Saturday, March 2, 2024

W2RC Next Gen Tryouts place young drivers in T1+ cars

The future of the World Rally-Raid Championship got to showcase their skills in premier machinery last Thursday hours after the conclusion of the 2023 season at the Rallye du Maroc. Six drivers, mostly coming from the T3 and T4 classes, traded in their side-by-side vehicles for five T1+ cars for the W2RC Next Gen Tryouts, while two others from the bike and co-driving realm sat behind the wheel of a T3 car.

The tryout participants were headlined by 2023 T3 and T4 champions Seth Quintero and Rokas Baciuška. Quintero got to try the Toyota GR DKR Hilux that won the T1 championship with Nasser Al-Attiyah and Toyota Gazoo Racing, while Baciuška was in Bahrain Raid Xtreme‘s Prodrive Hunter of Sébastien Loeb. Baciuška, who plans to move up to T3 in 2024, already has some experience in a T1 after finishing ninth at the Baja España Aragón in July in a Hilux.

“T3 back in the day wasn’t the most competitive and then this next generation of drivers came in and became, in my opinion, one of the most competitive classes,” commented Quintero. “We’ve all gone head to head for so long and I know that there are some spots opening up and we’re basically all fighting for those spots. Nothing against any of the old drivers, there’s definitely been some drivers that have been around for a very long time and who knows how much longer they’re going to be around, so hopefully one of these days we’ll step up and take the spot. That’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what the Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team’s for, it’s trying to create spots for kids—not just kids, but for amateurs to learn.”

Mitch Guthrie, who finished runner-up to Quintero in the T3 standings, piloted the Ford Ranger T1+ from M-Sport and Neil Woolridge Motorsport. The Ranger, the newest addition to the T1+ field, finished third overall in its maiden W2RC start at the Rallye du Maroc with Nani Roma.

Cristina Gutiérrez, fourth in T3, also drove Loeb’s Hunter. Coincidentally, the two were team-mates who won the Extreme E championship in 2022.

Rallye du Maroc winner Yazeed Al-Rajhi‘s Toyota Hilux Overdrive was driven by fellow Saudi driver Dania Akeel. Akeel, fresh off a sixth in T3, plans to race the 2024 and 2025 Dakar Rallies in the Taurus T3 Max but a move up is next on her to-do list.

Pau Navarro went out in Krzysztof Hołowczyc‘s X-raid Mini John Cooper Works Rally Plus shortly after making his W2RC début in a Toyota Hilux T1.1. Although both compete in T1, Navarro has been public about the performance gap between T1.1 and the upgraded T1+ during the Rallye du Maroc.

While many of the drivers are T3 and T4 regulars, Toby Price came over from the two-wheel side as the RallyGP championship runner-up drove T3 runner-up Austin Jones‘ Can-Am Maverick X3. Price, a twice Dakar champion in the bike category, is no stranger to four wheels as a star of the Finke Desert Race and SCORE International competitor. Although returning to KTM and RallyGP in 2024, he has plans of driving a rally raid car in the future.

“It’s just nice to have a drive and do something different,” said Price. “Good to try and give these bike guys a bit of a chance. If we can show up with the pace today and do something, then maybe that might open some doors for other riders.”

Emil Berkqvist also drove the T3, switching sides as he is normally the navigator for Mattias Ekström in both T1 and T3. While he is more than familiar with reading roadbooks, Berkqvist has some experience as a driver in rallying, making nineteen starts in the World Rally Championship from 2015 to 2019 and winning the 2015 European Rally Junior Championship and 2018 Junior World Rally Driver’s Championship.

Every T1+ manufacturer save for BAIC ORV was represented at the test, which took place on a seventeen-kilometre loop outside the bivouac in Merzouga.