WRC: The champ, the legend, and the challengers
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A 2019 World Rally Championship without Hayden Paddon behind the wheel is a huge disappointment for Kiwi sports fans.
Paddon’s video announcement last Friday that he wasn’t taking up a Hyundai Motorsport offer for just one rally in 2019 is understandable.
It’s believed the Hyundai offer was for Rally Finland in August. The phrase “hiding to nothing” might be a touch too strong, but turning up at the fastest event on the calendar with little or no WRC seat time in the preceding eight months — and potentially with a co-driver new to elite-level WRC competition — would definitely have put Paddon way behind the eight-ball.
Seeing Paddon parked for 2019 is gut-wrenching. But even the most disappointed Kiwis may not be able to take their eyes off the tantalising prospects in play for next year’s WRC.
2019’s WRC storylines are compelling and the headline could be: The champion, the legend and the challenger — for at least six occasions.
Five-time champ Sebastien Ogier has re-joined Citroen. The once-dominant French team badly needs the direction Ogier is expected to provide after it finished a distant last in the manufacturers’ title, albeit with the C3 WRC showing flashes of pace.
Meanwhile “The Legend” Sebastien Loeb — who has scored every one of his 79 WRC victories with Citroen — has made a stunning move to Hyundai. It’s a team that has promised much but fallen short in recent years.
But Loeb’s move to Hyundai is a part-time campaign. Will his presence help or pressure team leader Thierry Neuville? The Belgian can win rallies and has led the championship but hasn’t converted to a title.
Ogier, the modern era benchmark and Loeb, the legend, will have their eyes on the new superstar. Estonia’s Ott Tanak will enjoy continuity into 2019 with his second year in a Toyota Gazoo Racing Yaris WRC that became the car to beat in 2018.
The sub-plot at Toyota involves team mates who have plenty of prove. How will Kris Meeke perform under Tommi Makinen’s guidance? The one-year deal at Toyota must be the last roll of the dice for the Northern Irishman’s career.
Winning pace in the second half of 2018 points to Toyota's Ott Tanak as the driver to beat in the 2019 World Rally Championship. Photo INMOTION/Greg Henderson
Some believe the maximum attack styles of Tanak and Meeke may neutralise each other and the experience of Jari-Matti Latvala may come through to lead Toyota’s bid.
Will Hyundai get its driver management sorted — and can its engineers create a car with the wider operating window needed to secure the title the Korean marque craves?
If Loeb starts strongly and is in title contention, will his six-rally deal be extended? And how? By Hyundai cutting the programmes of Dani Sordo or Andreas Mikkelsen or by adding a fourth car?
Ogier’s task is primarily an engineering one — to eliminate the confusing troughs in the performance of the Citroen C3. Meeke, Loeb, Mads Ostberg and Craig Breen have shown its peaks but there still aren’t enough of them to deliver a title challenge.
Ogier will have support from Esapekka Lappi and their experience of the Ford Fiesta and Toyota Yaris has to be of benefit to Citroen.
Or will we see Toyota pick-up where it left off in the second half of 2018 with a string of fastest stage times and begin to exert a VW-like domination over the sport?
The 14-round championship runs from January to November and it may take some months before the competitive picture becomes clear. It has the ingredients for a season heading to a thrilling climax in Australia next November.
A consequence of Paddon’s absence will be the absence, too, of the army of Kiwi supporters who follow him to Coffs Harbour each year,
Even if there’s a ripping finale, expect a round of calls from the teams and European media to see the final shifted to Europe because even fewer fans turn up to watch in 2019.