From the Monte Carlo Rally on January 19, 2023, the great WRC 2023 season has begun. Hyundai Motorsport also bolstered its lineup with new members Esapekka Lappi and Craig Breen, and set out to regain the title with new principal Cyril Abiteboul. Of the 13 rounds of this year’s WRC, Central and South America’s Chile and Mexico returned instead of Belgium, Spain and New Zealand, and a new Central Europe Rally was established. The Rally Central Europe, held across Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, is the first WRC to be co-hosted by multiple countries.
This year’s WRC won’t have major regulations changes; Even more so compared to the 2022 season, which introduced a new race car. However, there have been some changes in terms of race management. First of all, the pre-season test period has been reduced from 30 days to 21 days (7 days per driver), so each team must solve problems with as much data as possible in a short period of time. Instead, the test method is freer, without having to follow an existing format.
Gravel Rally morning service is also no longer available; That ‘service’ refers to car maintenance or setting. The 15-minute pre-race morning service and 30-minute lunch service where rally cars could be serviced may or may not be available depending on circumstances; Only evening service (45 minutes) is available daily. If you look at the Rally Mexico schedule for Round 3, there is a Thursday night stage; This means that with the exception of a 15-minute service on Friday morning only, racers must start the Saturday and Sunday morning stages straight away without service. Even the lunch service is gradually disappearing these days.
Regulations have also been added for HEV zones where only electric motors must be used, not internal combustion engines. The HEV zone emphasizes the eco-friendliness of Rally 1 racing cars that have become hybrids. Starting this year, the HEV zone will be created at least 10km away from the end of the special stage; This is to allow rally cars that have exhausted their batteries during the game to recharge their batteries while driving a certain section. At the time of planning for hybrid rally cars, it was considered to run all liaisons - regular roads connecting SS - in electric mode, but it was not adopted due to insufficient battery capacity.
Hyundai Motorsport has reorganized its driver team. Thierry Neuville stays, and Dani Sordo, who was expected to retire, has also extended his contract. Tanak, who moved to M-Sport Ford, is replaced by Lappi, who was a Toyota driver last season. Craig Breen, back after a year, will share his team’s third car with Sordo.
Last year, when the hybrid powertrain was introduced for the first time in the WRC, Hyundai, which decided to join later than its competitors, lacked time to develop new cars. In addition, the automaker’s first race car, which had just been completed, had an accident during testing. It was a difficult time even to complete three rally cars, so it was a long shot to succeed in the opening race. However, the Hyundai team continued to stand on the podium from Sweden in the 2nd round and improved their rally car at an unbelievable speed, enjoying their first win of the season in the 5th round in Italy. As a result, the team had a total of 5 wins - Tanak marked 3 wins, Neuville marked 2, but couldn’t keep Toyota from winning their double titles.
Even this year, when half of the drivers change, Thierry Neuville is still in the center. The Belgian joined Hyundai Team in 2014 when it returned to the WRC and has been with the team ever since. So far, Hyundai is always being mentioned as a candidate for the championship, taking 2nd place 4 times and 3rd place 2 times in the Drivers Championship. His personal WRC record is 17 wins/55 podiums out of 142. Last year, he finished the season in third place, standing on the podium five times, including victories in Greece and Japan. Many are expecting him to win the title again this year.
Esapekka Lappi, who will drive in place of Tanak, was born in Finland in 1990. He originally dreamed of circuit racing, but found a new path in rallies due to lack of sponsorship. Then in 2010 he crowned the Newcomer of the Year in Finland, and two years later he became Finnish Rally Champion. After that, he joined the World Rally Car through Skoda and Toyota in 2017, and enjoyed his first personal victory at the Finland Rally that year. In 2019, he moved to Citroën, but lost his seat at the end of the season when Citroën suddenly went out. After staying at M-Sport and RTE-Motorsport, Lappi rejoined Toyota last year and competed in seven races, finishing ninth in the championship.
