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Special feature
WRC Central Europe Rally

Could the WRC’s new three-country rally shake up the title fight?

With the Kalle Rovanpera versus Elfyn Evans title fight reaching its climax, the World Rally Championship will throw the ultimate curveball of a brand-new event and concept that could determine this year’s champion. With many crucial variables at play, who is in the box seat to prevail?

Kalle Rovanperä, Jonne Halttunen, Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT Toyota GR Yaris Rally1

It’s not often an entirely new rally concept joins the World Rally Championship calendar. This weekend’s Central European Rally is not only a championship first, but this voyage into the unknown could conceivably decide the title race.

WRC events have crossed country borders before but the Central European Rally, which hosts the penultimate round of the season, takes this principle to another level. Crews will contest challenging asphalt stages in the Czech Republic, Austria and Germany, incorporating three nations into one event for the first time in WRC history.

It’s a novel idea for an event, and one that the FIA has already revealed will return in 2024 even before the inaugural edition has been run and won. It is expected to offer an all-new driving challenge for crews and teams, while taking the WRC to three countries that have had varying exposure to rallying’s top tier. Germany hosted a WRC round from 2002 to 2008 and returned from 2010 to 2019, while Austria hosted a round in the WRC’s inaugural season in 1973, but this weekend will mark the Czech Republic’s debut on the world stage.

At a time when the WRC is actively attempting to revamp its event formats in general to respond to criticism from drivers, teams and fans, the Central European Rally on paper seems to tick many boxes. It brings the rally to the people while offering a unique challenge that sets it apart from other rallies on the calendar. Perhaps this could provide a blueprint for other events in the future.

However, there is no hiding from the fact that this weekend’s 18-stage (310.01km) rally will present a significant logistical undertaking. It will feature the highest road section mileage of the season at a whopping 1,380.69km, meaning lengthy days for the crews and everyone associated.

The rally’s service park will be based out of the German city Passau, the birthplace of Sauber Formula 1 boss Andreas Seidl, which is located near to Austrian and Czech borders. The event will begin with crews completing a three and a half liaison section to Prague for the ceremonial start followed by two stages, before returning to Passau.

The Central European Rally could provide a template for future WRC events, but will pose a huge challenge for crews

The Central European Rally could provide a template for future WRC events, but will pose a huge challenge for crews

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Friday will comprise six stages in the Czech Republic punctuated only by a tyre fitting zone, before sweeping back to Passau. Crews will then traverse the German-Austrian border to complete six stages split by a trip back to the service park, before four stages in Germany that will conclude the rally on Sunday.

M-Sport team principal Richard Millener summed it up best: “It’s always exciting to take-on a new event, it’s a huge challenge for teams and organisers alike, but it’s also crucial to keep our sport evolving and to bring in new fans.”

Hyundai team principal Cyril Abiteboul added: “The introduction of a brand-new rally to the calendar, and one as remarkable as this, always presents a challenge to teams and crews. Uniting three countries in one round is something the WRC has never done before, for three countries with such a huge rallying heritage to play host is exceptional.”

Who will have the edge in the title race?

The prospect of tackling brand-new stages featuring different types of asphalt roads each day in different countries will offer up a unique challenge. Factor in unpredictable weather on top of that and you have a recipe for a fascinating rally, with the added spice of a WRC drivers’ title that could be decided this weekend.

A comparison between Rovanpera and Evans across the 14 tarmac WRC rallies since 2020, Rovanpera’s first season in the top tier, provides interesting reading. Evans boasts a better record overall with a podium percentage of 50% compared to Rovanpera’s 29%

As it stands, the title race is quite a simple equation. Reigning champion Kalle Rovanpera holds a 31-point lead over his Toyota team-mate Elfyn Evans with 60 points on the table. If Rovanpera outscores Evans, the Finn will wrap up a second title, becoming only the sixth driver in WRC history to win back-to-back titles. If Evans beats Rovanpera, the championship is set for a title decider on Japanese asphalt roads.

The key to success this weekend will ultimately boil down to who can adapt fastest to the road conditions and the weather. As with any rally of course, there is always an element of fortune required.

It goes without saying that 34-year-old Evans has an experience advantage over his 23-year-old counterpart, but Rovanpera has time and again proved that he has a mature head on young shoulders and is quick to adapt. For example, Rovanpera initially struggled with his GR Yaris in Monte Carlo last year, which left him battling Rally2 runners. However, he quickly overcame the hurdles to finish the rally in fourth, winning the Power Stage in the process.

Evans has performed strongly on tarmac this year, winning last time out in Croatia

Evans has performed strongly on tarmac this year, winning last time out in Croatia

Photo by: McKlein / Motorsport Images

A comparison between Rovanpera and Evans across the 14 tarmac WRC rallies since 2020, Rovanpera’s first season in the top tier, does however provide interesting reading. Evans boasts a better record overall with a podium percentage of 50% compared to Rovanpera’s 29%.

It is important to note Evans was much more at home with the previous generation Yaris, as the Welshman finished runner-up to Sebastien Ogier in the 2020 and 2021 title race. That said, Evans has shown a marked improvement behind the wheel of the GR Yaris Rally1 after a winless 2022, and this year has scored 40 points (including a victory in Croatia) from the two asphalt rallies to date in Monte Carlo and Croatia, compared to Rovanpera’s 39. If this trend continues, then the championship will be set for a title decider.

