WRC: Race against conditions
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The specialised road and weather conditions faced during the opening rounds of the World Rally Championship conspire against a precise form guide.
And a performance measure is exactly what rally fans would like to have for the new-for-2017 WRC cars, in part because the Volkswagen Motorsport benchmark of the last four years has been removed from the equation.
Jari-Matti Latvala's podium on the Monte Carlo Rally hinted at real promise from the Toyota Yaris WRC -- with the caveat that Monte Carlo has a history of unusual results and a real measure would come when the car performed on more consistent surfaces.
But in Sweden last week we learned the new Toyota Yaris WRC is a real WRC contender. Latvala was on form on the high-speed snow, seizing the chance at victory with stunning pace.
Two rallies into its campaign, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC and the new Yaris WRC are winners and the car has also been reliable.
But at both early season events Hyundai's Thierry Neuville powered to the front and built a commanding lead until the roadside furniture got in the way, leaving his wheels pointing in odd directions and the Belgian's hopes dashed.
Even lacking a win and sitting only third in the Manufacturers' championship standings, I'd say Hyundai has done the best job of its 2017 car. The i20 Coupe WRC carries over a little more of the content from a 2016 car than any of its rivals.
But there's little to choose between the Ford Fiesta, Hyundai i20 Coupe and Toyota Yaris as the best of the crop after two events.
The new Fiesta looks strong. An element of Ogier's Monte Carlo victory could be put down to his experience of the event and perhaps the best measure yet of the Fiesta's pace came on Saturday in Sweden, when a fired-up Ott Tanak -- fighting back from some opening day gear change issues -- won three stages on the trot.
On Sunday, Tanak had a handling issue that slowed his pace slightly while Ogier started the final day with a spin that put any challenge to Latvala's lead out of reach. And the M-Sport squad would have been mindful that safely bringing the Fiestas home second and third would extend their early season lead in the Manufacturers' Championship.
Hyundai's pace was reinforced when Hayden Paddon delivered a second, third and fourth quickest time on Friday afternoon.
So with Neuville's pace, a glimpse of speed from Paddon and points-scoring consistency from Dani Sordo, I'd give the performance edge to Hyundai by a fraction from the new Fiesta with Toyota a close third.
Citroen's new C3 WRC is the least effective car on the stages we've seen so far. It never looked like a convincing machine in Monte Carlo and, although there were two second-fastest times from Meeke on Friday in Sweden, a string of sixth-fastest times on Saturday saw some frustration.
Going all the way back to the debut of the Xsara WRC in 2001 the French marque as yet to produce anything but a title-winning WRC design. But on both the results board and the TV footage the C3 WRC is a work in progress at the moment.
The WRC form guide will evolve quickly in the next couple months. The cars are new and development will progress quickly.
Judging gravel pace in Mexico next month has to be considered, while high temperatures and power-sapping altitude create another set of event specifics. Latvala's lead has placed him in the position of opening the road for the Friday stages.
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