World rallying looks to renaissance as former competitive cars return

Irish duo lead new Citroen challenge as Toyota comes back to sport that made its name

Kris Meeke, Citroen’s lead driver for2017 and at the heart of the development of the new C3 WRC. For the Dungannon-born driver, 2017 could represent his best chance of a tilt at the title

To say that international rallying has been in the doldrums for the past few seasons is something of an insult to the windless latitudes of the globe – rallying’s winds have been stiller by far than even the legendary areas into which ancient mariners dared not sail. The sport had become the victim of increasing costs, which lead to smaller, slower, less spectacular cars and the loss of several of its more exciting personalities.

The great Colin McRae died in a tragic helicopter accident, while Richard Burns succumbed to a brain tumour. The unstoppable Sebastian Loeb got bored and wandered off to Le Mans, touring cars and the challenge of Pikes Peak, while greats such as Carlos Sainz, Tommi Makkinen and Marcus Gronholm simply got old and retired. Shorter stages, less spectacular events and desperate attempts to try to entice uninterested TV viewers sucked the intrepidity out of the sport.

Yet 2017 could, just possibly, be a new beginning for rallying, not least because although it has suffered the withdrawal of Volkswagen as a works-entered squad, two big names from rallying’s past have decided that a swathe of new rules mean it’s time to get back into the sport.

Citroen is back for the first time as a full works team since 2015, when it campaigned the DS3 World Rally Championship (WRC) car

Citroen is back for the first time as a full works team since 2015, when it campaigned the DS3 World Rally Championship (WRC) car. Successful a rallying weapon though that was, the vagaries of rules and marketing requirements mean that it has now been replaced by the new C3 WRC, but this is no ordinary C3. For a start, it looks as if it has been driven head first into a venetian blind factory, such is the festoon of wings, slats and splitters glued on to Citroen's little family car. It is a sign that the rallying rules have changed. Although costs have to be controlled and all competitors have to use the same basic design of 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, power limits have been lifted (cars will be running at about 380hp in 2017) and the aerodynamic rules have been relaxed to allow more downforce and more aero trickery.


"At first glance, you could easily think that this is just a major upgrade to the previous regulations" said Yves Matton, the Citroen team manager, "but it's much more than that. The increase in engine power, the growing influence of aerodynamics and the return of the centrally controlled differential are the three major changes. We have applied our unique expertise on these three points, derived from our previous World Rally cars and our recent experience in track racing. That has helped us to go quicker than we might otherwise have been able and above all, to go further in our thinking."

The extra power and aero grip has even drawn comparisons to the classic hi-po days of group B rallying the 1980s, a comparison Matton agrees with. "The C3 WRC certainly recalls the cars that enthralled a generation of rally enthusiasts, including me. Thirty years on, fortunately everything has changed, especially in terms of safety, but the sense that the drivers will need to tame an aggressive, roaring beast is something that we will certainly see next season. When I saw Kris Meeke drive the car for the first time in testing, I said to myself that we had achieved our goal. There is an extremely spectacular side to this new generation of WRCs."

Meeke, Citroen’s lead driver for the year and a man at the heart of the development of the new C3 WRC, is Irish – the Dungannon-born driver has been knocking on the door of rallying’s top echelon for some time now and 2017 could represent his best chance of a tilt at the title.

At the new C3 WRC’s launch, he said: “The car looks really good here. I can’t wait to get to Monte Carlo. We’re excited by the challenge and we want to get to the stages and just enjoy it, to be honest. We’ve shown, in fact, that when we do that – just enjoy it – the speed and results can come, so we’re aiming for that. Hopefully we can get off to a good start in Monte and then see what 2017 can brings.

“I tend not to set targets; we all know my ultimate ambition is to be the world champion, naturally, but I’m not setting myself specific goals beyond that. We just want to be at the sharp end – that’s the clear ambition.”

He will be joined in the Citroen team by Craig Breen from Waterford, marking the first time ever that a full works team has entered the WRC with two Irish drivers at its head. "This is the stuff that dreams are made of, thank you so much to everybody who has made this possible," said Breen.

The two Irish drivers in their French car won't have it easy, though. The British-based M-Sport team has revealed its dramatic-looking new Ford Fiesta WRC and has signed champion driver Sebastian Ogier to drive it. Although not a full works entry, the M-Sport team has plenty financial backing and can put out a team of seriously quick cars.

Not only that, but Toyota is coming back. The Japanese brand, once a dominant force in world rallying, is returning for the first time since 1999 when, after winning the manufacturers' title, Toyota left the sport to concentrate on its Formula One and Le Mans efforts.

It is returning this year with a wild-looking car based on the Yaris hatchback (and which is set to spawn a road-going Yaris hot hatch, named Yaris Gazoo after the team which handles Toyota’s motorsport efforts) and a team managed by none other than multiple WRC champ, Tommi Makkinen. He will be managing to fellow and very fast Finns in the drivers’ seats – Jari-Matti Latvala and Juho Hänninen.

“The Yaris WRC is a well-designed car with incredible potential. The new regulations allow for much greater freedom in terms of development” said Makkinen. “Although we have yet to explore all the possibilities, we can say that the car is reliable and quick. I really can’t wait to see the results in racing conditions.”

Team chairman and global Toyota president Akio Toyoda said participating in the WRC would enable Toyota to train and strengthen its people and cars. "Because they involve competition on all types of roads, rallies are the optimal stage on which to hone the capabilities of both people and cars," Toyoda said. "Toyota has not been seen on that stage for a long time, but I'm truly happy that we're back."

And what of Volkswagen? The German team was the dominant force in rallying for the past few seasons but even with its 2017 car developed and ready to run, the plug was pulled as VW seeks to trim its motorsport expenditures in light of the Dieselgate scandal. Nonetheless, the super-fast Polo WRCs could yet make an appearance at the season-opening Monte Carlo rally on January 16th if a deal for the cars to be run by a privateer team can be struck.

Either way, the 2017 WRC might actually be more watchable for more of us. TV deals have dwindled over the years, but the sport is now being promoted and effectively run by Red Bull, which will broadcast both live sections and packaged highlights online, surely a better home for rallying than on the telly.

Will we be tuning in later in the year to see an Irish WRC champion step up on the podium? Just possibly.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring