Hyundai ace holds off Ogier to take first World Rally Cham­pi­onship vic­tory

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY DAVID EVANS

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.

Lat­vala’s dis­as­ter

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.

Safer safety

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

Photos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

Ogier starred but missed out again

Lo­cal man Li­gato went well

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