OGIER HOLDS HIS NERVE IN SWE­DEN

HAILS ONE OF HIS FINEST

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY DAVID EVANS

De­scend­ing through the cloud cover go­ing to­wards Stock­holm, re­al­ity bites. It’s like rain on your wed­ding day.

It’s green, not white. Not even a bit white. For 24 hours, coun­sel had been courted. Over­whelm­ing feel­ing? Stay at home. It won’t hap­pen.

It’s the good ad­vice that you just didn’t take.

In the days be­fore Rally Swe­den, half-empty glasses of Chardon­nay lit­tered Karl­stad bars. Black flies abound. Ironic.

Ev­ery­thing was ironic. Pirelli’s an­nounce­ment of an all-new Sot­tozero ice tyre, just as the last frozen frag­ment of cen­tral Swe­den melted. Karl­stad’s own sym­bol is a smil­ing sun, re­flect­ing its sta­tis­ti­cal stand­ing as one of the coun­try’s sun­ni­est places. The word ‘Varm­land’ on the doors of ev­ery rally car; Varm­land is the re­gion this fes­ti­val of sup­posed snow and ice runs in. The trans­la­tion’s not com­pli­cated. Warm­land. Spring sprung just as the World Rally Cham­pi­onship ar­rived for its win­ter round. A lit­tle too ironic. The or­gan­is­ers had wor­ried for a week. Eight nights be­fore the WRC landed, this part of Scan­di­navia had been in the grip of a deep, deep freeze. Mi­nus 30 and snow­fall mea­sured in feet not inches had an­swered their an­nual prayers. A day later, it warmed up. Then it warmed up again. It wouldn’t stop get­ting warmer.

The snow slipped away, tak­ing with it the per­fect, pure white can­vas on which this year’s pro­duc­tion was sup­posed to be painted. Swe­den be­came Wales; white woods turned deep, ev­er­green forests.

The roads? They turned to mud and mush. The first of many rally week meet­ings slashed eight stages from the itin­er­ary, but the or­gan­is­ers came un­der real pres­sure to knock the thing on its head. The driv­ers splashed their way through the recce to warn of what they felt was a very real and present safety im­pli­ca­tion.

And when they felt they weren’t be­ing lis­tened to, the driv­ers and co-driv­ers as­sem­bled them­selves in a chilly multi-storey car park in the cen­tre of Karl­stad at 0600hrs last Fri­day.

The plan was sim­ple: skip the first stage, go straight to the next one. All agreed? All agreed. What’s that Hay­den Paddon? You’re go­ing into the first stage. Er…

Ready for the real irony. Forced to con­cede the Thurs­day night spec­ta­tor pleaser around Karl­stad’s trot­ting track, the or­gan­is­ers were de­ter­mined to keep some el­e­ment of win­ter in the open­ing cer­e­mony. Some­body was sent out to source truck­loads of snow for the snow­mo­bile dis­play.

It worked: the snow­mo­biles flew.

Twelve hours later, it was wall-to-wall snow. Win­ter came back.

The stage most of the man­u­fac­turer driv­ers were de­ter­mined to skip, Torsby, pro­vided a solid ice base af­ter count­less vol­un­teers pulled an all-nighter to pro­vide their he­roes with a stage suit­able for them to per­form on.

Strug­gling to stand on inch-deep ice at the end of the 10-miler, the wind picked up and a bliz­zard blew in. Swe­den aped Siberia. Iron­i­cally, we had a rally on. There was noth­ing pre­dictable about last week. Ac­tu­ally, that’s not quite true is it?

For 12 years now, pre­dictabil­ity in the World Rally Cham­pi­onship has come via one word: Se­bastien. Pre­dictably, a French Seb was the mas­ter of what, for a while, looked to be a to­tal disas­ter.

Well wa­tered, win­ter was left to work on Torsby. The re­sult? A solid ice is­land be­tween grassy banks. The lack of snow opened the driv­ers’ eyes to just how fast this rally could be. For the first time in years, they could see into ditches, slide wide in con­fi­dence, know­ing for sure there was no stone wait­ing for them. Bury­ing any­thing be­neath a snow­bank is im­pos­si­ble with­out snow…

Fastest by three tenths of a se­cond from his team-mate An­dreas Mikkelsen, Ogier was on a mis­sion as he headed for the bor­der and his team-mate’s back­yard.

It’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say Nor­way was some­thing of a saviour for Rally Swe­den this year. Run­ning at a higher lat­i­tude, not to men­tion four times the al­ti­tude. Ad­mit­tedly, 450 me­tres is noth­ing com­pared with the French Alps of round one or the 2,500-me­tre plus Sier­ras await­ing us in Gua­na­ju­ato next month, but it was bet­ter than be­ing 100 me­tres above Swedish sea level.

Be­tween them Ro­j­den and Svull­rya pro­vided 53 miles of good ice and solid win­ter. Ahead of the rally, th­ese were the only two stages Ogier said the or­gan­is­ers should run. A short, sprint event was his rec­om­men­da­tion on the eve of the start.

From the mo­ment the recce was put back a day, clerk of the course Stig Rune Kjernsli was mak­ing it up as he went along. As Khalid Al-qas­simi’s co-driver Chris Patterson put it: “You wouldn’t want to play poker with this man.”

