This rally marks the first instance in WRC history where three countries have collaborated to host a rally spanning a vast region, crossing borders. While rallies often traverse boundaries—such as Monte Carlo, primarily held in the southern region of France due to Monaco’s compact size—a joint event involving three nations is a novelty.
With recent WRC events on tarmac dwindling due to France, Germany, and Spain falling off the calendar, Croatia and Belgium attempted to fill the gap, although Belgium hosted only twice from 2021 to 2022. Consequently, the idea of three countries pooling resources and reducing the burden of hosting couldn’t sound nicer.
The Central European Rally, jointly organized by the German Automobile Association (ADAC), Czech Automobile Club (ACCR), and the Austrian Motorsport Federation (AMF), is not an entirely new rally. Unlike circuits, rallying on public roads demands meticulous preparation and practice runs. Therefore, when attracting the WRC to a new location, the common practice is to extend existing local races. The Central European Rally is based on the ‘3-Cities Rally (3-Städte-Rallye)’, a competition originating in 1963, starting in Munich, passing through Vienna, Austria, and culminating in Budapest, Hungary. However, for this edition, the host town shifted to Passau in Germany, and the ceremonial start relocated to Prague in the Czech Republic.
The rally kicks off with a specially designed 2.55km stage near the Vltava River in Prague, followed by stages in Austria and Germany. While the total stage distance of 18 special stages sums up to 310.01km, the overall race distance amounts to 1,690.70km due to longer transits. The stages are distributed among five in the Czech Republic, three in Austria, and two in Germany. Although the German Rally has seen 17 editions since 2002, Austria had only one event in 1973, marking a comeback after a staggering 50 years. Notably, this is Czech Republic’s first WRC hosting.
For Hyundai Motorsport, headquartered in Alzenau, Germany, the Central European Rally holds sentimental value. The absence of the Rallye Deutschland, traditionally held on their home turf, left a void, making this three-country collaboration a significant resurgence.
Hyundai assigned its rally cars to Thierry Neuville, Esapekka Lappi and Teemu Suninen. In particular, Neuville is a key player who gave the Hyundai team its first ever WRC championship in Germany in 2014, and this rally is similar to his homeland event, the Rallye de Belgique. “My goal is to win, I am a racer after all,” Neuville said. “You have to have me on the list, especially in asphalt rallies. This is the longest of the season, so it is going to be a particularly exciting rally. As with any race, thorough preparation is paramount.” He expressed confidence in the Tarmac Rally, which will be held for the first time in a while.
Lappi, who retired in Chile, entered the competition with regained composure. Drawing from past experiences, he highlighted the difficulty of Czech roads and the necessity for an appropriate approach during the autumn season in Germany, characterized by abundant fallen leaves. Suninen, also facing retirement after a late second place in Chile, anticipates the Central European Rally as the last event of this season. With Rally Japan looming, Sordo’s entry necessitates proving his worth through a podium finish.
Teemu said, “Central European Rally will be really demanding. It’s going to be in three different countries so we can expect to have very different types of roads, different tarmac and a lot of changes, so it will be a big challenge for me – especially when it will be my first rally with the Hyundai i20 N Rally1 Hybrid at a tarmac round. We had a really good test in Austria and got some good experience in the car, but Central European Rally is going to be a lot later in the year, making it the most difficult tarmac rally on the calendar. The conditions will be a lot trickier and that’s something new we are facing in the rally. It starts to become autumn time with colder conditions, trees starting to lose leaves, meaning dirt on the tarmac. The goal is to bring the car home and learn as much as we can from our time on the stages. The fact that Hyundai want to see my pace on the tarmac means a lot, so I want to end the weekend with a good result for the whole team.”
In essence, for Lappi and Suninen, this rally’s performance carries immense weight; especially with Hyundai Motorsport’s recent announcement of Ott Tanak’s official return. If Tanak returns after a year-long tenure at M-Sport Ford, Lappi’s consistent full-time participation might face challenges.
Toyota, fresh off their manufacturer championship win in Chile, has brought a formidable lineup to the Central European Rally. Kalle Rovanperä, Elfyn Evans, and Sébastien Ogier, three seasoned drivers, have all been entered, and Takamoto Katsuta completes their quartet of Yaris Rally1 cars. Speaking of the Driver’s championship, Rovanperä currently leads the pack with Evans in second place. If Evans can’t close the gap by at least two points during this rally, Rovanperä will secure the championship title right here.