Lappi shared his feelings about being part of the Hyundai team: “Life is full of surprises. I never expected to join Hyundai and get the chance to drive a full season. It is truly a dream job and a great opportunity. Hyundai continued to develop its rally car last season, proving that it can win on all types of roads. The 2023 season looks very promising. Of course, we are aware that there is a lot of work to be done, and Janne Ferm (Lappi’s co-driver) and I are committed to it. I will do my best to achieve our goal.”
The 40-year-old Spanish veteran, Sordo, once considered retiring but decided to stay. He joined Hyundai in 2014, just like Neuville, and has always contributed a lot to the team by consistently scoring points, even if not for a full season. Last season, in particular, showed remarkable concentration by standing on the podium three times out of five appearances even in a completely new hybrid rally car.
Breen, who will share the team’s third car with Sordo, is an Irish driver who was at Hyundai from 2019-21. At the time of joining the Hyundai team in 2019, only Neuville was the regular driver, and Sebastien Loeb, Andreas Mikkelsen, Craig Breen, and Dani Sordo had flexible schedules. Having survived this fierce competition, Breen has shown what he can do by standing on the podium in 3 out of 5 races in 2021. However, after deciding that Neuville and Tanak made it difficult for him to participate in a full season, Breen moved to M-Sport, but the results were not so good. Now he’s back to where his performance was the best.
After a year of absence, the team finally has a principal; Cyril Abiteboul, who has had a lot of experience as a principal and board member at F1 Caterham and Renault, took over as team principal. He will lead the WRC team and customer racing division. Upon joining Hyundai Motorsport, he stated:
“I am enjoying the opportunity to join Hyundai as a principal from 2023. Hyundai has carefully secured its strength in motorsport as it has in other fields. Having already seen strong performances in the WRC, I am excited to be involved in managing the customer racing program as well. I look forward to immersing myself in the field of rallies as soon as possible and learning more about this wonderful world. For this, Hyundai Motor Company is giving me full support.” Director Abiteboul will make his official debut at the Monte Carlo Rally.
Having won the championship title for two seasons in a row, Toyota is gearing up for even fiercer competitions; Its champions are - Kalle Rovanperä, the defending champion who is still young and has unlimited potential, Elfyn Evans, Sébastien Ogier and Takamoto Katsuta. Rovanperä and Evans will again drive for the full season.
Born in 2000 and still just 22 years old, Rovanperä broke the record for youngest ever champion last year. Although Evans marked fourth in the championship, Toyota principal Jari-Matti Latvala still has confidence in him. Ogier, who retired shortly after winning his eighth championship title, will again compete in part of the race; He has proven his ability last year, winning once and finishing second twice out of six races.
The biggest change on Toyota’s driver list is Katsuta’s status; Until last year, his team was Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT NG, so his points were not included in Gazoo Racing WRT. But starting this year, he will ride the third car of the main team with Ogier. Last season, Katsuta showed great potential, taking 5th place in the championship with two podiums and 122 points. Toyota is aiming for a record of winning with a Japanese car and a Japanese driver. For reference, Latvala, Toyota’s principal, is putting all his energy into developing a rally car, anticipating more intense competition this season. In particular, the focus is on improving performance in rough gravel rallies such as Italy and Greece, where Hyundai has excelled.
M-Sport Ford, which won the opening race last year, has since struggled with Toyota and Hyundai. Maybe that’s why their driver list has completely changed this year; Following the return of Craig Breen to Hyundai, Adrien Fourmaux and Gus Greensmith also left, but instead got 2019 champion Ott Tanak. For Tanak, who made his WRC debut with an M-Sport Ford at the 2011 Final Rally Britain, he has finally come home. However, as the team budget is not tight right now, there are limitations of budget in management.
Another M-Sport Ford race car went to Pierre-Louis Loubet. A member of the French C2 Competition team, he has experience driving a Hyundai i20 rally car in 2020-21. Last year, at M-Sport Ford, he finished the season in 13th place, the best result of his personal career, including two fourth places.
