The 2021 World Rally Championship starts now. Given that the 2020 season hasn’t even resumed yet, that might seem a premature statement – but it’s still very true.
Pirelli has concluded a three-year agreement to return to the WRC as sole supplier from next year onwards, and this means that the tyre testing campaign has to begin straight away. As in today.
Pirelli has been sole supplier to the WRC before of course, from 2008 to 2010, but the World Rally Cars back then were very different to how they are now. Yet the Italian firm has never left the sport since – and has even equipped some of the current-generation World Rally Cars in a few one-off outings on national events.
This means that Pirelli has a solid bedrock of experience to start its latest test campaign with: which is just as well, because the coronavirus pandemic put most of the motorsport world on hold recently (although Pirelli’s engineers were still working hard behind the scenes).
So this is the first test, but not the start of the work with next year’s tyres. The concept is already largely defined: the purpose of the testing programme – which will take place over the next few months – is now to refine the specification and add performance.
In order to obtain meaningful results from any tyre tests, you need a fast car and a fast driver: as in competition, drivers and teams will be pushing the absolute limits. So Pirelli has secured the services of Andreas Mikkelsen to test the new tyres: a 31-year-old Norwegian who has finished third in the World Rally Championship three times and also has three world rally victories and 25 podiums to his name. He’s driven for a lot of the top manufacturers involved in the sport, including Volkswagen, Ford, Hyundai – and Citroen. That experience is incredibly relevant, because Pirelli will use the French company’s C3 WRC as its test car – decked out in a spectacular carbon black livery, similar to the Formula 1 test car that Pirelli used to develop its grand prix tyres back in 2010.
The choice of the Citroen 10 years later was a deliberate one: not only is it quick (having won six world rallies) but it’s also neutral, as Citroen is not competing on the championship this year.
This is very important in terms of sporting fairness, so that no team has a particular advantage over another when it comes to using the latest Pirelli tyres. Nevertheless, Citroen developed some new evolutions for its C3 WRC 2020, so the car remains state-of-the-art. Just what’s need to test brand new tyres, in other words.
The tests this week will take place in Sardinia, on both asphalt and gravel, also using stages that have been utilised on the Rally d’Italia in the past. This gives a useful reference point, but most of all provides the most challenging possible conditions for the new P Zero (asphalt) and Scorpion (gravel) rally tyres. Sardinia is well-known for its loose gravel on a hard and rocky base, with sharp rocks that can often cause punctures. While the WRC round in Sardinia isn’t an asphalt rally, there are also several good asphalt roads there to test on, with terrain not dissimilar to neighbouring Corsica, for example: one of the heartlands of rallying.
Gravel is the priority though, as it makes up the vast majority of the championship, but asphalt is important too – with plenty of scope for technology transfer with Pirelli’s famous road car tyres, which will help the campaign.
The Pirelli team will methodically test a number of prototypes and then go back to Milan to refine the tyres, before testing in real life again. This process will be repeated until the final specification is arrived at.
Before we know it, it will be the evening of Thursday January 21, 2021 and the Pirelli-equipped cars will be lining up to take the start of the 110th anniversary Rallye Monte-Carlo: round one of next year’s World Rally Championship.