OGIER ZEROES IN ON WRC CROWN
VW MAN DOMINATES IN CORSICA
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