Star of the 2018 World Rally Championship season so far has been the Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville, who leads M-Sport driver Sebastien Ogier by 27 points in the Drivers’ series.
Both have won three of the seven events held so far, but Ogier failed to finish one event (Portugal) when he went off the road.
Unlike last year, the first-day running order rules, which can play a big part in the success on events, had worked fairly evenly between these two drivers, but conditions hit Ogier exceptionally hard in Sweden.
The remaining rally was won by Ott Tanak, who also failed to finish in Portugal and had a bad result in Mexico. He is 72 points behind the leader, in third place.
In the Manufacturers’ championship Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT is 28 points ahead of M-Sport Ford WRT.
Thierry Neuville leads the WRC at the half way point after three wins.
At Hyundai there is a policy of relying on Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen as regular drivers, with either Dani Sordo or Hayden Paddon running as third car to suit circumstances.
The policy is that both support drivers are to enter the same number of events to equalise their Drivers’ championship prospects.
M-Sport, meanwhile, have been relying on Ogier and Elfyn Evans, with Teemu Suninen being entered on a majority of events in the team’s third car.
Sebastien Ogier has won three events, but trails in the race for a sixth WRC crown.
Hyundai and M-Sport are pulling away from Toyota and Citroen. Toyota’s big excitement this year was the arrival from M-Sport of Tanak, where he had been frustrated at the thought of having to remain as second driver in the team behind Ogier.
Tanak’s second place in his new team at Monte Carlo, behind Ogier, was encouraging, but he had problems in Sweden and turbocharger failure in Mexico. He had good results in Corsica – his second second place on asphalt this year – and then his win in Argentina,.
The second half of his season ending, however, with a heavy landing in Sardinia.
His team leader, Jari-Matti Latvala, continued his troubled career at Toyota with three successive retirements, with his only satisfactory result being third at Monte Carlo. His misfortunes threw the spotlight on Toyota’s number three driver, Esapekka Lappi, who went off the road in Mexico, but hand consistent results on other events, ending with third in Sardinia.
Ott Tanak has taken one victory so far this season for Toyota.
Lying fourth and last in the Manufacturer’s standings is Citroen, who have had another horrendous year, their best performance all year being a second in Sweden.
Citroen Racing has long been in disarray. This year started with a new Team Principal, the exit of the previous technical chief and more confusion when it was decided that their former golden boy, 44 year old Sebastien Loeb, should take three breaks away from his rallycross programme to return to WRC rallying, two of which have already happened.
This was splendid for publicity, but disastrous for the disruption it caused to an already beleaguered team.
Sebastien Loeb has made two appearances in a dismal season for Citroen so far.
In Mexico Loeb dropped back when changing a tyre on a stage when leading, perhaps unnecessarily, and then in Corsica he went off the road. As if Loeb’s misadventures were not traumatic enough, then came the problem of Kris Meeke.
His accident in Portugal was a crash too far for the Citroen Racing team who terminated his contract with immediate effect. It is rumoured that this was a decision inspired by a corporate anxiety about publicity, should their notoriously accident-prone driver have a serious incident affecting other people.
Citroen’s driver selections were irregular. Team patron Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi was promised a selection of favourite events to enter. 28-year old Craig Breen was not needed at Monte Carlo, immediately came second in Sweden, but was then dropped for Mexico and Corsica.
He then had an accident in Argentina before steady results on the last two events.
Mads Ostberg is Citroen's replacement for the dumped Kris Meeke.
Then when the driver options were getting difficult for the team, Mads Ostberg was invited back into the team after a two-year break and was the team’s top scorer in both Portugal and Sardinia. Not a year which management will look back on with fondness.
The main support attraction in the WRC has again been the WRC2 series, in which Skoda emerges stronger than ever. M-Sport provided entries on most events and the number of R5 suppliers is increasing.
Hyundai provided entries on various rallies as part of their young driver development, Citroen introduced their C3 R5 (not entirely reliable, yet), and Volkswagen have spent most of the year developing their Polo GTI R5 due for release later on in the season.
Skoda’s plan in WRC2 is to continue their two-fold strategy - of providing fair championship opportunities between their regular drivers, Pontus Tidemand and Jan Kopecky, while developing their young drivers Ole Christian Veiby and (even younger!) Kalle Rovanpera - either with official factory entries or through entries run by customer teams.
Pontus Tidemand raises the dust in the factory WRC2 Skoda Fabia.
In the race for the WRC2 Drivers’ title, drivers again score points on seven rounds of which six are counted, so in a 13 round series, one event is likely to see either both contenders – or neither…
Reigning champion Tidemand has so far started four events, winning three, second once (on his home event, behind Toyota’s trainee driver Katsuta, on an event where tyre supplier was significant), Kopecky has started three and won them all.
There has been intense face to face competition, however, in Junior WRC which only qualifies on five events this year. Three have been held (Sweden, Corsica and Portugal).
Swedish drivers (Dennis Radstrom and Emil Berkqvist) finished 1-2 in Sweden, French driver (Jean-Baptiste Franceschi and Terry Folb) 1-2 in Corsica, and on the first gravel rally Radstrom had a furious battle with Berkqvist for a long time, before Radstrom won his second event.
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