The 9th round of WRC Rally Greece was held on September 9-12. WRC EKO Acropolis Rally Greece, one of the most traditional and historical rallies of all WRC races, has been finally proceeded since the IMC (International Championship for Manufacturers), the predecessor of WRC. It began in 1951 and was included in the WRC in 1973, then continued until 2009. It could not go on when Greece was suffering from the economic recession back in 2010, but then it returned the following year and held until 2013. After that, Rally Greece continued to be a part of the European Rally Championship (ERC). Actually, Greece was one of the nominees for the 2021 WRC. But the Rally Chile and Britain were canceled, making Greece become the ninth round - and its first round in eight years.
Rally Greece is also known as “Rally of the Gods”. The Acropolis is a symbol of ancient Greek culture and the majestic Parthenon. In the late afternoon on Thursday, the first stage took place - the Athens City Stage - in Syntagma Square, underneath the Acropolis. The rally headquarters and service park were located at the National Trade Fair in Lamia, 220 kilometers north of Athens.
Sebastien Ogier, an active driver, won the 2011 Rally Greece. And Craig Breen of the Hyundai World Rally Team (hereafter the Hyundai Team) won the ERC in 2014. But Breen wasn't there this time; there have been rumors that he will participate in the 2022 season with M-Sport Ford. This is because, unlike Hyundai Team that makes two or three drivers share the third car, Ford will not make Breen share his with anyone else.
Three drivers joined for Hyundai Motorsport - Thierry Neuville, who recently won the Belgian Rally, Ott Tanak, who aims to overtake his competitors, and Dani Sordo, who has returned after three games since the safari rally. Sordo recently announced Candido Carrera as his new co-driver. At the beginning of the season, Sordo called in Borja Rozada to replace former co-driver Carlos del Barrio, but communication between the two during the race was not smooth enough - hence Carrera, who has a lot of experience in WRC, became his new co-driver.
After winning the Belgian Rally, Neuville, who is chasing Ogier by 38 points, said, “Acropolis Rally is going to be a tough event. When I was competing there back in 2012 and 2013 it was one of the roughest rallies - together with Argentina at that time. I always enjoyed it. We tested in Greece to prepare for Rally Turkey, so we have some knowledge of the terrain there - lots of curves, gravels, not to mention the high temperature. The strategy will be very important, but that’s something we like. We have high expectations for another good result, and we are looking forward to it.”
Pierre-Louis Loubet participated in the Hyundai C2 Competition, and for the WRC2 class, the new i20 N Rally 2 - which debuted in Belgium - was revealed for the first time in the gravel rally. Again, Oliver Solberg is behind the wheel. In addition, another i20 N Rally 2 participated in the WRC3 class through customer service. Lambros Athanassoulas is a veteran - 14 WRC races. He has been in 8th in the Acropolis in 2009 and 3rd in 2015 during the ERC. He is the first private driver to compete in the i20 N Rally 2 (a player who does not belong to the manufacturer's team and competes as an individual).
The Toyota team assigns three race cars to Sebastien Ogier, Elfyn Evans, and Kalle Rovanpera. Takamoto Katsuta took Keaton Williams as a temporary co-driver due to Daniel Berret's injury, but he also had to give up the entry due to personal reasons.
The Ford team had an excellent score on the Acropolis in the early 2000s; this time, the team decided to bring in Gus Greensmith, Adrien Fourmaux, and Greek-born Jourdan Serderidis along with three rally cars. Born in 1964, Serderidis has experience participating in the Support Classes such as WRC Trophy and WRC2. Meanwhile, Teemu Suninen suddenly announced that he is leaving Ford; he will join the WRC2 class through Printsport Finland.
The Acropolis Rally was not only unfamiliar to most players, but also its course has changed a lot compared to back in 2013. In addition, unexpected variables confused the players even before the start of the race; there was a lot of rain, which never happened during this season. It rained a bit during the recce that started on Monday, as well as the shakedown test on Thursday morning. Drivers who had to take pace notes while driving in the mud in thick fog were discouraged, saying the extremely slippery muddy road reminded them of the rally UK. Each team was also busy checking the weather forecast and changes in road conditions. Even if the weather was sunny over the weekend and the road was dry, it was still a problem; because their pace notes will be worthless.
On Thursday, September 9th, the race started on the 0.98km course around Syntagma Square. Set in the 19th-century Royal Palace building, which has been used by the Greek Parliament since 1934, the opening stage is more of an event for the audience. The Acropolis' notorious off-road stage starts the next day.
After the first day in Athens, the infamous ‘real’ Acropolis rally kicked off on Friday morning in the western Peloponnese. The five SSs were 89.4 km long, which was relatively short. However, the drivers were unable to receive service during the race, which means they had to do their best to avoid any trouble. The 17.54km-long Aghii Theodori (SS2, SS4) and 19.4km-long Loutraki (SS3) are close to Corinth, which also appears frequently in the Bible. In the afternoon, the race cars would head northeast to finish the 23.27km-long Thibaud (SS5) and the 11.65km-long Elatia (SS6) till the end of the day.
While the drivers were moving to the next stage, the schedule was slightly delayed due to traffic jams. Still, the weather was clear and the road surface dried quickly. In SS2, Tanak was 0.2 seconds ahead of Ogier, but he still had to be 0.8 seconds faster to take down the lead. Rovanpera took the lead while conquering SS3. At this stage, Toyota's Evans received a 40-second penalty for arriving late at Time Control (TC) due to a gearbox problem; he was forced to run the stages jammed in third gear.
