The thrill of WRC: backstage at the 2017 Monte Carlo Rally

Published: 23 January 2017

► Thoughts from the Monte
► Ben Oliver reports from the WRC
► Join us inside the Toyota rally team 

Update: After Ben filed his story on the penultimate day, Sébastien Ogier worked his way up from ninth to win the 2017 Monte Carlo Rally on his debut in the M-Sport Ford Fiesta. He is seeking his fifth successive world title. Team-mate Ott Tanak’s engine problems gifted second place to Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala, a hugely impressive result for a manufacturer returning after an 18-year absence. Tanak finished third.

Rallying, like road cycling, is a sport perhaps best suited to a one-hour TV highlights show in the evening. If you want to see all the action, stay at home. But if you want the atmosphere, and if you consider yourself a car enthusiast, you need to go. 

So I did. I'm writing this from the Monte Carlo Rally. CAR's resident bobble-hat Ben Barry is also here, researching an expert feature which you can read in the March issue of the magazine. I'm here as CAR's resident rally idiot: trying to figure out what's going on and reporting back on what it's like to stand by the side of the road and watch the dozen or so leading cars rip past you three times a day, if you're lucky.

The answer? Magnificent. If you're going to go to a rally, you might as well go to the first. The Monte is both the first of the season and the oldest event on WRC's 13-country calendar: it’s now 106 years old. The scenery is among the most spectacular on earth, and the food and the weather are definitely both better than Wales’.

The 2017 WRC: manufacturers are interested again

And what a season. It is one of the most eagerly anticipated in years, with four manufacturer teams contesting the championship, and new regulations allowing more power and some wild aero addenda. I'm embedded with Toyota, which has won three World Championships and returns this season for the first time since 1999. 

Its effort is led by four-time World Champion Tommi Mäkinen, who is hilarious. We ask him what it's like to be leading a team for the first time. 'Oh bloody hell,' he says, laughing and putting his head in a hands in mock exasperation. 'I'm just a stupid driver. I can't handle all this stress.'

Charismatic Toyota works driver Jari-Matti Latvala

Maybe not that stupid. On Saturday night, the eve of the final day, Toyota's Jari-Matti Latvala (above) lies in third: not bad for the team's debut rally. Juha Hänninen spun on ice and hit a tree on Friday, damaging his suspension and putting him out of contention, though he’s still running. 

Outside the hospitality tent, Mäkinen's team was spannering the new Yaris WRC car. It is hard, dirty, physical work. F1 mechanics don't have to brush the mud from the top of their beanie hats after they've spent minutes jammed inside a filthy wheelarch, wrestling a new strut into place. 

The car they're working on looks sensational, although there hasn't been much effort made to integrate the boxy aero sections into the original shape. It looks like a Yaris has mated with a Chapparal 2J. If you're unfamiliar with the latter, it's worth Googling.

The pit lane is less snazzy in rallying than F1...

The mechanics work with an audience. Very unlike F1, you can get close to almost all the action in rallying, even at World Championship level. Too close, sometimes. Friday tragically saw a spectator killed after Kiwi Hayden Paddon's Hyundai spun on ice.

Safety might have improved since the Group B days, when Walter Rohrl had to aim his Audi at a solid wall of fans standing on the route, trusting that they'd part in time. There's more control, and maybe more self-control from the spectators, but it's still exhilarating and mildly unnerving to have a WRC scream past you at flat-chat and on an icy surface with only fresh air between you. 

Rallying: danger is ever-present

There was a sombre moment when rally legend Michele Mouton, now one of the event directors, stopped her recce car to order a group of spectators to move away from a possible run-off area close to where I was standing before the competitors came through. 'We've already had one death,' she shouted. The fans moved.

Like the Isle of Man TT - or motorcycling in general - you get the strong feeling that if someone were to invent rallying today, it would never be allowed. It's odd how we sometimes alter our attitude to risk because something has always been done this way. But if the drivers are willing to take a risk, so should we. Go see it.

Click here to see the roadgoing version of the Toyota Yaris WRC

Epic scenery: the 2017 Monte Carlo Rally

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features