Sebastien Ogier and Elfyn Evans duel for the FIA World Rally Championship in an all-Toyota shootout at Italy’s Rally Monza finale this weekend.
If that sounds familiar, it is. Last year, Rally Monza stepped up to host the final round of a COVID-truncated WRC season, with the Toyota pair going head to head in a battle that delivered Ogier his seventh title.
Back then, Welshman Evans arrived in Italy with a 14-point lead over Ogier, but threw away his title chances after crashing out in his Yaris WRC on the ice and slush of day two’s stages in the Bergamesque Alps near Milan.
This time around, the tables are turned. Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia lead their Toyota Gazoo Racing teammate by 17 points, with a maximum of 30 up for grabs (25 for the overall win and 5 for Sunday’s closing Power Stage). A top-three finish would guarantee an eighth title in nine seasons for the French duo as Ogier steps back to a part-time program in 2022 and Ingrassia heads into retirement.
For Evans and co-driver Scott Martin, the scenario is straightforward, yet fiendishly difficult: finish 18 points clear of Ogier to earn a first WRC title and overturn last year’s Monza heartbreak. That means a podium finish as the absolute minimum. But in reality, with Ogier finishing outside the top five just once this season, Evans has to target a win and hope the reigning champ has a weekend to forget.
Like last year, the rally starts Friday with a day of special stages at the historic Monza circuit outside of Milan, before heading to the mountains on day two, then returning to the “Cathedral of Speed” for Sunday’s final stages.
The sweeping turns of the Formula 1 track, along with the banked concrete curves of the historic oval and awkward gravel service roads, mean nothing is easy at Monza. And while the wintry weather that dominated last year’s fixture and caught out Evans is not expected, rain and mud could make the mountain asphalt treacherous.
Ogier has watched a 44-point advantage dwindle over the last two rounds, but he remains calm and motivated to end his full-time WRC career with another title.
“I’m very lucky and privileged to have had this long career with a lot of victories and a lot of titles already, so somehow that gives me a relaxed feeling,” said the 37-year old. “There will be at some point some pressure building, but that’s something I need. We have all the cards in hand to make it [the title] happen, so we just have to go for it.”
Evans is the man on form, with victory on super-fast Rally Finland and a second place on Rally Spain’s tricky asphalt from his last two outings, and he vowed to carry the fight to his teammate.
“It’s an outside chance, but Scott and I will give it our best shot,” he said. “The approach will be just to aim for the best result possible and see what happens. After a difficult middle of the season, the last couple of rounds have been better for us.”
Neither driver showed his hand in Thursday’s pre-rally shakedown on a 2.54-mile stage on the Monza track, with Evans fourth fastest and Ogier an unconcerned eighth, saying his aim was to savor his last event in a current-spec World Rally Car.
Monza is the farewell event for the World Rally Cars, which headline for the final time after 25 years, ahead of the introduction of hybrid-powered Rally1 machinery for the 2022 season.
While Toyota’s Yaris and Hyundai’s i20 will return in a new guise, it’s the end of the road for M-Sport Ford’s Fiesta, which will be replaced by the Puma. The Fiesta has scored 15 WRC event victories since first appearing in 2011, its last coming in 2018.
With Ford off the ultimate pace in 2021, the WRC manufacturers’ championship once again became a straight fight between Toyota and defending champs Hyundai. A top-seven result from either Ogier, Evans or third factory driver Kalle Rovanpera in Italy will be sufficient for Toyota to wrest the manufacturers’ title away from the Korean marque.
With pride to play for, Hyundai brings four i20 WRC Coupes to Rally Monza. Rally Spain winner Thierry Neuville leads the factory attack, along with Dani Sordo and debutant Teemu Suninen replacing Ott Tanak, who is sidelined for personal reasons. Rising star Oliver Solberg completes the line-up in an i20 from satellite squad 2C Competition.
The WRC2 title was settled last time out, Andreas Mikkelsen securing international rallying’s second-tier crown despite not starting on the Spanish asphalt. He’s back in his Toksport WRT Skoda Fabia Evo for Monza and will be hoping for a winning victory lap, but faces tough opposition from the likes of Marco Bulacia (Skoda), Jari Huttunen (M-Sport Ford) and Nicolay Gryazin (Skoda).
The rally starts at Monza on Friday morning, with day one’s seven special stages totaling 66.28 competitive miles. After Saturday’s six stages and 67.56 competitive miles in the Bergamesque Alps, a return to Monza for Sunday’s three special stages and 24.28 competitive miles will see the 2021 WRC champ crowned.
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