In the end it didn’t go down to the final powerstage. But the fact that it looked for a while that it would highlights just how competitive the World Rally Championship has been in 2018.
From the outside it looks like nothing has changed. Sebastien Ogier has won his sixth straight title and Thierry Neuville has put in yet another appearance as runner-up. The top four finished in the same order as last year. But in reality? 2018 has been explosive. Edge-of-your-seat, down-to-the-wire stuff.
There are two key moments from the season that turned things upside down. Flashpoint one: Sardinia. Where Neuville and Ogier went head-to-head in the powerstage for the rally victory and Neuville came through victorious. It was the first real proof that something had changed in the Belgian.
Last year, Neuville’s first real experience of a title fight, he couldn’t quite keep his i20 on the road in the same way that Ogier, the veteran and conqueror of many a championship, could do. But this time Neuville showed the watching world that pressure wasn’t his enemy anymore. In one of the most intense stages of his career he took on the giant and won.
Flashpoint two: Finland. Neuville had gone into the summer break with the momentum on his side but when the paddock reconvened in Finland it was Ott Tanak who had the upper hand. He dominated that rally. And the next. And the next. The Estonian went from nowhere to appearing to have the title in the palm of his hand. Tanak looked a dead cert for Rally GB victory too until alternator damage ended his charge. The young hopeful lay crying in the mud. The outsider’s chance of championship victory crumbled from there.
But those two moments in time do not reflect the entire season. There have been ups and downs throughout the paddock and while three men may drive in the limelight, many more wait patiently for their stories to be told.
10. Elfyn Evans
2018 was a slightly underwhelming season for Evans. Two podiums aren’t really good enough when your team-mate wins the championship. Ultimately Ogier has got the most out of a car that wasn’t as strong as it was in 2017 and Evans didn’t manage to match his own performance from last year.
In 2019 M-Sport won’t have the luxury of Ogier leading the team and Evans will need to show that he has what it takes to fight at the front of the pack.
9. Hayden Paddon
A disrupted part season was never going to give the Kiwi his best chance of glory but he did well with the time he had in the i20. He got podiums in Turkey and Australia and a string of strong results in the rest of his five outings.
It looks like Paddon will be continuing to share a seat with Sordo in 2019 and why not? Both drivers are performing well and are happy with the arrangement in such a time and energy consuming discipline.
8. Jari-Matti Latvala
Latvala salvaged what would have been a fairly poor 2018 with his win in Australia, ensuring that he maintains his record of having won in every season of his WRC career.
In the second half of the year Latvala’s performance was somewhat better but throughout the season the Finn was outshone by his younger team-mates. He made too many mistakes when the car was in one piece, and all too often in the early part of the season mechanical issues let him down.
7. Dani Sordo
This may have been his 16th year in the WRC but Sordo is still proving himself to be a safe pair of hands behind the wheel. A second in Mexico and a third in Argentina highlight his ability to come through on a tough weekend.
While Hyundai could benefit from a steady driver line-up to give Neuville’s title challenge the support Ogier benefitted from in 2018, both Sordo and Paddon are doing a good job, especially considering how hard it is to get the feel of the car in a part season.
6. Mads Ostberg
Ostberg began the year confirmed at Citroen only for Sweden but when Kris Meeke was dropped from the team he was suddenly given the opportunity to complete much of the season.
His highlight has to be an impressive second place in Finland where he also picked up four powerstage points. The Norwegian was the highest-placed Citroen driver in the championship and put up a decent fight in an underperforming car, rounding out the season with a third in Australia.
5. Esapekka Lappi
It’s easy to forget that 2018 in the Finn’s first complete season in the WRC. The Toyota may be built to flatter but for much of the season he was out-performing his vastly more experienced team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala.
Tanak may have had the best of him but Lappi more than held his own across the season, especially at rallies where he had never driven in WRC machinery before.
For 2019 he’s headed off to Citroen to join Ogier. A mistake when the Yaris is universally regarded as the strongest car of the lot? Maybe but a chance to learn from a multiple champion- and an ageing, possibly soon to retire champion at that- could leave him with valuable knowledge and the chance of leading a team with a record for success.
4. Sebastien Loeb
People were right to be excited for Loeb’s WRC appearances in 2018. The nine-time champion has not lost any of his speed in his time away from the stages. He wowed right from his first time out in Mexico, leading the rally for several stages before ending the weekend in a not-too-shabby fifth.
