OGIER ON TOP AS THE MAGIC OF THE MONTE OPENS THE 2016 WRC
CLOSE BUT OGIER REMAINS MONTE MAESTRO REMAINS
The whole scene looked decidedly odd. Sebastien Ogier was on his hands and knees on the D214 just outside the village of La Batie-neuve last Saturday. The Monte Carlo Rally leader and world champion had his iphone out and was shining it up and under the front of Kris Meeke’s Citroen DS 3 WRC.
The Northern Irishman looked on disconsolately. The game was up.
Meeke had been called in. Teatime. Left with a ball, but nobody to play with, Ogier looked almost bereft.
For all the animosity and cross words of last season, the pair had found themselves sharing a higher plane in the French Alps last week. Nobody could touch them. The mutual respect was huge.
Meeke was understandably gutted at his early exit from a fascinating fight. Ogier, genuinely, wasn’t far behind him.
Finally unburdened of the need to prove himself at every turn, Meeke appeared mildy amused by the collected media’s necessity to pigeon-hole his pace. Was this because he had a deal?
In all honesty, he neither knew nor cared. What he knew and cared about was that, last Thursday night, he went to bed as Britain’s first end-of-leg Monte Carlo Rally leader since Colin Mcrae 15 years ago.
Ogier was gracious in his appreciation of his rival’s early speed, balancing his many compliments with the news that he’d been slightly more cautious than normal through the event’s two dark stages.
Ogier v Meeke
Having been humbled by Sebastien Loeb on the road from Entrevaux to Rouaine last year, Ogier was happy to top the timesheets this time around. The weakening grip of winter meant the scratch time for the 13-miler was more than three minutes faster than last year.
Meeke’s start hadn’t been perfect. He caught a kerb on the inside of a corner early in the stage and that threw his Abu Dhabi car into a pirouette. Seven seconds were lost. But the cool remained.
And was put to good use in SS2, where Meeke went 11 seconds faster than everybody. That’ll be the lead by 6.9s then.
What followed was a proper dingdong day with the pair trading times and the lead – which changed three times on Friday. Meeke remained P1 for the first two stages of the morning loop, but couldn’t match his rival on the road from Les Costes to Chaillol. That’s the one passing a couple of miles of the Ogier family back garden, where the champ had grown up and dreamed of days like today.
Put the pair on the Pomeroy Road north of Dungannon and Meeke would fancy his chances of lifting a second or two from the Gap man.
Try as he might, Ogier simply couldn’t get away. He couldn’t shake KM off. Ogier was five seconds clear after SS6, Meeke hauled him back in and led again one stage later. Back on his home run, Ogier put 9.5s between the pair of them on Friday night.
Ogier smiled thinly back in service. “Every time I am a little bit careful,” he said, “he is coming back at me. I have to push. I have to push hard.”
He took another 10s out of Meeke on the 30-miler that opened the weekend, a repeat of that result on the ensuing stage put the gap two tenths north of half a minute.
“On a normal rally, you might think that was a lead,” said Ogier. “This is not a normal rally, this is the Monte. That’s not enough.”
After half an hour of driving the longest stage of the event for the second time, Meeke had chipped four seconds out. He wasn’t giving up.
“We keep pushing,” he said. “We have to keep the pressure on him. The car feels great, everything is working.”
Near the end of the next stage, a slow left-hander – rounded with a tug on the handbrake – led the crews straight into an eminently choppable right. Everybody had chopped it first time through, leaving the corner cut marked well with mud.
Meeke directed the DS 3 into the corner, hard on the power. Nanoseconds after leaving the asphalt and going across the apex, the underside of the Citroen impacted with a rock. The crack went through the car with such force it ripped the sumpguard from its six eight-mil mountings, slicing a hole in the gearbox as it departed.
Meeke barely had time to recover from the shock before the 1600cc motor went flat. A turbo pipe had been damaged. Then came the sickening smell of gearbox oil.
He limped to the finish and parked up down the road.
“There is a hole the size of your fist in the gearbox,” he said, grimly. “You can see the cogs…”
Amazed and destroyed in equal measure.
