The short rallying off-season concludes this weekend, as the WRC heads to Monte-Carlo for its traditional curtain-raiser. Here’s our 2024 World Rally Championship preview.
It is just shy of 70 days since the engines were switched off at the end of the 2023 World Rally Championship season, but they will be back this Thursday to kick off one the most unpredictable seasons for more than a decade. Toyota drivers Sébastien Ogier and Kalle Rovanperä have scooped the last four WRC crowns between them, but both Yaris drivers are conducting part-time programmes in 2024. That presents a golden opportunity to Elfyn Evans, himself a three-time runner up in the global contest.
The Welshman will not have things his own way though, because the potential tinder box of a partnership between 2019 king Ott Tänak and Belgian speed demon Thierry Neuville will either spark into a highly successful assault or suffer a meltdown. How this conundrum is stage-managed will be fascinating to watch. And British heroes M-Sport will be back at the party, initially with a brace of Ford Pumas. Grégoire Munster will be joined in the line-up by British Rally title winner and Rally1 returnee Adrien Fourmaux. The Puma, don’t forget, was a two-time winner in the WRC last term and so it can’t be discounted.
Sit back, buckle up and enjoy what is likely to be a lip-smacking WRC season, and you can read how it all unfolds in Motorsport News each week. For now though, let’s take a closer look at some of the key pre-season storylines, as I sit down with Toyota’s Welsh superstar.
Can Evans assert dominance at Toyota?
No driver goes into any new season without a winning ambition. That is a given. And that has been Elfyn Evans’ philosophy since he joined rallying’s top fight over a decade ago. Approaching 2024, the Toyota World Rally Team ace has all the aces up his sleeve. He is in arguably the best car in the contest in the Rally1 Yaris, he has banked the experience from more than 100 events at the highest level and he has a free run at the silverware this term as title-winning team-mates Rovanperä and Ogier are on part-time programmes on their side of the service park.
It was French legend Ogier who crushed Evans’ title hopes in 2020 in the final round in Italy, while Rovanperä has ripped up the history books to become the WRC’s youngest-ever title winner in 2022 and 2023. All the while, Evans has looked on enviously from his close-but-no-cigar viewpoint.
Since the 35-year-old joined the Japanese firm in 2020 after a stint at M-Sport, he has proved to be a reliable and fast driver. Seven wins have come his way including his highest-yet season’s return in 2023 when he claimed three victories and he signed off his campaign with glory in Toyota’s backyard on Rally Japan. That was a statement win by over a minute ahead of Ogier and Rovanperä.
Frenchman Ogier will continue with the part-time campaign that he is comfortable with in the latter stages of his career, but Rovanperä’s decision to adopt a similar approach was something of a shock when it was confirmed at the end of 2023. At just 23 years old, the double title winner will step down from a branch of the sport few had conquered even once at his tender age. So, by rights, this should afford Evans his best chance yet at lifting that elusive World crown. But the driver himself has been around the block long enough to know that nothing is a given in the WRC and there will be no let-up in the competitive edge at the front.
Elfyn Evans interview
“For sure, when you take two very fast guys and title contenders and put them on part-time seasons, then the chances increase for everyone who is left doing it full-time,” Evans told Motorsport News. “That goes without saying. But that doesn’t mean to say that the challenge will be any less, because the overall speed will still be there [on each event]. Seb and Kalle will still be around on various rallies, still fighting for wins. So I think certainly there is an opportunity like there is every year but winning rallies will still be very difficult.
“It is clear the level of competition is still the same because either of those two guys will still be there throughout the season. Then you have to factor in Ott Tänak and Thierry Neuville at Hyundai too.” That last sentence could highlight the major thorn in Evans’ side this season. Hyundai was the paciest car at a number of events in 2023. There might have been only two victories for Neuville but the speed won’t diminish this term and the painful lessons of the previous campaign will only be a spark to perform at a higher level.
The threat of Hyundai
The interest, and the potential downfall, for Hyundai will surround the working cooperation between the two drivers. They were partnered back in 2021 and 2022 and the relationship quickly became frosty (not helped when Tänak felt Neuville should have given up a win in Greece to help his ’22 points chase). It was almost irreparable and therefore Tänak’s decision to turn his back on M-Sport and return to the South Korean firm’s attack was something else that caught service park insiders off guard. Evans has looked on with interest. He was a team-mate to Tänak at M-Sport back in 2017 and knows the Estonian and his working methods well. But, much like his theory on the chances of a World championship chase, he is keen to sidestep the chance to wade into the potential tinder box that could be the Hyundai squad’s combination. How does he think they will gel?
