OGIER ON TOP AS THE MAGIC OF THE MONTE OPENS THE 2016 WRC

CLOSE BUT OGIER RE­MAINS MONTE MAE­STRO RE­MAINS

Motor Sport News - - In This Issue - BY DAVID EVANS Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

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…”

Mikkelsen’s gam­ble

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. ■

Meeke flew in PH Sport DS 3

El­ford: last Bri­tish win­ner, in 1968

Ogier cel­e­brates the 33rd WRC vic­tory of his ca­reer

Mikkelsen had a good rally and came away with se­cond place

Neuville made progress with new Hyundai

Ost­berg took cau­tious fourth

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