Ogier took a look for himself and wasted no time in offering sincere condolences.
“I know this place,” he said. “Kris did not deserve this. Everybody takes this cut. This is such bad luck. I am sorry for him. Really sorry.”
Ogier played on. Meeke went home.
Britain’s last winner
On the other side of the world, relief was mixed with regret. Vic Elford’s standing as Britain’s last winner of the Monte Carlo Rally remains intact for another, 48th, year.
“It’s unbelievable,” said the winner of the 1968 event. “I don’t really understand it. It’s not like Britain’s been short of some great drivers. Obviously we had Richard Burns and Colin Mcrae and both of them were in great cars, capable of winning the rally. And now we have Kris as well.”
Elford’s own victory came in a Porsche 911 – a car he’d been advised would never be suited to the Monte. Or to him.
“The year I won it was the first year they got rid of those stupid regulations designed to make sure Citroen always won,” he said. “With no handicapping, the fastest car won. I’d really got to like the Porsche, it suited me and I could drive it quickly. In all honesty, I could have won the event three years in succession. If a blizzard hadn’t come in and caught me on the wrong tyres in 1967 I would have won that year and then I crashed when, unbeknown to me, I’d moved into the lead near the finish in 1969.
“I’ll be honest and I never really had any great problem with the event. It was tricky, but two things helped me win. The first of those was the implicit trust David Stone and I developed in each other. We developed pacenotes that were head and shoulders above everybody else’s; David knew if I crashed, I was taking him with me!
“The other thing that won me the Monte was an extraordinary ability to go quicker than anybody else downhill. Anybody can go quickly uphill, but it takes real balls to go down the other side. I developed this on the 1967 Tulip Rally, when we did two runs down the Ballon d’alsace. At that time, this section was an absolute gift for the Minis – I beat Timo Makinen by a second and everybody else by a long way.”
With the golden anniversary of British Monte success fast approaching Elford has grown increasingly relaxed about his record being broken.
“Maybe I’ll talk to Volkswagen and see if I can’t come and do it myself in a couple of years,” he said. “But anyway, I’m really not too worried. Looking at the route for this year, with no Ardeche stages in there at all and no Turini in the dark, I’m not sure this is a real Monte anyway…”
Elford’s thoughts on going downhill quickly were absolutely borne out by the Saint-leger-les-melezes to La Batie- Neuve stage on Saturday. Starting from 1276 metres, the stage climbed rapidly up the side of a ski slope to the ski station near Ancelle at 1574 metres. From then on it dived down into the woods and steep got steeper, slashing altitude by 700 metres in just a handful of miles.
And, to make matters even more interesting, the top of the drop was littered with verglas. Tailor made for an air-cooled Elford attack.
What was even better was that this stage brought about the only genuine tyre gamble of the whole event.
The preceding stage, the 30-miler from Lardier-et-valenca to Faye, was almost totally free from snow and ice and absolutely passable without the aid of studs. Studs were, however, compulsory when the event arrived on piste an hour later.
Almost universally, the crews departed rubber winters
Standing service something tyre technician “He’s ‘He’ the full- Norwegian and had studs other
As he a surge was gambling. playing
Slaughtered Mikkelsen chunk dry asphalt. Continued
Kris Meeke put up a great fight, but it was Sebastien Ogier who won once more
departed Gap shod with supersoft rubber and a couple of studded winters in the boot.
Standing outside Volkswagen’s service park at just after seven, something was going on. A rival
technician joined me. He’s going for it…” He’ was Mikkelsen. Going for it was
full-stud, balls-out banzai run. The Norwegian had two studs in the boot
had crossed left-front and right-rear studs on the car – supersofts on the other two corners.
he headed out of Gap, there was surge of excitement. Somebody
gambling. Somebody was playing the game.
Slaughtered over the first 30 miles, Mikkelsen shipped 1m13s and a good chunk of the metal, torn out on the
asphalt. Continued on page 22
Continued from page 21
Now, however, it was his turn. Had he made a terrible mistake? Or played a blinder. He was the only driver with perfect rubber at the front of his car; everybody else was compromised on at least half the corners courtesy of studs on only the left or right front wheel.
