OGIER ZE­ROES IN ON WRC CROWN

VW MAN DOM­I­NATES IN COR­SICA

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

What about this 22-yearold? He’s do­ing OK. Fin­ished third on one round of the Peu­geot 206 Cup, sixth in the cham­pi­onship. Top rookie though. What do you think? Worth a punt?

Some­body thought so. One year on and he’s dom­i­nated France’s premier one-make se­ries. Nine years down the road, last week­end, and he’s taken his first ever Tour of Cor­sica win – a suc­cess vir­tu­ally guar­an­tee­ing him a fourth straight World Rally Cham­pi­onship ti­tle win.

What a dif­fer­ence a decade has made for Se­bastien Ogier.

Last Fri­day, the Volk­swa­gen star turned in the per­fect day on the roads around Ajac­cio. He won all four stages, built a 44-sec­ond lead and took his team-mates Jari-matti Lat­vala and An­dreas Mikkelsen to the clean­ers; the near­est Polo to his was as near as damn it a minute down.

Asked about the per­for­mance of the Finn and Nor­we­gian, Ogier looked a lit­tle un­com­fort­able be­fore ad­mit­ting he was as sur­prised as any­body at the size­able gap.

He was sur­prised. The rest of us were dis­ap­pointed. Deeply dis­ap­pointed.

Al­most as im­pres­sive as Ogier and Julien In­gras­sia was Thierry Neuville. Biff­ing a wall in the rain on Satur­day af­ter­noon aside, the Bel­gian was pretty much per­fect. Hopes of an­other in­tra-hyundai fight be­tween Neuville and Dani Sordo went south when a fourth-stage punc­ture knob­bled the Spa­niard’s i20 WRC. From then on, Neuville’s fo­cus was on de­fend­ing sec­ond from a re­cov­er­ing Mikkelsen, which he did suc­cess­fully.

And then there was Kris Meeke. The Dun­gan­non driver had done just about ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to de­flect at­ten­tion away from his chances of vic­tory on the French is­land – a pol­icy which in­cluded de­scrib­ing his own ef­forts as “pa­thetic” last sea­son.

The same can’t be said about this year. Try as he might to hide his light be­neath a bushel, win­ning three from 10 stages – in­clud­ing a 35.3-sec­ond win on Sun­day morn­ing’s 33.41-mile opener – isn’t go­ing to help the cause.

Like they were when they won Por­tu­gal and Fin­land, Meeke and co-driver Paul Na­gle were sub­lime.

Could they have won? Ab­so­lutely. Spin­ning on SS1 cost them more than the four sec­onds they’d dropped to Ogier by the fin­ish, but the big ques­tion was how much did Volk­swa­gen’s de­fend­ing world cham­pion have in re­serve?

Ogier’s ef­forts on the road from Plage du Li­a­mone to Sar­ro­laCar­copino were noth­ing short of spell­bind­ing. He took 10s out of Meeke both times the stage was run.

“He got it hooked up in there,” said Meeke. “That was im­pres­sive.”

Mikkelsen went a bit fur­ther. “He took 10 out of me in that stage. When I got to the end and looked at the time I thought: ‘OK, I can see where four or five have gone, but where the hell did he get the other five from?’”

If Ogier had a few more of those in the locker, Meeke’s chances of that third win on the bounce were slim. Un­for­tu­nately a rogue – and still un­ex­plained – punc­ture on the front-left of the DS3 ru­ined the race in the third stage.

And any­way, if the punc­ture hadn’t got them, a mis­take on the recce would. The first cor­ner of SS6 was a long, third gear left-han­der. On the sec­ond prac­tice run, Meeke de­cided to change the note, re­mov­ing the words: “tight­ens to mi­nus.” What did that mean? “That meant I was on the gas when I should have been on the brakes,” said Meeke, mat­ter-of-fact.

The up­shot was four black lines lead­ing to a meet­ing be­tween right­front wheel and a small, but frus­trat­ingly stout tree. Steer­ing re­ar­ranged, Meeke was no more on Satur­day – but re­turned with more stun­ning times on Sun­day.

“Af­ter I hit the tree, it could go one of two ways,” said Meeke. “I could start ques­tion­ing ev­ery note, or I could get back in the car and com­mit to ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing. That’s what I did. It worked well, but I have to say a big thanks to my gravel note crew – they got ev­ery­thing they did ab­so­lutely per­fect.”

In over­all terms, Abu Dhabi To­tal hon­our was up­held by Craig Breen and Scott Martin who placed the sis­ter DS 3 WRC fifth. It’s a mark of how far Breen’s come this sea­son that he was ac­tu­ally a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed – in­cred­i­ble how a Rally Fin­land podium can raise ex­pec­ta­tions.

