Darkness, pierced only by the flash of a torch or the flickering flames of a smouldering fire upon the mountainside. Above, a crackle of lights through the trees and the demonic howl of an exhaust signals the first car’s impending arrival.
It’s a Thursday night in the French Southern Alps, and this is the start of the 2023 WRC Rallye Monte-Carlo madness.
Rounding the bend to my right, the optic nerves in my head wince as an onslaught of high-intensity LED lights briefly illuminate the blackness of the surroundings. Down a few gears, flames crackle as revs flare and brake rotors glow red.
Tipped into the long double apex, drivers balance these incredible rally machines using the smallest of inputs. Some use momentum, others a dab of the handbrake. Apex met, flash guns erupting, a planted foot upon the accelerator sends all four Pirelli tyres scurrying for grip.
Loose stones on the surface of the bone-dry French tarmac become projectiles, flung at force almost as collateral in the battle between grip and traction. Power down, the machine lurches forward. Bang, up a gear. Bang, another. In a blink it’s all over. Eight seconds from arrival into sight before leaving again.
I’m frozen cold and already tired, but this is the Monte and just the beginning of another incredible rally adventure.
I adore Rallye Monte-Carlo and have done so for what feels like my whole life. Glued to Eurosport as a child, the sights of the blue Imprezas, the red Lancers and a whole host of challengers was magical.
Fast forward to today, and I’m sat reflecting on my fourth time actually being stage side, my last visit being in 2019. However, I’m a bit torn about the whole thing.
As you’ll see, it was another incredible Monte, but it just felt a bit…off. The sparkle, the excitement and the buzz? It all seemed a bit lacking.
Now in fairness, a good bit has changed since 2019. The event has moved south, based now out of Monaco for the entirety of the weekend rather than the previously traditional base of Gap. Moving away from the alpine town has meant that many of the iconic Monte special stages of bygone years are now off the table. Also missing was a key part of the Monte magic – snow and ice.
Anyone who has ever played a rally game or watched coverage of Rallye Monte-Carlo knows how difficult drivers had it dashing from Col to Col amongst the Alps in ever-changing conditions. Well, this year’s event was pretty much run exclusively on dry tarmac. A lone 20-metre icy patch on Thursday night was the only notable break in play.
While the speeds were insane as a result, it just didn’t feel like a proper Monte. It was balmy, and the heavy-duty ski gear I brought along didn’t leave the bag. There was a sense on the banks that people had voted with their feet. The stages were, quite oddly, quiet.
The traditional buzz of miles and miles of parked spectator cars was there on the Sunday morning drive to the Col Saint-Roch, but elsewhere it felt rather dead. There were no banks overflowing with passionate fans, no snaking lines of camper vans, or even raucous groups huddled around campfires enjoying some home-brewed concoctions.
Having the service park set amongst Monaco’s legendary harbour-side avenues sounded great on paper, but spectators seemed to stay away. And the hustle and bustle of the Gap service park, which previously thronged with excited fans, this year only attracted a few hundred here and there, and everyone was held behind barriers. Perhaps it’s a financial change for the best, but for the magic of such a historic event, the whole thing just felt a bit flat.
But rant over, back to the action!
Setting The Scene
On Wednesday evening there was a real sense of excitement for the start of a new championship. In Toyota, Hyundai and M-Sport Ford there were exciting new car designs, livery changes and much anticipated activity in the driver market.
Stationed at one end of the incredibly expansive Toyota Gazoo Racing awning were Elfyn Evans and Taka Katsuta, the pair both looking to build on their last few seasons.
The Welshman Evans is surely looking for better fortune this year after championship heartbreaks in both 2020 and 2021, followed up by a disappointing 2022 season. Japanese star Katsuta is a man on the rise. For 2023, he’s sharing a Yaris Rally1 across a part-time campaign, while also developing a new Rally2 car alongside his father.
On the other side of Toyota’s camp, the media crews clamoured around the two biggest stars of the sport right now.
When it comes to Rallye Monte-Carlo, Sébastien Ogier is the king, and claiming his 9th victory on this event in 2023 cemented his place atop the roll of honour. The eight-time world champion has very little left to prove, but remains a force to be reckoned with.
Kalle Rovanperä meanwhile looks set to dominate the sport for a long time to come. A works driver at 19 years of age, WRC event winner at 20 and world champion a day after his 22nd birthday, the quiet Finn has the rallying world at his feet.
I slotted into the huddle of seasoned WRC journalists peddling an ever-repetitive line of questions: ‘How are the tyres?’, ‘How is the feeling?’, ‘What are your thoughts on the season ahead?, and seized my shot at a few words with the champ.
“So Kalle, forgetting Monte for a minute, just how good was it to get a few days in Ebisu hanging out with Daigo Saito during the off season?”
Clearly taken aback, Rovanperä’s steely media face melted and a broad smile opened up as we chatted about his other passion, drifting. Over two minutes we talked Supras, James Deane, ice lakes and Drift Masters. When the WRC world champion gave me a fist bump I tried to keep a straight face, but it wasn’t easy. I even made it onto his Instagram story.
For 2023, Hyundai seems to have more determination than ever to knock their Japanese rivals off the WRC perch. The team arrived in Monte Carlo with new signing Esapekka Lappi, a really sharp-looking i20 Rally1 complete with plenty of trick-looking aero changes, and a new team principal. Anyone who’s watched Drive to Survive will recognise Cyril Abiteboul’s name and face.