In the opening race, The Greek privateer/veteran Jourdan Serderidis will drive another Ford. He was in Kenya, Greece and Spain with his Ford Puma Rally last year, and this year he will be in Monte Carlo, Mexico, Italy and Kenya.
Sebastien Loeb, who helped M-Sport Ford win the opening race last year, has decided to focus on the Dakar Rally this year; Not only is the schedule for the Dakar Rally, which crosses the Saudi Arabian desert, too close to the first round of the WRC, but also M-Sport is run out of its budget when they brought Tanak back in.
After being pushed out of Rally 1, Fourmaux was pushed back to the M-Sport Ford WRC2 class. For reference, this year’s WRC2 is expected to be more fierce than ever. Oliver Solberg, who failed to renew his contract with Hyundai, will also return to the WRC2 class with Germany’s Toksport WRT. Solberg’s colleague, Sami Pajari, is also noteworthy; The Finnish is the 2021 Junior WRC Champion, born in 2001. Former WRC3 champion Yohan Rossel will return to PH Sport in France this time. Others include Grégoire Munster from Luxembourg, who came from the Hyundai training program, and rising star Erik Cais from the Czech Republic. Those who stand out in WRC2 have a higher chance of advancing to the highest Rally 1.
Meanwhile, the obituary was announced as soon as 2023 began. Ken Block, who has enjoyed worldwide fame for his various car stunts and drifting videos on YouTube, has died suddenly. Block, who died at the age of 55 in a snowmobile accident, was the only American to compete in the WRC. Last year, in his Hyundai i20 WRC, he took four victories in the American Rally Series (ARA) and finished the season in second place in the championship.
As in the previous season, 2023 will consist of 13 rounds, starting with Monte Carlo and ending with Japan. But three of those rallies were replaced: Belgium, New Zealand and Spain were replaced by Mexico, Chile and the Central Europe Rally. It would be a bad news for Hyundai that Neuville and Sordo cannot enjoy their home grounds (Belgium and Spain, respectively). Saudi Arabia, which wanted to host the WRC, failed to join the WRC.
It has been a long time since Mexico and Chile in Central and South America were left out of the calendar because of the pandemic. Chile, which first hosted the WRC in 2019, was unable to host such an international event the following year as it suffered nationwide anti-government protests and a pandemic. Compared to Chile, which did not enjoy any races in 2020-21, Mexico held domestic races and waited for a return to the WRC.
The biggest news on the WRC calendar this season is the Central European Rally, hosted jointly by the three countries. It will start in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, pass through Austria, and finish in Passau, Germany. In fact, it is not uncommon for the WRC to use the territory of a neighboring country. The small city-state of Monaco (Monte Carlo) actually holds most of its races in France, and the Swedish Rally sometimes crosses over to Norway.
However, it is the first time in WRC history that three countries co-hosted the event. The German ADAC (automobile club), which does not receive support from its own government, had to give up WRC due to the title sponsor issue, but it found a breakthrough through co-hosting. The Central European Rally is expected to be a good example for countries that find it difficult to host alone. In particular, the Czech Republic is home to Skoda, a strong player in WRC2, but has yet to host a WRC. Austria, on the other hand, joined the WRC in 1973 under the name of the Alpen Rally (Österreichische Alpenfahrt).
In fact, Rally Central Europe is based on the historic 3 Städte Rallye, which takes place in three countries, centered in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. The three-city rally has been part of the European Rally Trophy, the Austrian Championship, and the ADAC Rally. This year, the event will be expanded to an international scale.
In 2022, Hyundai, which struggled in the era of Rally 1, developed rapidly and secured competitiveness; Although it wasn’t easy for the team to walk away from victory early on and then come back. The i20 N Rally 1, which has rapidly improved its rally car over the past year, has become competitive in any rally. Many are interested in what kind of teamwork Hyundai’s new drivers and new principal will show. Hyundai Motorsport, which has achieved remarkable results despite its short history, may shine again.
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. After becoming an editor and the Editor-in-Chief for 〈Car Life〉 and 〈Car Vision〉, I have started a new career as an auto critic. 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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