Mikkelsen threw caution to the wind, rocketed up the hill, took a deep breath across the top, before launching himself down the other side. Mikkelsen, like Ogier, could have been a professional skier, but neither had come down a mountain at anything like this speed.
Reaching the finish, Mikkelsen was wide-eyed. He’d given it everything. Risked the lot and won 43.9s, playing himself right back into a fight with team-mate Jari-matti Latvala.
“It was a risk,” said Mikkelsen. “After the long stage, my gravel crew called me to apologise. There was less ice in there than we hoped for, but it was really… interesting coming to the finish of the second stage. OK, we had studs, but it was right on the limit.”
The next couple of stages would pretty much guarantee Mikkelsen a podium spot. Meeke’s dramatic departure came at the end of the second run down the ski slope. Latvala’s retirement was one stage earlier – but with significantly more fallout.
Stung too many times in the mountains, the Finn had steadfastly refused to be drawn into a fight. More than a minute down after the first full day, he was adamant everything was going to plan. When his Polo drifted wide on an 11th-stage right-hander, the plan went out the window.
The car ran along the ditch before being vaulted into an adjacent field by a culvert. Vision doubtless clouded by steam, smoke and mud by the impact, the Finn floored the throttle in an attempt to return the car to the road. Unfortunately, he hit a spectator in the process ( see Rally News). Latvala retired from suspension damage after the stage, but the debate detailed on our news pages will rage for sometime.
Latvala’s one of the most likeable and sincere drivers in the sport and, for many, the concept of him being sufficiently cold-hearted to knock somebody down and carry on without stopping to check their wellbeing is out of the question. Others will point to the locked wheels, clearly shown on Youtube footage of the Polo shortly before it collides with the fan; if you’re accelerating hard to get back on the road, you wouldn’t be on the brakes.
Only Latvala himself truly knows and only he can be true to himself.
The new Hyundai
It’s hard to talk of anybody benefiting from such an incident, but Mikkelsen and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville unquestionably did.
Ahead of the event, much was made of Hyundai’s New Generation i20 WRC. This was the car team principal Michel Nandan told us wouldn’t be coming until it was quick enough to fight with Volkswagen.
The boys in blue and orange didn’t come close to the champions in the first half of the Monte. With much of the pre-event testing done on snow, the cars rocked up in Gap running much too soft. Added to that, the drivers were unwilling to stiffen them up and hunker them down into the kind of edgy racers that the almost-dry conditions would have allowed for.
The upshot of this was that Monte rookie Hayden Paddon was quickest of the Alzenau trio… in last year’s car. The Kiwi’s efforts in the night stages were undone by a disastrous first daylight test in the mountains. He slipped off the road on the same full-ice Friday morning right-hander that caught out Robert Kubica.
A Hyundai technician – the sort who’d been around long enough to see this kind of mistake time and again on these roads – said, sagely: “In those conditions, if you think you’re going too slowly, you’re already going too fast…”
Paddon returned and completed a weekend’s apprenticeship without further blemish to his character.
Miles away on Friday night, the weekend was also a significant improvement for the new, five-door i20s. The biggest change of pace come for Neuville rather than the distant Dani Sordo. The Belgian was winning stages and showing flashes of the form that carried him into his purple patch 12 months ago. The key this time around is to remain in it.
Last week’s WRC opener did, of course, mean more than a few new faces. Or at least some different faces in different places, with three new driver and co-driver partnerships in the top five.
Mikkelsen and Anders Jaeger fared the best, while M-sport returnee Mads Ostberg took a little longer to bed into a new language – Ola Floene read their notes in native Norwegian rather than the Swedish Ostberg had been accustomed to from Jonas Andersson. The Ford Fiesta RS WRC crew did, however, manage fourth, once place up on Stephane Lefebvre, who had Gabin Moreau alongside for the first time in the second Abu Dhabi DS 3 WRC.
The story of rally had, however, been about the sister car and how close Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle had come to rewriting a 48-year-old piece of history. ■