use the Citroën DS3 WRC car. The team has decided to use this year to fully develop their new car for the 2017 WRC season when radical regulation changes are planned for the competition.
Citroën have used the same tactic before, taking a year away from the sport in 2006 whilst they successfully developed the C4 WRC as the replacement for the Xsara WRC.
Citroën has also confirmed that 2016 will be it’s last in the World Touring Car Championship as it focuses on the WRC exclusively from 2017. Fans can expect to see a strong, competitive return for the French marque this time next year.
Three Manufacturers and four WRC Teams will now battle it out against each other for this seasons WRC Manufacturer’s title.
A host of other teams will provide competition on the stages themselves (the Abu Dhabi Total World Rally Team running Citroën DS3s for example), but only the seven teams registered with the FIA to officially compete in the Manufacturer’s Championship will be able to score points.
Those teams, and their cars, are;
Hyundai Motorsport (HYUNDAI NEW GENERATION i20 WRC)
M-Sport World Rally Team (FORD FIESTA RS WRC)
Volkswagen Motorsport (VOLKSWAGEN POLO R WRC)
DMACK World Rally Team (FORD FIESTA RS WRC)
Hyundai Motorsport N (HYUNDAI NEW GENERATION i20 WRC)
Volkswagen Motorsport II (VOLKSWAGEN POLO R WRC)
Yazeed Racing (FORD FIESTA RS WRC)
VW have been dominant since their return to the WRC in 2013. Three Manufacturers’ and three Drivers’ titles in that time mean that they are the team to topple this season.
The German outfit are certainly believers in the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Only minor changes to the Polo R WRC are felt to be needed to their multiple title-winning car ahead of the new season. As if the statistics aren’t scary enough (Volkswagen’s two teams have scored an incredible 1599 points between them in just three seasons), the front wings have been turned white on the 2016 version simply to make the car look more menacing.
The driver line-up has not changed either and remains the same for the third year in a row. Reigning champion Sébastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen (driving for Volkswagen Motorsport II) will pilot the Polo R through the stages once again.
The only change at Volkswagen is at the top. Motorsport Director Jost Capito is to leave his position as soon as a successor is appointed. Capito is set to return to Formula One having already been announced as the new Chief Operating Officer for the McLaren F1 team.
Hyundai Motorsport (and their second team, Hyundai Motorsport N) will be representing the Korean car manufacturer this season with the New Generation i20 WRC.
The car was tested heavily last year, covering almost 5000 miles, ahead of new 2016 season. Whether it has the capability to beat, or even match, the Volkswagens in terms of speed or consistency on competitive stages we will find out soon enough.
Speaking of consistency, the driver line-up remains the same as last year with Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo and Hayden Paddon on the roster. This season however it is the Spaniard, Sordo, who has been nominated as the team’s main driver.
Hyundai have made no secret of their intention to rotate their driver line-up between both teams this season. The German-based team feel that tailoring their drivers’ experience to suit the rally conditions gives them the best possible chance of scoring more points.
British-based M-Sport return this season having made more changes than Volkswagen or Hyundai, even if only to their driver line-up. The only major change to the Ford Fiesta RS WRC itself is a new colour scheme.
Both Ott Tänak and Elfyn Evans have left the team after a disappointing 2015 season for both drivers. Tänak has re-joined DMACK, who enter a team at the highest level of the sport for the first time, while Welshman Evans will compete in the WRC 2 support series.
Mads Østberg joins after departing Citroën at the end of 2015. M-Sport have confirmed that the Norwegian will be their main driver going into 2016.
Eric Camilli is perhaps the surprise signing going into the new season. The Frenchman has only competed on ten WRC events so far, but M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson believes the 28 year-old has the potential to be a future world champion.
M-Sport will also prepare the cars for the DMACK and Yazeed Racing teams, as well as other private entries who will not compete in every round of the championship.
One thing that never changes in the WRC is the challenge. If anything though this season is shaping up to be even tougher.
The organisers of Rally Mexico, the third round of the championship, have announced an 80 kilometre stage on its final day.
That’s the longest stage on a WRC event for 30 years.
Before the teams consider their plans to tackle such a distance in the Mexican heat however, the first round of the championship takes place in the world famous Rallye Monte-Carlo this weekend.
A tight, twisty tarmac test on the mountain roads of southern France with the threat of snow and ice around each and every corner to catch the drivers out.
Seven of the last nine winners of ‘The Monte’ have gone on to win the championship title, so the drivers and teams don’t have a lot of time to get themselves back into the groove.
With technical regulation changes, all new cars, the Citroën team back in action and the long awaited return of Toyota all happening in 2017, the 2016 season will be the last as we currently know it for the WRC.
Never the less, it promises to be just as exciting as ever.