RALLY ARGENTINA REPORT
Hyundai ace holds off Ogier to take first World Rally Championship victory
At the pivotal moment, it was All Blacks coach Gilbert Enoka who came to the rescue. Hayden Paddon had lost 27.2 seconds in 24.2 miles. His dream was teetering on the brink. It was then that he turned to Enoka. Then New Zealand beat France.
And, among the remains of the duck Kris Meeke broke at the end of El Condor, Argentina 12 months ago, Paddon smashed his own. And in some style, taking a near unbelievable 11.7s out of the world champion on the final stage.
Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were just about as surprised as anybody in the service park.
Enoka, presumably, saw it coming all the way from the South Pacific. If he did, it’s fair to say he was in a minority. Particularly before the rally started.
If last week was about a song, Dina Carroll looked to have the lyrics licked with The Perfect Year. Ahead of the event, few would bet against the Hannover team making it a full year since they were last beaten (Kris Meeke here, 12 months ago).
By Saturday night, The Rolling Stones stepped up with Street Fighting Man as Ogier squared up to Paddon post day two press conference.
But in the end, Ellie Goulding got it right. Paddon. Winner.
Pre-event, the talk had pretty much all been Volkswagen. It was debatable whether Ogier could overcome the handicap of running two days at the front of the field, but the Hannover machine was more than capable of sealing that 13th win from 13 starts.
Ogier led from the opening gravel stage, but when the gravel got too much on the first run from Santa Rosa to San Agustin, Jari-matti Latvala took over at the top.
Driving towards the end of the test, you knew what was coming. The damp morning air had dried into a sunny southern hemisphere Friday.
The champion didn’t say much. He didn’t need to.
Latvala took charge, but Paddon was close. And showing no respect for the form book or pre-event predictions. Mexico winner Latvala couldn’t shake the Kiwi off.
Fastest on the first two Saturday stages, Paddon closed the gap to 6.7s to Latvala as the top two moved clear of Ogier. The Los Gigantes test – back for the first time in 17 years – resembled a beach in places. Ogier was on a hiding to nothing, while Latvala eased his lead up to 14s with a quickest time either side of lunch.
On that first run through Los Gigantes, Latvala scared himself. Too quick into a long, tightening left-hander, the Polo broke away and started sliding. Looking past his co-driver Miikka Anttila, Latvala eyed the approaching bank, buried the throttle and said a nano-second-quick silent prayer. It was answered. Four soft Michelins dug into Argentina and saved the Finn’s bacon.
Second time through, there was a corner and a rock with his name on it. The wheel connected and the shockwave sent the damper skywards, through the bonnet. With no damper on the right-front, his chances of making through a nearly flat left were zero. The Finn sliced at the apex, but the car dug in and rolled. And rolled again.
Ironically, moments before, his lead had moved north of 20s after an accomplished effort through the first half of the test.
The team was guarded in what it said, but Latvala insisted the damper broke before the corner. Some crews had it in their notes to avoid the rock, but television pictures show Paddon’s Hyundai hitting and dealing with it, with no consequence.
Latvala said: “I was in a very fast section where there was a bit of bedrock on the road, and when we went over the bedrock suddenly the front-right top-mount broke and the damper came through the bonnet. At that moment I couldn’t steer the car any more, we went into a bank and we rolled.”
Team principal Jost Capito wasn’t about to hang his man out to dry, but gently made the point that J-ML had given it a bit of a whack.
“He hit the stone where he believed the car would take it, but it didn’t,” said Capito. “It was quite a big impact. You have to have the balance with this car – we can’t make a tank. We go through all the loads we experience in testing and that’s how we build the car and when you get a higher one then certain parts break. We know other drivers went around this rock, Seb [Ogier] as well.”
Latvala and Anttila were checked over in hospital while sledgehammers and a forklift truck set about straightening the chassis rail on Polo #2. The job was done by two in the morning. Ten hours later, it was parked up at the side of the road again; this time with a broken track rod – likely a consequence of Saturday’s inversion.
