The most diverse Internationale du ‘Il Automobile (FIA) World Rally Championship (WRC) season zooms off in 109th Rallye Monte Carlo along the French Riviera in the Principality of Monaco on Thursday next week.
The season will see newcomers race in the Safari Rally in Kenya, Rally New Zealand and in Japan.
The eighth round in the series, the Safari Rally, returns after 18 years from July 16-19.
It is the most eagerly-awaited event in the World Rally Championship Series and reflects the continental profile of the championship which previously was accused of being too much Euro-centric. New Zealand (South pacific) and Japan (Far East) now complete the truly global championship outlook.
Japan’s Aichi-based Asphalt Rally last held in 2010 will conclude the season on November 19-22. The sports-mad New Zealand will host the 10th round from September 3-6.
New Zealand has been absent in the series for seven years and the roads outside the capital Auckland historically described by drivers as inviting and a joy to drive through is a welcome addition.
For the Japanese, regarded as the most well informed and passionate rally fans in the world after Finns, they are looking forward to the “feel good affect” after Toyota won the drivers title in 2019, three years since returning to the WRC.
The FIA Motorsport Council stripped Australia and Spain the WRC status while Chile, previously ear marked for April 16-19, was cancelled for political unrest.
A lot of drama is expected in the series from three full works teams - Toyota, Ford and Hyundai.
Red-hot Ott Tanak of Estonia who ended the French total domination with Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier_ who won the championship 15 times between themselves dominated the calendar at the dawn of the new millennium.
Tanak will be the man to beat in a Hyundai i20 after moving from Toyota Gazoo Racing. Tänak joins Belgian Thierry Neuville in a two-year contract while Spaniard Dani Sordo and nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb will share the third car throughout the year.
Hyundai Motorsport are also in touch with Swedish Andreas Mikkelsen and Irish Craig Breen regarding a possible WRC collaboration in 2020.
Toyota, determined to make continue dominating and make an impression in the Safari also signed Briton Elyfyn Evans_ a faithful member of M-Sport since 2013_ and Finn Kalle Rovanpera, 18, son of former Safari driver Harri Rovenpera. He is the youngest driver in the championship.
Toyota Finnish Team principal Tommi Mäkinen, twice Safari Rally Champion, will bank on the experience of six time world champion Ogier, time-tested Evans, and, Rovanpera, a man believed to become the next “Flying Finn” to retain the drivers’ crown and add the constructors title.
Esapekka Lappi, 28 of Finland has been signed by Ford M-Sport from Citroen. He joins compatriot 25-year-old Teemu Suninen and Gus Greensmith, 23, the youngest British rally championship in drivers line-up of 2020.
Skoda will rule the roost in the WRC 2, a championship for second- tier cars ran by professional teams after the multi-million dollars purpose-built WRC machine. The leading lights in this category of R5 cars are Norwegians Østberg (Citroën), Ole Christian Veiby (Hyundai) and Adrien Fourmaux (M-Sport) of France.
The third grid, WRC 3, will be occupied by similar cars but entered by private teams.
It will be interesting to see how Africa’s top drivers namely three-times continental champion Manvir Baryan (Skoda), Karan Patel (Ford Fiesta), Onkar Rai (VW Golf) and Leroy Gomes of Zambia (Ford Fiesta) will rate their skills against the best in WRC 3 cars. It is being reckoned that these Africans will be starting from position 25 and above.
Drivers choose eight rounds from a possible 10 and must include at least one outside Europe from either Mexico or Japan. WRC 3 will score six out of seven results.