Of course the most impressive moment of his season has to be the win in Spain. With his ninth WRC victory on the Spanish stages, Loeb reminded the world what a formidable force he continues to be. He showed up his team-mates who were not able to wring out of the car anything like that pace across the season. It’s true that his road position gave him an advantage over the title competitors but it very much shows that should he wish to, Loeb has what it takes to fight for more championships.
As it is nothing is confirmed for the Frenchman for 2019. While this year has undoubtedly been a success Loeb has made it clear that he does not want to commit to a full season. And next year his old rival Ogier will also be at the Citroen team.
3. Thierry Neuville
Neuville needs to take heart that in 2018 he proved that he could take on Ogier. In 2017 he was Ogier’s nearest rival but he was never wholly convincing as a title contender. This year he maintained a high level of performance throughout and didn’t seem to let the pressure force him into mistakes as it did last year. In Italy he faced Ogier in a powerstage shootout and won. This is a man is ready to win the title.
And he so nearly did. There were 18 points in it and if it wasn’t for disastrous weekends in Finland and Australia 2018 could have been his. There was only one event where the Belgian failed to score points, highlighting how much his consistency has improved year on year. Yes, his momentum dropped off in the second half of the season but with Toyota’s sudden dominance it was inevitable.
2019 is another chance for Neuville and if he continues on this trajectory Ogier will have a run for his money as he battles for title number seven.
2. Sebastien Ogier
With three rounds left to go Ogier was sitting third in the championship. The sneaking suspicion began to form that for the first time in a very long time someone not called Sebastien would take the title.
Of course Ogier came through, but in 2018 he really took it down to the wire. Six consecutive titles is more proof of what we already knew. Ogier is an incredible talent and it will be supremely difficult for any of his rivals to get the better of him. In the final few rounds he kept a cool head while Tanak and Neuville were plagued by difficulties and came through to win with a fifth in Australia. No heroics, just what he needed to take the title.
Ogier has seemed slightly less infallible this year. Sweden, Portugal and Turkey were all disappointing rallies for him, with little mistakes creeping in to damage his chances of success. The cracks in his performance have made for the most exciting WRC season in a long time and his rivals will be waiting with bated breath to see if this is the beginning of the end of Ogier’s absolute dominance.
1. Ott Tanak
Tanak was not expected to challenge for the title in 2018. The expected narrative was a battle between Neuville and Ogier. Tanak smashed his way into that cosy little duel and turned it upside down.
His win in Argentina was good, but as a talented driver in a strong car, the odd win was predicted. It was what came after the summer break that wasn’t.
Finland he dominated. He alone was flawless on a rally where the rest tripped up on the puncture-causing kerbs. It was much the same in Germany, where Ogier couldn’t touch him. People began to speak in hushed voices that maybe, just maybe Tanak could star in the title fight.
But he can’t possibly win in Argentina it was declared. It will be dusty and at high altitude and the engine will give up. It will be a write-off for the whole Toyota team, just like in Mexico.
Yet triumph again he did. It’s true that the Yaris did undergo significant improvements in the second half of the season, especially with regards to the engine. So this is a triumph for the team just as much as for Tanak.
Yes, Tanak made mistakes in the first half of the season, that’s undeniable. But the way he made use of the car when it was in spectacular form was a marvel to see. He proved he is here to win and showed the naysayers that he is ready to mount a title charge.
It was an underwhelming year for Craig Breen after taking his first second-place finish of his WRC career in Sweden at the start of the season. He underperformed compared to Ostberg though, despite having more outings in the car than the Norwegian.
Teemu Suninen might not have set the world alight in his first WRC season but he did enough to show he is here to stay. His pace in Spain overshadowed his poor show in Mexico and in the end with Ogier moving to Citroen the team needs a man who has experience at M-Sport.
Perhaps the most disappointing driver of 2018 was Andreas Mikkelsen. He was brought into Hyundai to fight for wins with team-mate Neuville. Instead he has been outclassed by Sordo and Paddon and has had to scrape together points amid mistakes and mechanical issues.
All’s well that ends well for Kris Meeke who will be driving for Toyota in 2019 after being dropped midseason by Citroen on safety grounds after “an excessively high number of crashes”. He will need a less accident-prone season in 2019 to prove his critics wrong.
It was Jan Kopecky who took the WRC2 title, beating 2017 champion Skoda team-mate Pontus Tidemand to the honour. 18-year-old Kalle Rovenpova was the other star of the season taking two wins in Spain and Britain and finishing third in the championship.