Regardless of who was to blame, Latvala’s search for successive wins goes on and while his title hopes have taken another massive blow, he will remain in the perfect place on the road through Portugal and, more importantly, Sardinia, where the road cleaning will be as bad as anywhere this year.
Cometh the hour…
Latvala’s departure left Paddon 34.3s in front – a lead Ogier had chipped away to 29.8s on Saturday night. One day, three stages to go. Place your bets.
The atmosphere at the end of day press conference on Saturday was strained as Ogier complained about the regulations. Following the press conference, Paddon ventured that washing the WRC’S dirty laundry in public did nobody any favours. Predictably, Ogier disagreed. A frank exchange of views followed in full view of a slightly bemused Carlos Paz crowd not entirely well versed in the sporting regulations of the World Rally Championship.
The pair then returned to their corners, ready to come out fighting for real the next morning.
Paddon smiled about the incident as he strolled into service well before dawn on Sunday. “Well,” he said, “he’s certainly fired up now…”
There must have been more than a slight concern at the metaphorical poke the tiger had been given.
Ogier was relaxed, contemplating another orange juice as he sized up the task in hand. On his departure, his engineer Gerard Jan de Jongh wouldn’t be drawn on the specifics of his tactics.
“We’ll throw some bait out there and see if he bites,” said Jan.
The bait in question was a time 7.4s quicker than Paddon over a horribly foggy El Condor. Ogier took his own bait. Well aware that the chink in Paddon’s armour was his lack of experience of the road from Mina Clavero to Giulio Cesare – he’d only done it once in a Group N Subaru six years ago – the Frenchman wound his Polo R WRC up and let it fly.
Ogier crushed the opposition with a time 13.6s faster than anybody.
Paddon’s lead was down to 2.6s. He struggled to find words. Instead, he found first and pulled away from the stop line, eyes and voice full of emotion.
We’d seen this story before: Ogier winning the unwinnable rally.
All bets were off. The script would be followed. Ogier would win his first Argentina to a Dina-sourced soundtrack; Volkswagen’s perfect year was coming.
The fog had disappeared, at least it would be a clean and fair fight with Ogier running directly in front of Paddon.
Four miles in and Ogier was faster than everybody except Paddon’s team-mate Dani Sordo. Given the upturn in pace from both the Spaniard and the New Generation i20, that came as no major surprise. The big question, the big, big question was centred on Hyundai #20.
Agonisingly, the split times had given up the ghost in Mina Clavero, leaving a world of rally fans in the dark for far longer than could ever be acceptable.
Mercifully, the system just about held to reveal what must have been one of the most shocking split times in the history of the sport. Paddon. Minus. Eight. Point. Five. Mr SIT timing fellow, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I wasn’t the first to question the validity of what was delivered.
Having dropped a shade over a second per mile on the first two, Paddon had done Ogier for two seconds per mile in the super-twisty first section of Condor. The same super-twisty section the leader feared most, given his car’s wayward rear in comparison to the planted Polo. Hence the question. The answer came on screen. Usually a model of inch-perfect precision motoring, Ogier’s car looked to be moving far more than usual. Tyres? Steering damage? Surely something was amiss.
At the finish, Ogier was content with his job. Condor’s not the kind of place to push, especially when it’s as rutted and rough as it was last Sunday. If Ogier has one weakness, it’s his mechanical sympathy – he hates bouncing the car in and out of the ruts. Had he done enough? Not nearly. Paddon was 11.7s quicker. Even sitting here typing these words now, it’s almost impossible to take in what Paddon achieved in those 10 miles.
Devoid of split times to the car, he and Kennard had no idea.
“The guy put the times on the board on the windscreen,” said Paddon, “but the
windscreen wiper was blocking Ogier’s time, so we couldn’t see. I looked at the media, but there really wasn’t much expression. We just didn’t know. Then I saw the time…”
He saw the time and his world went mad. He’d won.
