World Rally Championships Are Coming Back to the Future
Ask almost any rally fan when the "Golden Era" of rallying was, and the answer is likely to be "Group B," the monsters of the mid-'80s. There was a lot to love about rallying back then, but there are some new cars and new rules in effect at the start of this week's 85th FIA World Rally Championships Monte Carlo Rally that will hopefully help re-usher in the glory days once more.
The granddaddy of this tribe was the Lancia Stratos — a Ferrari V6 powering this rocket ship captured the imagination of the public and helped rallying become mainstream.
The next big step forward was the Audi Quattro with turbochargers and four-wheel drive. Under the Group B regulations, it mutated into the mad-dog Sport S1.
But the Germans didn't have the monopoly on outrageous power, performance and presence. The Lancia Delta S4 covered all the bases by featuring both a supercharger and a turbocharger, thereby eliminating the disadvantages of either system.
King of the Hill was the Peugeot 205 T16 E2, winning the titles in both '85 and '86.
With both the cars and the crowds difficult to control, the inevitable happened — with an accident killing three spectators in Portugal. One month later, WRC leader Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Cresto failed to negotiate a tight turn on the Tour de Corse. Their Lancia plunged down a ravine and caught fire; both perished at the scene. Group B was shut down almost immediately, though the season limped to a conclusion.
Since those days of tragedy, the FIA has kept a firm grip on the WRC, allowing the sport to rebuild. Many different brands have seen the spotlight, such as Lancia, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Peugeot, Citroën and, most recently, Volkswagen.
2017 sees a complete change for the World Rally Championship: out goes the three-time champ VW, and back into the fold comes Citroën.
For most years, the Citroën's return would be excitement enough, but this year, we'll be seeing stiff opposition from another returning champ: Toyota.
But this is no two-horse race; Hyundai has been making great improvements over the past few seasons and is in a position to challenge for glory.
Adding even more spice to the mix is a revitalized Ford, run by the crack M-Sport outfit.
So with four factories vying for the titles, what's not to like? And if that wasn't enough, there's a new rules package for 2017.
Lighter, wider and more spectacular than last year's models, the WRC's 2017 top-level cars have been built to technical regulations that allow greater aerodynamic freedom, more engine power and the re-introduction of active centre differentials. Does this sound familiar?
The new rules allow a 10 kilos reduction in weight. The cars are 55 mm wider than their predecessors. They are also 100 percent more aggressive-looking, thanks to new aerodynamic kits.
At the front, the splitter protrudes 60 mm farther forward, while a rear diffuser stretches back an extra 30 mm. Wheel arches are wider to accommodate the extra track, and an enormous rear wing sits 50 mm above the roofline to provide downforce and extra grip at the rear.
Around the car, additional grills and ducts manage airflow to keep brakes and engine running cool. Inside, the cars boast more safety features than ever. The thickness of energy-absorbing foam surrounding drivers is up from 200 mm to 240 mm, while relocated seats, wrap-around head protectors, strengthened door panels and improvements to roll cage design all play their part in protecting the driver and co-driver.
Under the hood, the 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine is the same, but increasing the turbo restrictor to 36 mm means power is up from around 310 bhp to 380 bhp. Limiting turbo boost to 2.5-bar keeps maximum torque in line with the previous figure of around 430 Nm. The gearbox is a six-speed sequential unit, upgraded to cope with the extra power and operated by a hydraulic paddle shift. There are passive diffs front and rear, but for the first time since 2010, the transmission now features an active centre differential to allow the driver to tune the car’s handling to different conditions.
There have been big changes on the driver front, too; reigning champion Sébastien Ogier will be driving a Ford Fiesta.
“It’s a new season in every sense of the word," Ogier said. "A new era, a new car and a new team."
The last minute deal will make the Frenchman's job of securing a fifth World Title difficult, but not impossible.
"We all know that experience is an important factor in rallying, and it would have been nice to have had more time with the team, but we have learned a lot over the past month," he continued. "Over the years, I have learned to be pragmatic in my approach and to focus on the job on hand. That is exactly what we plan to do this week. We’ve not had a lot of preparation, but we go to this first event determined to do our best."
Jari-Matti Latvala is another star with a new team; a Toyota Yaris will be his weapon of choice in 2017. He is realistic about the prospects in a new car and a new set of regulations.
"It’s a very nice feeling to finally get the season underway now after so much hard work and anticipation," Latvala said.
"When Volkswagen stopped, for one month, I didn’t know what to do," he explained. "I was even thinking of doing the Finnish Championship to keep the rhythm! I was very happy to get the Toyota seat and the feeling has been getting better and better the more testing I’ve been doing. It was tricky in shakedown, but I feel more confident with the car now."
The 2017 FIA World Rally Championships kicks off this week with the 85th edition of the Monte Carlo Rally as competitors, media and fans wait in eager anticipation for the new cars and new rules. The message? The glory days are back.