WRC pre­view: The teams

Is rule­maker’s change Ogier’s only ob­sta­cle? By David Evans

Motor Sport News - - Front Page -

Twenty-four words from Paris last Septem­ber. That could be what de­fines this year’s World Rally Cham­pi­onship. Se­ri­ously.

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the World Mo­tor Sport Coun­cil re­vealed a care­fully worded and ap­par­ently in­nocu­ous state­ment de­signed in some part to send Se­bastien Ogier di­rectly up the wall.

Or at least it would have done 12 months ago. The world cham­pion’s far more san­guine about such things now. An­other bar­rier in his way is an­other bar­rier for him to knock down. He laughs in the face of the FIA’S bar­ri­ers. The words? “In the in­ter­ests of both safety and fair­ness, from 2016 P1 com­peti­tors run­ning un­der Rally 2 reg­u­la­tions will restart last in the P1 group.”

Last year, P1 com­peti­tors run­ning un­der Rally 2 reg­u­la­tions ran at the front of the P1 group on Satur­day and Sun­day. Trans­lated, Ogier was re­lieved of his role of Satur­day road sweeper when the likes of, for ex­am­ple, Robert Ku­bica or Lorenzo Bertelli re­tired on Fri­day.

Not this time. Those boys will be at the back of the pack. You lead the cham­pi­onship, you open the road on Fri­day and Satur­day. Pe­riod.

Make no mis­take, this is the FIA try­ing to even the field, try­ing to peg Ogier back. There were re­port­edly voices in that Place de la Con­corde meet­ing that wanted the cham­pi­onship leader (Ogier) first on the road for all three days.

This kind of pol­i­tick­ing and schem­ing against the su­per­sonic Seb al­most caused him to walk away from the sport 18 months ago. For­tu­nately for us, he stayed to pro­vide the kind of WRC bench­mark that has be­come a French tra­di­tion in the se­ries for the last 12 years.

Ogier will rightly point to places like Swe­den last year, where he won de­spite be­ing up front for pretty much two days – Bertelli was ahead but shunted early doors Satur­day. But this year will test his new level-headed in­ner peace as much as it will test his pace and per­for­mance aboard his VW Polo.

With all of the above ac­cepted, this year of­fers Jari-matti Lat­vala his best chance yet of chal­leng­ing Ogier. His kit’s cut from the same metal and the Finn comes with a new way of think­ing this time around. For the first half of the year, Lat­vala’s fo­cus will be firmly on podi­ums.

Last year, he was blown away by the end of March. Re­turn­ing from round three in Mex­ico, J-ML was 62 points be­hind his team-mate. You can’t come back from that kind of deficit. Well, you can, but ac­tu­ally we all know you can’t.

So this time around, it’s a con­sis­tent and more con­ser­va­tive Lat­vala un­til Fin­land. When he gets home, he’ll be back to his ban­zai best and chas­ing a hat-trick and his fourth win in Jy­vasklya.

An­dreas Mikkelsen will be in the mix this time around, but it’s prob­a­bly un­re­al­is­tic to talk of a three-way Volk­swa­gen fight for this year’s driv­ers’ ti­tle.

Now, Hyundai… what do we think? The New Gen­er­a­tion looks quick and the team is cer­tainly talk­ing it up. Hav­ing de­layed de­liv­ery by six months, it re­ally has to be on the money.

It would be easy to talk about the World Rally Cham­pi­onship fall­ing into a hold­ing pat­tern, await­ing clear­ance to land in a world with more power, more down­force and even more fever in 2017.

That’s not the case, cer­tainly not in the case of the events, with a 50-mile stage in Mex­ico and a Septem­ber trip back to China on the cards.

On the stages, if the i20 can chal­lenge the Polo – and the in­di­ca­tions are good – then we could be in for a clas­sic sea­son. Volk­swa­gen and Ogier have re­ally had it all their own way for the last three years, so it’ll be fas­ci­nat­ing to see how they re­spond to be­ing beaten. Did I ac­tu­ally just say that?

And then there’s the Alzenau sideshow: Thierry Neuville ver­sus Hay­den Paddon. Ev­ery­body’s mak­ing all the right noises about there be­ing no num­ber one in the team, talk­ing to them th­ese days is al­most like hav­ing a Ge­orge Or­well novel quoted back to you.

But don’t for­get, some an­i­mals are more equal than oth­ers…

The strug­gle for power within that team is al­most im­pos­si­ble to avoid and will pro­vide a gen­uine spec­ta­cle this sea­son. And the best bit is that they all have a gen­uine claim: Neuville was the undis­puted team leader un­til mid-sea­son last year, Paddon’s on the up, do­ing ev­ery­thing right and has the man­age­ment on side. Dani Sordo’s the lovely bloke who will up­set the or­der ev­ery now and then by can­ing the pair of them, and then there’s Kevin Ab­bring wait­ing in the wings to pick up the pieces. Can’t wait. Mads Ost­berg will, no doubt, be back on the boil with M-sport. The Nor­we­gian was caught be­tween two stools last year, try­ing to please Citroen while risk­ing the speed needed to hit podi­ums and po­ten­tial rally wins. This year, he needs to fo­cus his right foot and keep the Fi­esta’s throt­tle pinned. He knows the car, he knows the team and he’s well worth a ten­ner on round two.

It’s hard to know what to ex­pect from Eric Camilli, but it’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see how the dy­namic plays out for the new boy – es­pe­cially with Elfyn Evans warmed up and ready to leap off the bench at the slight­est hint of a ham­string twinge from the French­man.

The re­badged Abu Dhabi World Rally Team will tackle the first two rounds with Kris Meeke, but af­ter that, who knows. It could be six, it could be 10 ral­lies. This year is about next year for the Dun­gan­non man and his Parisian Citroen team.

Ei­ther way, there’s rarely a dull mo­ment when Meeke’s around and let’s not for­get Craig Breen makes his de­but in a fac­tory car this sea­son.

Hold­ing pat­tern? Are you kid­ding? ■

Ogier (cen­tre) will lead VW for fourth sea­son Ogier won in Mex­ico de­spite road sweep­ing Can new Hyundai of­fer VW any chal­lenge? FIA has changed run­ning or­der rules VW’S Polo has only lost five ral­lies in its three years in the WRC

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