Rovanpera v Evans on tarmac comparison

Driver 2020 WRC car 2021 WRC car 2022 Rally1 2023 Rally1 Podium Rate
Kalle Rovanpera

Monte Carlo - 5th
Monza - 5th

Monte Carlo - 4th
Croatia - DNF (crash)
Belgium - 3rd
Spain - 5th
Monza - 9th
Monte Carlo - 4th
Croatia - 1st
Belgium - 62nd (crash)
Spain - 3rd
Japan - 12th
Monte Carlo - 2nd
Croatia - 4th
29%
Elfyn Evans Monte Carlo - 3rd
Monza - 29th (crash)
Monte Carlo - 2nd
Croatia - 2nd
Belgium - 4th
Spain - 2nd
Monza -2nd
Monte Carlo - 21st (crash)
Croatia - 5th
Belgium - 2nd
Spain - 6th
Japan - 5th
Monte Carlo - 4th
Croatia - 1st
 50%

There is no doubt Rovanpera has a clear advantage heading into this weekend and the pressure is perhaps weighted more on Evans to prolong the title fight. Rovanpera says he’s planning a “big push” to wrap up the title, while Evans claims he will “try to keep the pressure on” his rival, but realistically he does require some misfortune to strike his team-mate.

One aspect the pair and their peers agree on is the difficulty of stages that lie ahead. The Czech roads are particularly narrow with many cuts, which will press home the advantage of being first on the road. Crews are expecting plenty of mud to be dragged onto the surface, a factor that will be exacerbated should inclement weather arrive. Rovanpera has a slight advantage over Evans by being first on the road, although Evans will be the next car through. In addition to road position, tyre choices could also determine success or failure.

Running first on the road could favour Rovanpera as cuts bring dirt onto the road surface

Running first on the road could favour Rovanpera as cuts bring dirt onto the road surface

Photo by: Toyota Racing

“I would say overall this is going to be quite a big challenge with everything,” said Rovanpera, who was second fastest in Wednesday’s interrupted shakedown. “The stages on the Czech side are more narrow and bit more tricky with the conditions. Overall, it is a technical and challenging rally.

“For sure I like it. It will be difficult with the cuts and the pollution on the road. I feel maybe that we are not the best with the set-up of the car in dirty conditions, I feel we are a bit better in clean conditions. It is going to be a really tricky one.

“The stages are very technical, with low grip and they will be really dirty. You will have surprises and you won’t know what is coming. You cannot push with what you know, you have to be neat and steady and go without mistakes.”

"It is going to be difficult out there with the weather mixed in and there has been a lot of new pacenotes to write, so it is going to be challenging" Elfyn Evans

As Evans simply explains, whoever adapts to the tricky conditions quickest will ultimately earn the spoils come Sunday.

“There are a lot of surface changes and it is quite similar to the old Rally Germany with the fact there is a lot of junctions, but other than that, the similarities end,” said Evans, who was fourth fastest in shakedown. “It is going to be difficult out there with the weather mixed in and there has been a lot of new pacenotes to write, so it is going to be challenging.

“Whoever does the best job of reading it [the roads and the conditions] will come out best on Sunday. But it is a long way between now and then.”

Who is the favourite to win?

While there is rightly plenty of focus on the battle between Rovanpera and Evans, the winner of the rally could quite conceivably come from outside of the squabbling Toyota duo.

Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, Toyota’s Ogier and M-Sport’s Ott Tanak have all proven capable of adapting to unknown stages and conditions thrown at them when new rallies have been introduced in the past.

Could Neuville spoil the party for the Toyota title contenders and continue his recent strong record on new tarmac events?

Could Neuville spoil the party for the Toyota title contenders and continue his recent strong record on new tarmac events?

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Tanak triumphed on the gravel in Chile when it made its WRC debut in 2019, a feat he followed up earlier this month when the South American event returned.

Likewise, eight-time world champion Ogier mastered Croatia’s not too dissimilar asphalt roads to those of CER when the nation made its WRC debut in 2021. However, starting fifth on the road this weekend could hamper the Frenchman on his seventh outing aboard the third GR Yaris.

Neuville has always been strong on asphalt, with eight of his 18 WRC wins achieved on the sealed surface. The Belgian comfortably won on tarmac in Belgium when it joined the WRC for the first time in 2021, although it must be said he had previously won the Ypres event when it ran outside of the WRC in 2018. To add further gloss to his record at new rallies, he also triumphed on Rally Japan asphalt rally last year, which featured all-new stages for its first time on the calendar since 2010.

After topping Wednesday’s shakedown by 1.4s, Neuville is among the favourites to challenge for victory this weekend on the type of roads he relishes. “The stages look good – challenging of course but exactly what I like,” was his verdict.

But one thing that is certain is nobody can be sure how the WRC’s newest rally will play out.

The pressure will be on for Evans to beat Rovanpera and keep the title fight alive into Japan

The pressure will be on for Evans to beat Rovanpera and keep the title fight alive into Japan

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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