M-Sport Ford, on the other hand, is entering Ott Tanak and Pierre-Louis Loubet, with the addition of Grégoire Munster to their roster. In the manufacturer’s points race, Tanak and Loubet represent the team. Recently, Loubet, who unexpectedly parted ways with his co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul, has formed a partnership with Benjamin Veillas, a seasoned French co-driver who once collaborated with Ogier. M-Sport Ford found itself in a bit of a scramble for driver arrangements next season, especially with Tanak, their ace, leaving. As a result, they seem to be considering various options, including recalling Adrien Fourmaux for the final round in Japan, as a replacement for Loubet.
On October 25th, Wednesday, at 4 PM, the shake-down test began at a 3.62km-long stage located north of Passau. Thierry Neuville exhibited a strong pace, clocking in a top time 1.4 seconds faster than Rovanperä. On Thursday, the 26th, the drivers kicked off the rally with an opening ceremony in Prague, and shortly after, they took to the 2.55km-long SS1 stage located at the southern racetrack. In the super-special stage using narrow roads around the racetrack, Tanak posted the fastest time, followed by Ogier, Neuville, Suninen, and Katsuta. Due to an impending forecast of rain in the evening, teams had to build their own tire strategy, either wet or dry.
The 8.92km-long SS2, located in Klatovy near the German border, started without hairpin turns, featuring fast-paced stages with grassy sidelines, making grip crucial. The grassy sections, when wet, can become extremely slippery, demanding utmost caution. With the sun setting and light rain, the challenge intensified. Neuville, with a tire setup of three softs and one wet, managed to surge ahead, leaving his competitors trailing. Tanak secured the second spot, 1.2 seconds adrift, while Ogier, Rovanperä, Suninen, and Katsuta followed closely. Evans, who incurred a 10-second penalty for a jump start in SS1, was placed in eighth. Lappi, who faced a brake issue and a five-second loss in SS4, slid to ninth overall.
On October 27th, Friday, the racers tackled three challenging stages (SS3~SS8) in the Czech Republic, morning and afternoon, with no lunch service, making it the longest day of the rally, covering a marathon 121.80km. Overnight rain had muddied the roads, causing all drivers to opt for wet tires. As the stages progressed, gravel and mud were scattered on the racing line, worsening course conditions.
Starting with the 13.66km-long Vlachovo Březí stage, Rovanperä secured three consecutive top times, taking the overall lead. Neuville, despite struggling with a fogged-up windshield, engaged in a fierce battle for the second spot with Evans. In SS4, he incurred a 20-second penalty, causing a substantial time loss. Meanwhile, Ogier faced a tire puncture in SS3, resulting in a 40-second deficit. Lappi, who overcame his earlier mistakes, moved up to third overall by outperforming Evans and Tanak in SS3. However, an accident in SS5, causing significant car damage, led to his second setback. Loubet, penalized 1,500 euros along with a one-minute penalty for not wearing proper safety gear (helmet and balaclava) in SS4.
The SS6 was closed for safety reasons. The mud-covered road surface was so slippery that accidents occurred one after another. As a result, the remaining drivers were given the same time for this stage. With Rovanperä conquering all stages up to SS7, Friday concluded with him in the overall lead. The time difference with his competitors is more than 30 seconds. Neuville trailed Evans by 0.3 seconds before catching the final SS8 to rise to second place. The time difference with Rovanpera is 36.4 seconds. Evans is 10.8 seconds behind Neuville. They were followed by Tanak, Katsuta, Ogier, Suninen, and Munster.
Saturday witnessed a shift for the racers to Austria, where they tackled three stages repeated across a total distance of 109.50 kilometers, spanning SS9 to SS14. The tarmac gradually dried out, yet portions remained slippery due to lingering mud. Starting with the 15.72km opener SS9, Evans seized the lead, reducing the gap to Neuville by 1.3 seconds. However, SS10 at Mühltal saw Neuville claiming the top time. Rovanpera, due to a navigational error, incurred a loss of around 20 seconds, squeezing the 1-3 positions into a mere 13.3-second range.