It was, how­ever, all change for the Breen de­meanour from Jy­vaskyla. This time around, Breen looked like a man who’d found his place as well as his pace. Such com­po­sure breeds con­fi­dence and usu­ally comes from cer­tainty in one’s sur­round­ings.

Breen’s fu­ture was at the heart of much of the ser­vice park chat­ter. But Craig’s pre­ferred topic was the Tour of Cor­sica. It was the same with Meeke and Lat­vala, both of whom en­tirely ap­pre­cia­tive of what this place means to the sport and the cham­pi­onship.

France fooled it­self for a while that a re­hous­ing of its WRC round in Al­sace was a good idea. It wasn’t. It played on pop­u­lar ap­peal for a while, but once lo­cal hero Se­bastien Loeb had gone, those days were num­bered.

Cor­sica’s where it’s at for France and ral­ly­ing.

The pas­sion, the his­tory and the leg­end are around ev­ery one of those 10,000 cor­ners here.

There is, how­ever, one cor­ner where tragedy will be for­ever etched.

Courtesy of the re­turn of a true tour of Cor­sica, I found my­self pass­ing through Corte on the road from Ajac­cio back up to Bas­tia. Thirty years on, time had to be made to visit the left-han­der which changed our world.

To the wider world the junc­tion of the RT202 and D18 just north of Corte is just that. On May 2, 1986 Toivo­nen was en­joy­ing a long over­due pur­ple patch. He’d won the last two ral­lies he’d fin­ished in Lan­cia’s Delta S4 and he was streets ahead in Cor­sica. He and Ser­gio Cresto were dom­i­nat­ing the event when they ar­rived at the start of that fate­ful 18th stage.

Driv­ing the stage last week, you can’t help but imag­ine the speed the Finn would have achieved. The D18’s by no means your typ­i­cal Cor­si­can moun­tain road, it runs through farm­land, start­ing with a mod­er­ately steep as­cent be­fore lev­el­ing off slightly to de­liver the kind of un­du­la­tions which bring some beau­ti­ful cam­bers. More than one of th­ese cor­ners must have made Toivo­nen smile.

Half a mile be­fore the site of the ac­ci­dent, there’s a near iden­ti­cal ra­dius bend with an even higher ap­proach speed – leav­ing you to won­der once more what changed in the next 10 sec­onds that meant he couldn’t make that left-han­der.

A foot-high wall has been built around the out­side of the cor­ner, but star­ing be­yond that into the trees be­low was as chill­ing last week as it’s ever been.

Juha Kankkunen was the only fron­trun­ning Finn on the en­try list the next year. Markku Alen never went back – and he’d won it twice.

“I lost two team-mates in two years to Cor­sica,” says Alen, “At­tilio [Bet­tega] in 1985 then Henri the next time. Too much.”

Else­where on this page you can read about a fire which claimed the DS 3 R3T Scots­man Stu­art Loudon was co-driv­ing. Like Toivo­nen’s Delta, the Citroen was gut­ted, but the dif­fer­ence three decades makes in terms of safety meant it took al­most 10 min­utes for an en­gine bay fire to make its way through the fire­wall and into the cock­pit – a cock­pit Loudon and UAE driver Mo­hamed Al Mutawaa had long since ex­tri­cated them­selves from. Thank­fully, the days of seats mounted on top of petrol tanks loaded with rocket fuel are long gone.

Safer cars or not, Cor­sica still bites: it had two goes in three years at Colin Mcrae. The smaller of those shunts al­most cost the 1995 world cham­pion a fin­ger. Two years ear­lier, in 2000, Nicky Grist feared his driver and friend would pay the ul­ti­mate price.

Grist re­calls in the book Mcrae, Just Colin: “Un­usu­ally for Cor­sica the stage in­cluded a flat-out sec­tion for about a kilo­me­tre and a half. We were fly­ing along and all of a sud­den, out of nowhere, came a third-gear left and Colin hadn’t even lifted. We were go­ing miles too fast so Colin pitched the car in early to try to give him­self some more space and we hit the bank­ing on the in­side. The car be­gan to corkscrew over and went through a gap in the wall. We then plunged down into the ravine, whack­ing into a mas­sive tree, which pierced the wind­screen on Colin’s side.

“When the noise stopped we were up­side down on the roof, 10 me­tres down and ev­ery­thing was dark. I put my hand down, un­did my belts and asked Colin if he was all right. He didn’t re­ply. He was un­con­scious. I tried to open my door and I couldn’t, it was wedged against some­thing and the gap was too small to get out. I took

my

Ogier proved he’s head and shoul­ders above the rest

Neuville fought Mikkelsen for sec­ond

Bri­ton Meeke was rapid when not punc­tured or crash­ing his semi-works Citroen

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