Lastly at M-Sport Ford, the Puma has landed this year with a fresh livery, a much larger rear wing and a brand new frontline pairing of the Estonian ace and former WRC world champion Ott Tanak, alongside rising French star Pierre Louis Loubet.
Amongst the Prince of Monaco’s incredible car collection , now housed now in its brand new harbour-side surroundings, the grand and good of the sport gathered to launch the 2023 World Rally Championship season in style.
Twenty-four hours later though, things kicked off properly. As darkness fell upon the Alpes-Maritimes, the real action got underway.
Friday & Saturday
An opening pair of stages in the darkness whet the appetite, but three hard days lay in store for crews, teams, spectators and photographers alike. There are some events that are easy to follow, but the Monte isn’t one of them.
Alarm set for 4:00am, head groggy and full of the joys of life after barely three hours’ sleep, Friday morning was spent in silence as the stunning alpine scenery lay shrouded in the final throws of darkness. After weeks of careful studying of maps, as well as an afternoon the day before spent driving the special stages, a location with the prospect of the lead cars grabbing air was jammed into Google Maps.
And so they did. It was spectacular, and if it wasn’t for all the ‘No Public’ signs – which lined nearly every inch of all the special stages – it would have provided a beautifully clean image. But that’s the joys of this year’s Monte.
Over the crest and pinned flat in 6th gear, the current generation of cars – which I saw for the first time in Portugal last year – are absolutely incredible. Masses of aero and power well up there with the animalistic heyday of the mid-’80s, Rally1 cars are spellbinding in the flesh. The concept isn’t with its challenges, though.
Advancements in technology and speed come with a hefty price tag, and these new machines are now well into the US$750,000 to US$1M range per car. And that’s before you factor in their astronomical running costs. It’s these costs that have likely limited the series to just three frontline teams, one being a semi-works effort. That’s a far cry from the highs of 20 years ago, when between six and eight manufacturers lined for the Monte Carlo season opener.
The other issue is the problem of world rallying’s support series, and the questions around WRC2.
The drama and speed of the main field of Rally1 cars overshadow the incredible machines and crews competing in Rally2, meaning the competitors suffer for coverage and exposure. On the flip side, the lack of available Rally1 seats amongst the three leading teams is a glass ceiling that so much rallying talent is struggling to break through.
Rallye Monte-Carlo 2023 saw the global debut of the new Škoda Fabia RS Rally2 and a squadron of incredible drivers behind the wheels of these beautiful new Czech challengers. In the end there was a straight duel between Nikolay Gryazin and Yohan Rossel.
While Gryazin finished ahead on the road in his Fabia, Rossel in a Citroën C3 Rally2 eventually claimed the win by 0.5 seconds following a steward’s review of a corner cut. It was a disappointing way to end what was an incredible weekend-long duel between the Russian and the Frenchman.
The Rally2 field was incredible in Monte Carlo. A range of manufacturers, properly backed programs and a 41-strong driver line-up that included Oliver Solberg, François Delecour, Erik Cais, Adrien Fourmaux – it’s a battle set to enthral throughout 2023.
I need to make special mention of the beautiful PCRS-run pair of Motorsport Ireland Academy Team Hyundai i20 Rally2s, their stunning liveries based on that of the legendary Jordan 191 Formula One car.
After a tasty homemade pizza between the stages and a few minutes huddled around a raging barrel fire for warmth, a quick venture through the tree line found a sequence of hairpins and traditional Monte scenery as the sun set again.
Daylight fading and rally cars with lamps ablaze – utter bliss!
After another late-night arrival back to my accomodation and with energy levels already low, I took Saturday a bit easier. A single stage in the early afternoon fed the rally action buzz…
Followed up by a visit to parc ferme back in Monaco.
After a full day of being pushed to their limits on the undulating French tarmac, each car was surrounded by a swarm of mechanics who repaired and replaced their vital components. Watching Toyota Gazoo Racing up close showed the level of organisation required at the pinnacle of the sport.
Sunday Service At The Col
Sunday morning was the final push. Out the door by 4:00am, the seemingly never-ending hairpins leading up to the Col Saint-Roch had my eyes rolling back and forth in my head. The only thing that assured me I was headed in the right direction was an ever-growing line of cars in the distance.
The parked cars began almost 5km from the stage, with spectators laden down with bags, chairs and anything else required for a day of rally-watching left to trudge up the insanely steep hillside.
At the top lay the incredible backdrop of the run to the Col. A sequence of switchback hairpins is iconic Monte terrain, and to be stood amongst all manner of nationalities on the side of a mountain as the sun rose was a humbling experience. For all the little negatives from the weekend, Sunday morning was special.
Come Sunday, it was the Monte master who stood atop the podium. Ogier effortlessly controlled the event throughout, finishing 18.8 seconds ahead of his teammate Rovanperä with Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville picking up third.
For me, tired and worn out from yet another WRC Rallye Monte-Carlo adventure, I headed for the airport conflicted. I’d just witnessed one of the fastest editions of this legendary event, yet was slightly let down by the whole experience. From a pure rallying standpoint though, Monte magic played its part in an exciting opener for what’s set to be a thrilling World Rally Championship season ahead.
Cutting Room Floor