Neuville got unlucky, either; When changing tires at the fitting zone after SS3, he found a leak in the power steering and tried to fix it. Then he arrived late at SS4 and received a four-minute penalty. Neuville had to drive the high-level SS4 Ai Theodori without steering assistance. Sordo was penalized for 10 seconds for making a slight move right before the start of SS3, and Solberg was retired from SS4 due to suspension problems.
In SS4, Rovanpera took the lead with consecutive top times. The fastest in SS5 was Ogier. Neuville had to be a mechanic on his own without service. He even used brake oil and engine oil to fix the damaged pipe and refill the leaking steering oil. Even in such harsh conditions, he finished the SS5 in second place. Then in SS6, Tanak was the fastest on record, but when Loubet stopped the car due to trouble, the notional time was announced, allowing Neuville to take SS6.
By the end of Friday, Rovanpera maintained the lead with a 3.7-second gap with Tanak; Tanak was in second place just 0.2 seconds ahead of Ogier. Sordo was chasing him by 20 seconds, and behind him was Fourmaux by 30.3 seconds. Evans is 15th, 4 minutes 46.7 seconds behind the lead, and Neuville is 16th, 6 minutes 3.4 seconds behind the lead.
After spending the night in Lamia, the racers started another rough day on Saturday, September 11th. This day was a long journey of 132.56 km with 6 stages. In addition, the road surface in the highlands was still wet and slippery. Long stages in Pavliani (24.25km) and Gravia (24.81km) lead to a tire fitting zone in Itea, after which Bauxites (22.97km) and Eleftherohori (18.14km) before service. Saturday would then end with second passes through Pavliani and Eleftherohori.
Rovanpera definitely took Saturday; He dominated four stages from the opening SS7, widening the gap with the former and current champions. After the service in the middle of the race, Ogier and Tanak took the SS11 and SS12 respectively. The Rovanpera slowed down a bit in the last two stages while changing the suspension settings and loading two spare tires to protect the rally car. Nevertheless, he finished Saturday with a huge gap of 30.8 seconds from Tanak in second.
Most participants struggled to find the optimal setting between protection and traction of their cars. After finding the right answer, Tanak was able to resist Ogier's fierce pursuit and secure his second place. Tanak, who was once only 2.5 seconds in front of Ogier, took the SS12 at an excellent pace and widened the gap to 9.4 seconds. And Sordo took fourth, 1 minute and 29 seconds behind him. Sordo was followed by Formaux, Greensmith, and Evans.
On September 12, Sunday’s finale is west of Lamia. There are only 3 stages of 69.25km-long, but this includes the legendary 33.2km-long Pyrgos (SS14). The opening stage/symbol of Acropolis Rally Tarzan(SS13), at 23.37km, takes crews to a tire fitting zone in Sperchiada, before the closing Wolf Power Stage through a shortened version of Tarzan(12.68km).
The rain from morning wetted the soil, turning some corners into the mud. On the slippery opening stage, Rovanpera beat his competitors at an overwhelming pace of 17:22.7. Tanak, who ran 13.9 seconds faster than Ogier, secured second place with a gap of 23.3 seconds. After finishing SS13 in fifth place, Sordo maintained fourth place. The duo in Ford, which had been fighting for fifth place, was left alone in fifth place as Formaux was late to fix his car.
Tanak was the fastest at the longest SS14; The wiper on his car worsened the visibility, but his all-soft tire strategy was right. On the other hand, the Rovanpera with his hard tires reduced the gap to 35 seconds. Ogier, Sordo, and Greensmith maintained third and fifth places. Meanwhile, Formaux, who was pushed down to 7th, finished the SS14 the second fastest, overtaking Evans to become 6th.
Rovanpera took the final stage and secured the championship. Power stage points were divided into Rovanpera, Evans, Ogier, Neuville, and Tanak, respectively. For the Hyundai team, Tanak overcame Ogier's relentless pursuit and secured second place, while Ogier took the last spot on the podium, one step closer to the championship title with 180 points. Sordo finished the Acropolis Rally with 4th and Neuville 8th, contributing to their manufacturer points. For the manufacturer's championship points, the Toyota team succeeded in scoring eye-opening 49 points, creating a 57-point difference with Hyundai behind.
After the Rally in Greece, the WRC will hold its 10th round in Finland on October 1-3. After that, the season ends in Spain and then in Japan. However, the final 12th round, Rally Japan, got canceled for the surge in Covid-19 cases after the Tokyo Olympics, making it difficult to hold large-scale events; Rally Monza will replace the recently canceled Rally Japan as the final round of the 2021 World Rally Championship. Originally, it was a rally-related event held on the Monza circuit and surrounding roads in Italy, but the WRC final was held last year due to the pandemic.
By Sujin Lee, automobile critic
Excited about the 1991 establishment of the first domestic auto mania magazine 〈Car Vision〉, I sent a series of long letters there that led to an unexpected hire. 27 years have passed since then, the years of plowing through the writing struggles of an auto journalist. After becoming an editor for 〈Car Vision〉, I came to my current position as the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉. My recent interests include cutting-edge techs like electric cars, connected cars, and autonomous driving, but the ‘otaku’ in me doesn’t want internal combustion engines to disappear either.
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