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The World Rally Championship is undergoing a resurgence at the minute – and that’s great news for rally fans.
I know this because I witnessed it for myself at this year’s Rally Monte Carlo round of the WRC. World championships need manufacturers to create some real competitive interest – and in 2014, that’s exactly what we’ve got with the WRC.
There’s Citroen, VW and, to a degree, Ford (although the Blue Oval has officially pulled out and the cars are being run by British outfit M Sport). Now, for 2014 Hyundai has joined the fold, too.
It was the Korean team that hosted us for this year’s Monte, so last Thursday it was off to the south of France to witness some bulging-bodied superminis slithering around the slippery stages of one of the most famous rallies ever.
This turned up at my door to whisk me off to the airport. Now the Hyundai i10 isn’t exactly what you’d call the perfect chauffeur vehicle, but it is a damn good city car. “We’re re-writing the rules of chauffeuring,” I was told by a Hyundai PR. It was as good as I remember zipping around the M25.
Once we touched down in France, we were met by an equally curious choice of Hyundai: an ix55. But with loads of space, four-wheel drive, a 3.0-litre turbodiesel V6 and, most importantly, heated seats in the rear, it was a perfect Monte chase car.
After grabbing a few zeds in the back on the way to the rally’s service park (it really does ride rather well), we were met by unfortunate news for Hyundai on arrival.
Both Hyundai i20 WRCs had already retired from the rally – lead driver Thierry Neuville on the very first stage after a mix of bad luck and driver error putting him off the road and into a telegraph pole, and second man Dani Sordo after an electrical fault at the end of Special Stage 5.
We had a poke around the cars in Hyundai’s massive hospitality unit (it’s doing this rally thing all-in) and a chance to talk to a few key members of the team.
Neuville was understandably disappointed but was pleased with the pace the car had shown in the early stages – this is a development year for Hyundai, so for them to be near the pace is definitely a positive sign.
Far from being filled with doom and gloom, the Hyundai garage was actually relatively buoyant. Team boss Michel Nandan is conscious this is an exploratory year for learning – there’s no better place to do that than being in the competition, he reckons. Testing doesn’t cut it next to racing.
The paddock may have been doused in rain, but that didn’t stop me venturing out for a look at some of the more weird and wonderful entries on this year’s rally Monte Carlo at the service park in Gap.
My favourite of which was endurance racing legend Marc Duez’s ‘996’ Porsche 911 GT3. Snow. A 400hp (or there abouts) rear-engined, rear-wheel drive sports car is not the natural choice even for a Tarmac rally, so massive respect to Duez. It sounded brilliant, too.
The VWs, Fords and Citroens all looked brilliant. The Polo R makes an awesome looking WRC car – the massive body kit, relatively low ride height in asphalt spec and the big rear wing give it a really butch stance.
The Fiestas and the DS3s are the same – their massive arch extensions mixing with the compact chassis to give a very four-square feel. These cars look as wide as they are long!
While attracting the big teams is great for the WRC’s global profile, the organisers rely on privateers running lower class cars to keep interest on the stages. Monte 2014 featured a bumper grid of cars.
From WRC-lite R5 chellengers (these are only front-wheel drive, have less aggressive aerodynamics and produce roughly 50hp less than a full-on WRC racer) to R3 Citroens and Renaults, and rev-hungry S2000 Peugeots, there was plenty to look at. There were even a few Mitsubishi Evos and Subaru Imprezas for rally fans of old.
Staged and ready
The weather didn’t subside for Friday’s stages, but standing out in a wet, muddy field you could sense the anticipation.
As the TV helicopter tracked the first car down the mountainside and it slewed into view sideways I was amazed at just how quick the professionals can thread a 300hp monster down a slippy, narrow, bumpy piece of cracked Tarmac.
And how much they cut the corners. As Brit Kris Meeke came into view in his Citroen, he tipped it into the three right and for a fleeting few seconds the grinding noise from underneath his Citroen as it scraped along the edge of the road drowned out the racket from the engine.
The traction the cars find is alarming, too. They slide and claw at the road for a few seconds, then all of a sudden the studded tyres hook up and shoot the car up the road with a tiny shake of the hips and a few massive cracks from the backfiring exhaust.
Except if you’re Andreas Mikkelsen in the VW Polo. As you can see from the video, the Finnish driver nearly put it in the ditch right by our vantage point.
Inspecting the tyre tracks later proved the rear right wheel was actually off the road and hovering dangerously over the dyke. But heart in the mouth stuff like this is the norm for these pilots.
Up, up and away
Thankfully, the weather did let up later on and we managed to jump into our helicopter to witness some amazing action high up in the hills.
The chopper ride was spectacular as we flew over the stage start and the line of assembled cars ready to attack the next 49km. Touching down on the top of a mountain surrounded by steep slopes on all sides, the balletic flying by our pilot was on a par with the rally drivers’ drifting.
Our viewing spot was great, along a fast kink that meant we could hear the level of commitment from the different drivers by how big a lift they had. Then a long left and a heavy braking zone for a tight, slippy right. As you can see from the video, the action was full-on.
It was Duez’s 911 that stole the show for me – the last car through the stage – even if the VW Polo of reigning champion Sebastian Ogier ended up winning the rally by a margin of 1 minute 18.9 seconds.
It was an impressive result, given that the Frenchman had nearly 40 seconds to find after day one. It was also an ominous sign for the rest of the field, but let’s hope Hyundai has a more successful outing next time in Sweden.
Another helicopter ride and a lengthy drive saw us roll into Monaco, following the troop of rally cars to Parc Ferme on the harbour side for the evening.
There was another day to go for the drivers, but the Monte was over for us. Even a snowy Col de Turini couldn’t stop Ogier taking his first win of 2014, but it was a good result for the Brits, too.
Kris Meeke finished in third, 1 minute and 54.3 seconds back of the winner, and youngster Elfyn Evans bagged sixth. Bodes well for the rest of the season.
Rally Monte Carlo proved the WRC is going from strength to strength with more manufacturer involvement. Let’s hope we see some close results throughout the year.
As for me, my Monte ended like it started. In a brand new chauffeur driven Hyundai i10 whizzing along the motorway. How cool.