Out of the car. On the roof. Off the roof. Back on the roof. Hugging John. Smiling. Staring. Smiling. But how? Back in service a couple of hours later, Paddon’s still a little lost for an explanation.
“Something just happened,” he said. “I have no idea where it came from. I told you I wasn’t happy in the twisty section, but it just… it gelled. Something came over me, something happened. We did it.” They certainly did. “Now we’re here and we’ve won,” Paddon added, “I’ll tell you that I really wasn’t sure last night. I just wasn’t sure it would be enough. I felt a bit sick, to be honest. And then when we lost 20-odd seconds in the second one, I thought it was gone.”
Cue Gilbert. And it’s important to note, it’s Gilbert, as in the rugby ball. Hayden looked pretty appalled when I asked about Jill Bare, impossible to say without a French accent…
“He’s given me some pointers,” said Paddon. “Obviously I was pretty low when I saw the time loss on the second stage, but he’s shown me how to stay in the moment and not to think about the result or what might happen. I thought about that, used that, used the triggers and got myself ready.”
Ogier was utterly magnanimous in defeat. “I never want to finish second,” he said, “but this is much easier to accept. The difference happened behind the steering wheel today. Well done to them. Like them, I had no idea at the end of the last stage if it was enough. I knew I didn’t take the ultimate risk, but I didn’t drive slowly. I have to think to the championship and it could have been suicide to make the big attack when it was so rough.”
Perfect year gone for another year, VW could take some solace from Andreas Mikkelsen’s third – but the Hyundai challenge is getting stronger and stronger now.
Disharmony and rancour might have played their part in last week’s Rally Argentina, but on one subject the crews spoke with one voice. The organisers had delivered perfection.
Arriving in South America, some predicted 2016 would be the World Rally Championship’s farewell tour of these parts. A hard-hitting safety report condemned last season’s event and the organisers were told in very straightforward terms to improve or they would be gone. Likely for good.
The rally’s popularity has become something of a poisoned chalice in recent years and 12 months ago, the organisers were overrun, a woeful lack of safety planning laid bare.
Losing Rally Argentina was unthinkable for all concerned, hence the FIA matching the Automobile Club of Argentina pound for pound in terms of effort to put the job right.
WRC safety delegate Michele Mouton spent five days with the organisers last month, rearranging a second day that the clerk of the course had moved as far north as possible in an effort to take the rally away from the people – seeing that as the most sensible way to solve the overcrowding issues.
That wasn’t the point. That was avoiding the problem, not solving it. Mouton brought back some classic roads just outside Carlos Paz, then pushed and pushed on the go, no-go areas: if the tape’s red, don’t go near it. Yellow? Happy days. Local media hammered the point home in the weeks leading up to the rally, while 6000 police worked wonders for three days.
As soon as she arrived in the stages, Mouton knew the work was done. The people had listened.
“There is such passion for this sport here,” she said. “It’s not like in Monte Carlo or some of the other European rallies. There, the fans have alternatives. If they don’t go to the rally, they’ll do something else. Here, there is nothing else. The rally is everything for these people.”
People of Argentina, your work is done; same time, same place next season.
Admittedly, we’re asking a lot, but if you could do epic again, that would be nice. It’s going to be tough though: two maiden winners in as many years played out on roads as good as anything anywhere on planet Earth before a petrol-headed population pumping up an atmosphere that has to be experienced to be believed.
Argentina last week was as good as it gets in the World Rally Championship. And that was the WRC at it’s very best.
In reality, there was only one soundtrack in South America. EMF.
Latvala crashed out of the lead...
Kennard and Paddon celebrate Hyundai’s first WRC win for nearly two years
...bringing considerable pain for the likeable Finn
Ogier starred but missed out again
Local man Ligato went well