The cars and stars of the 2018 World Rally Championship (WRC) descended on Birmingham earlier this month for an exciting pre-season launch event ahead of the opening round in Monte Carlo (25th-28th January).
As a volunteer rally marshal, I was able to attend the launch, along with the world’s motorsport press gathered to see the unveiling of the 2018 cars by the team principals, drivers and co-drivers. The event was held on one of the trade days of Autosport International, a show which takes place every year at the beginning of the motorsport calendar.
Traditionally, the launch of the new season takes place on the opening day of the first rally in Monte Carlo, but after the success of this year’s event, there have been suggestions that the WRC could make a return visit to Birmingham in 2019. As a fan of the sport, it was a fantastic experience to be able to get up close and marvel at the latest specification of World Rally Cars, with their massive wings, flared arches and dramatic styling serving as a not so subtle hint at the huge speeds these machines are capable of. It was also refreshing to see the drivers and co-drivers happily signing autographs, chatting, and having photos taken with fans. Although the event wasn’t open to the public, it was still an impressive level of access for top-level motorsport. A personal highlight was watching Toyota driver Jari-Matti Latvala jump into a circuit racing simulator and instantly begin driving flat out in an impressive demonstration of car control, even if for him it was just a bit of fun!
Looking ahead to the new season, the big question is whether M-Sport can defend their manufactures’ title. With increased backing from Ford, the team’s works partner, and reigning drivers’ champion Sebastien Ogier leading the team once again, they are certainly in with a good chance of repeating the achievements of last season.
However, after a highly competitive 2017 season, their rivals will no doubt prove fiercer than ever. The biggest threat may well come from Hyundai, who have a very strong driver line-up with Thierry Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen competing in all 13 rounds while Hayden Padden and Dani Sordo contest 7 rallies each. After narrowly missing out on the title last year, Neuville in particular will be determined to go all the way in 2018. Mikkelsen was a victim of VW’s surprise decision to pull out of the WRC in the wake of the emissions scandal and is more than capable of delivering victories now that he’s back in a works car.
Meanwhile, Citroen will look to put last year’s disappointing season behind them. Their main challenge is to produce a car capable of unlocking the potential of British driver Kris Meeke, who is one of the fastest drivers in the championship. Exciting news for all rally fans is that 9-time champion Sebastien Loeb will be making a return on 3 events with Citroen in 2018.
Having last competed in the WRC in 1999, Toyota enjoyed a successful comeback season last year, which included winning in Sweden on only their second outing. Mounting a serious title challenge proved a step too far, although they did produce arguably the best-sounding car of 2017; sadly there are no championship points on offer for that particular accolade. For 2018, the team have chosen a combination of youth and experience, with a line-up of WRC-regular Jari-Matti Latvala, Ott Tanak (poached from M-Sport) and Esapekka Lappi, who made a dream start to his WRC career after winning on his home event in Finland last year, only 2 months after making his debut.
If you’re looking for a fast and furious sport to keep you entertained this year, then the 2018 World Rally Championship is shaping up to be a gripping season. Talented drivers battling tough terrain at breath-taking speeds as their co-drivers deliver pace notes alongside them (some say they are the crazy ones) – what more could you ask for?