The World Rally Championship is back on tarmac this weekend, and while Sebastien Ogier seems to have the 2021 title within reach, there’s still plenty to play for.
After being cancelled at the last minute in 2020, Belgium’s Ypres Rally will make its WRC debut, with local hero Thierry Neuville almost an unbackable favourite to win.
The perennial second place getter in the WRC title race lies third in this year’s championship, but he’s a massive 52 points behind his French nemesis, meaning that he has little to lose.
On the other hand, both Ogier and team-mate Elfyn Evans need consistent results from here until the end of the year to maintain their 1-2 places at the head of the pack.
While Ogier is on track for an eighth WRC title, it’s those who are currently out of the running who will be the ones to watch in Belgium.
Hyundai’s Ott Tanak has had a miserable year and will be chasing nothing but wins from the next five rallies, while those with Ford’s Malcolm Wilson on speed dial will be pushing hard to impress the M-Sport boss.
Wilson has recently said that he would love to run three of the new Ford Puma hybrids in next year’s WRC, and that only the Frenchman, Adrien Fourmaux, is a certainty to be driving for the team.
“That is the target, to stand chance of winning the manufacturer’s championship you definitely need to be running three cars, particular with new technology and new cars coming in to have that backup and support,” Wilson said this week.
“Obviously, a lot of it will come down to budget and where we can be, and the target is to run three.”
That leaves two potential seats available, and Craig Breen, Gus Greensmith and Andreas Mikkelsen appear to be at the head of the list.
After his second place in Estonia last month, Breen is the obvious choice, and with only a part-time drive at Hyundai, he’ll be hoping for his first full season since 2018.
Likewise, Mikkelsen (absent this weekend), has only been a bit player with both Citroen and Hyundai, despite being a part of Volkswagen’s record breaking team in the mid-2010s.
The Norwegian has been driving Rally2 (R5) cars this year, but could no doubt make the step back into the main game with ease.
Greensmith, on the other hand, is a customer who is paying for his drive, but despite this, he has shown real improvement in 2021 and could (and probably will) retain his place in the team.
Throw into the mix guys like Teemu Suninen and Esapekka Lappi, and it makes for a salivating scenario.
Suninen seems unlikely to get a WRC lifeline in 2022 after a number of sub-par drives with M-Sport this year, but Lappi – a 2020 M-Sport driver – looks set to return to Toyota, where he claimed his one and only WRC event victory, in Finland in 2017.
“Esapekka is the most solid alternative to this role of Sebastian’s replacement,” Toyota boss, Jari-Matti Latvala, has revealed.
“He has driven a bit this year, but brilliantly. He knows our team and knows how it works.”
It may take a while to fill in the other gaps, but with the new cars needing to be tested, all teams will be hoping to finalise their line ups as soon as possible, and as soon as existing contracts allow.
In the shorter term, drivers will be going ‘all out’ to impress on the Belgium tarmac, meaning we may see as many surprising stage times as we do panel crunching errors.
Grab the popcorn and settle in.