Kjernsli and rally CEO Glen Ols­son put ev­ery­thing on the line to a back­drop of dishar­mony and dis­quiet. They gam­bled on the weather, faced down the dis­senters and nar­rowly avoided fi­nan­cial obliv­ion while cre­at­ing a bril­liant rally on the hoof.

Hav­ing turned Torsby around and en­joyed Nor­way, a week­end on more southerly stages in Swe­den came into view. Con­tin­ued snow com­pleted the win­ter white scene and cre­ated a cap­ti­vat­ing Satur­day.

Ogier was never headed through day one, but he was rid­ing his luck. He rat­tled the Polo into the trees, aqua­plan­ing off the road in a high­speed right-han­der in Svull­rya.

Hav­ing ploughed plenty of snow and won last year’s event, he was more than man enough for the task this time around.

A close bat­tle for se­cond was headed by Hay­den Paddon, seven places fur­ther back on the road.

“He will have a big ad­van­tage if it keeps on snow­ing,” warned Ogier as the cars ar­rived back in Karl­stad at the end of a cross-bor­der day.

“I need all the help I can get,” coun­tered the Kiwi, run­ning a New Gen­er­a­tion i20 for the first time.

A stage win on the day-clos­ing re­turn to Torsby had helped build Paddon’s con­fi­dence. See­ing more snow fall­ing into the night would help even more.

Even if snow ex­pert and third-placed man Mads Ost­berg might have spoiled all the fun.

“We have seen how much it hurts to be first on the road if it snows on the Swedish,” said the chirpy Nor­we­gian. “And, for sure, Ogier will find it hard to­mor­row, but it’s not as bad as if the snow had been fall­ing on ice – then he would re­ally strug­gle; the snow slips on the ice below. To­mor­row, the ground be­neath the snow won’t be frozen – the snow will in­su­late it – and he will be able to dig down and get some grip from the gravel.”

There you have it. Mads’ guide to the sort of snow that slips on ice as op­posed to in­su­lat­ing snow. Into Satur­day. Only the Var­gasen stage was run twice on day two (this, un­doubt­edly, had plenty to do with the mass of cor­po­rate hos­pi­tal­ity cen­tred on Colin’s Crest). Re­turn trips to Fredriks­berg and Ram­men were canned in fear of the as­tro­nom­i­cal bills to put right what would be deeply ploughed pub­lic roads.

Fredriks­berg was first up. Ogier pushed. Fol­low­ing his leader into the fin­ish, Mikkelsen laughed at the marks he’d left.

“He is ev­ery­where,” said Mikkelsen. “He is go­ing so quick, so hard. The lines are go­ing to the ditch, ev­ery­thing. He’s push­ing like hell…”

Five quicker than Paddon, Ogier’s lead was up to 32.4s.

This was clas­sic Ogier ter­ri­tory. Ev­ery now and then the Gap driver takes ev­ery­thing up a level. It’s what cham­pi­ons do, they have an ex­tra per cent or two tucked away, de­ploy­able only when the go­ing gets a bit tougher. Last Satur­day was that day. Var­gasen was Ogier’s night­mare and neme­sis. The day’s most west­erly stage was full of snow and his Polo would dou­ble as a high-speed shovel for the cars fol­low­ing.

Just un­der four miles in and Paddon was 5.9s up. Next split, at al­most 10 miles… 15.7s had been lost the South Is­lan­der’s way. End of the stage? A to­tal of 23.6s in 15.35 miles. Ogier had shipped a se­cond ev­ery 1000 me­tres. That was al­most un­heard of.

He was com­pletely calm. He didn’t get mardy. Didn’t shout or curse the run­ning or­der. He sim­ply said his piece: ad­mit­ted he might lose a lot to Paddon, pulled his cans on, flicked the Volk­swa­gen into first and headed to the other side of Hag­fors for Ram­men.

He then po­litely ig­nored much of the ser­vice park as it plot­ted his down­fall in the next snow-filled test.

And, the way the white stuff was still fall­ing, it had to be more of the same. Didn’t it?

Paddon had heard the same. “It sounds like there’s a fair bit of snow in the next one,” he said. “I’m look­ing for­ward to the next stage – it’s one of

favourites. We’ve got this ad­van­tage we need to use it.” sim­i­lar speed in the 14-mile Ram­men stage would have Paddon ex­it­ing with about a 14-se­cond lead

Ogier. Var­gasen se­cond time through would of­fer noth­ing like the same re­ward as in the morn­ing, but the

still favoured the Hyundai man to tickle a lit­tle bit more out of the day.

The can­cel­la­tion of the Lesjo­fors stage on Sun­day left just a 10-mile pow­er­stage; ev­ery­thing looked to be fall­ing into place for Paddon. With fresh Miche­lins be­neath him, weapon was sharp as he headed for a very big af­ter­noon. Not far off the line into Ram­men, he knew the game was up. This wasn’t go­ing to be his day.

knew it wasn’t go­ing to work,” Paddon sighed later. “There just wasn’t any­thing like the snow in there. And, be hon­est, we needed the con­di­tions were never go­ing to beat him speed alone.” Con­tin­ued on page 22

Ogier won de­spite an early ac­ci­dent

Kiwi Paddon was a star of the event

The French ace and Julien In­gras­sia cel­e­brate vic­tory

Kris Meeke was fast yet again but hit a hid­den rock, which forced him to re­tire in the Citroen

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