“I have no idea, to be honest. It is not anything for me to worry about,” he says candidly, but he is aware of the threat they pose as a pairing. “I don’t discount anybody. Of course, Thierry is always fast and Ott is a former champion so there is no doubt they are going to be among the fastest in the championship,” he adds.
The magic of the Monte
While Evans won’t discount anyone, he knows that coming out of the blocks fast will be key to the 2024 campaign. Monte Carlo maestro Ogier will be part of the Yaris line-up as he chases a ninth WRC win on the event but points are the target for Evans. Hitting the ground running is perhaps a poor turn of phrase, as Evans did that quite literally before Christmas when he broke some ribs after falling off his bike while training. Fully repaired now, he is relishing the challenge ahead. The Monte Carlo Rally in 2024 will return to some of its traditional tests to the north of the base and use the iconic Gap stage. This will present an even bigger challenge to the regulars.
Changeable conditions mean that the pressure level for the competitors will increase, but it is all part of the beauty of conquering one of the sport’s most famous events according to Evans.
“It is one of those yes and no rallies,” he says. “It is always a massive challenge. I don’t think everybody enjoys every minute of the Monte Carlo Rally. It is one of those rallies, especially as the route is now going back up north, where there is a lot of stress and there are a lot of decisions to be made. It is not just about driving as fast as you can. There is a lot of judgement and rally management.
“It is definitely a tough way to start the year but it is an event which you get a huge amount of satisfaction from, but it can also be a frustrating event if it doesn’t go your way. Monte had, in a way, lost a little bit of character when we moved down south. There was a lack of snow and ice compared to previous years. The chances of a ‘whiter’ Monte is much, much higher but, of course, that also adds to the difficulty.”
Let’s be honest, the World Rally Championship entry list isn’t the healthiest it’s ever been. Across three teams, there are just eight full-time Rally1 cars entered for the 2024 season, and two of those will feature a rotation of drivers. It’s a big concern for the championship, and one which has caused plenty of discussion in recent months about the future of the championship. Although these hybrid Rally1 cars look, sound, and perform superbly, the costs involved seem to be alienating any potential new factory teams that might be interested in joining, while most independents would simply scoff at the idea of running a car as expensive as a Rally1.
However, until a resolution is found, we can only appreciate what we already have, and thankfully although the numbers aren’t massive, the quality is very high indeed. We’ve already mentioned the might of Toyota and Evans, but it’s worth pointing out that Takamoto Katsuta is set for perhaps the most important season of his senior career to date. The Japanese prodigy will run alongside Evans on a full-time basis for Toyota in 2024, and after showing signs of real speed in glimpses last year, a first WRC rally victory might not be an entirely outlandish aim.
What have the others got up their sleeve?
Hyundai’s WRC team went viral in the off-season thanks to their recreation of the GTA VI trailer (which you can watch above), though I wouldn’t be surprised if the jovial atmosphere in the team sours sooner rather than later. As referenced earlier, Neuville and Tänak have certainly had their differences in the past. However, Hyundai’s hiring of ex-Renault F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul seems to have convinced the Estonian about rejoining. Certainly, with Abiteboul steering the ship, the Hyundai factory team could/should feel a bit less like ‘Team Neuville’ if Tänak proves that he can outshine the Belgian on pace. Cue the fireworks already. A third Hyundai will also be in attendance at each event, shared by the trio of veteran Dani Sordo, Finnish ace Esapekka Lappi, and reigning WRC-2 champion Andreas Mikkeslen.
We’ve not spoken about M-Sport much in this preview, and regrettably that’s with good reason. Despite the fresh new look unveiled at Autosport International, the Puma is undeniably the weakest of the Rally1 cars due to M-Sport’s lack of factory testing budget from Ford, and the British team’s chances of success were reduced even further when Tänak abandoned the project over the winter. In his place, Adrien Fourmaux does at least have a point to prove. He’s always been quick, but has seemingly matured a lot since his previous stint in the WRC’s top class. His team-mate, Grégoire Munster, is set for a steep learning curve though.
Whatever happens over the course of this season, you’ll be able to keep up to date with it right here on Fast Car, or in Motorsport News’s weekly paper. Stay tuned!
Words by Matt James & James Bowers