Subsequent SS11 was set in Germany’s Bayerischer Wald, part of Europe’s largest forest area where the Bavarian Forest meets the Bohemian Forest in the Czech Republic and the Austrian Waldviertel. However, Evans’ car slipped off the road and into a barn in the village section, entangling the vehicle among the debris, leading to a scenario where pushing the vehicle proved futile. Rovanpera’s mistake briefly gave him hope of winning the title, it disappeared yet again.
Having won SS11, Neuville climbed to the overall lead. Rovanpera seemingly slowed his pace, given the faltering of the primary title contender, making urgency unnecessary. While Rovanpera marked the fastest time for the day, his gap to the leader Neuville extended to 26.2 seconds. Nonetheless, he held a secure second place, with over a minute’s lead on Tanak in third. Ogier maintained the fourth position, while Katsuta and Suninen engaged in a heated battle for the fifth position, with a 10.9-second gap by the end of Saturday. Munster, in his inaugural Rally1, outperformed Loubet, securing the seventh position.
On Sunday, October 29th, the drivers navigated through the demanding stages of Böhmerwald (17.25km) in Austria and Passauer Land (16.37km) in Germany, with these stages totaling 67.24 kilometers and designated as SS15 to SS18. The terrain had dried out significantly compared to the treacherous conditions they faced on Saturday. Racers put the pedal to the metal, pushing their cars to higher speeds. With the podium almost secured for Neuville and Rovanpera, they adopted a more conservative approach, focusing on maintaining their own pace. Meanwhile, Evans, who retired the previous day, and Ogier, who had faced several challenges throughout the event, made a spectacular comeback, clocking top times on the final day. However, the significant time gaps from the previous stages meant that the overall standings saw little change.
The journey culminated with the final stage at Passauer Land, SS18. Neuville emerged as the first victor of the newly introduced Central European Rally. He secured second place in the Power Stage and added four extra points to his tally, marking his personal 19th victory and the second win of the season, following his success in Italy.
Kalle Rovanpera secured the second position, confirming his victory in the driver’s championship due to Evans’ retirement. At the young age of 23, he claimed his second championship title. Ott Tanak finished third, followed by Ogier, who managed to cut the lead to 15.8 seconds towards the end. Subsequently, Katsuta, Suninen, Munster, Fourmaux, Nicolas Ciamin, and Loubet garnered points.
In a recent major WRC update, Ott Tanak’s return to Hyundai team cannot be overlooked. The Estonian driver contributed significantly during his three-year stint with the team from 2020, clinching five wins and playing a vital role in securing the manufacturer’s championship title. His abrupt departure after the 2022 season surprised many.
It is known that Tanak’s decision at the time was due to various reasons, such as the director Andrea Adamo leaving the team suddenly or the late start of the Rally 1 project; “I am excited to re-join Hyundai Motorsport from the 2024 WRC season. Since our paths parted exactly one year ago, the team has been working very hard on the new technical structure. Hyundai Motorsport has a clear vision and target for the near future, and it is something that convinced me to join our forces again. I am also looking forward to work with Cyril Abiteboul and François-Xavier Demaison, as their experience and knowledge in motorsport is definitely a big advantage for the whole team. Our goal in this new chapter will be nothing less than to win all the three titles, and with the new structure of the team, we have all the tools needed to achieve it,” Tänak added.
With strong keyman Tanak in hand, Abiteboul will have an easier time preparing for next season; “Hyundai Motorsport exists to ultimately fight for rally wins and championship titles,” said Abiteboul. “We want to be seen as a credible contender with the tools to do the job. That means the car, the organization and the driving talent. In exploring our options for 2024, I opened a discussion with Ott, who was excited by the renewed ambitions and structure we are putting in place. We are pleased he is ready to resume the unfinished business he has with our team. I am confident that, in the right environment, Thierry and Ott can bring out the best in each other.”
The 2023 WRC, which has confirmed the two major titles, only has the final race, the Japan Rally, to be held from November 16th to 19th. Hyundai unfortunately failed to secure the titles, but is preparing to challenge again to regain them; The race to win next season’s title has already begun.
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’, a maniac, in me, wants to keep internal combustion engines from extinction.
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