COLIN CLARK

“We will find out who is the WRC’S big­gest gam­bler”

Motor Sport News - - Rally Spain -

On the face of it, the 2017 driver line-ups for our WRC man­u­fac­tur­ers seem more or less set­tled. It is un­usual con­sid­er­ing we were still three rounds from the end when news landed from Hyundai and Citroen.

In real­ity what this re­flects is a seis­mic shift in the dy­namic be­tween driv­ers and team bosses. The real­ity is that driv­ers, all of sud­den, are back in de­mand, and team bosses are un­der pres­sure. So Thierry Neuville stays at Hyundai, Craig Breen and Stephane Le­fe­vere are given their op­por­tu­nity at Citroen and Toy­ota, it’s ru­moured, will con­tinue with it’s Finn-cen­tric ob­ses­sion and em­ploy Juho Han­ni­nen and Es­apekka Lappi. So, more or less all sorted, you might think. Well what about M-sport? OK, so Eric Camilli has never been in any doubt for 2017,. It also looks pretty much a cer­tainty that Ott Tanak will be there too. And now comes the in­ter­est­ing bit – who gets the third seat at M-sport?

Num­ber three to Camilli and Tanak might well turn out to be the most hotly con­tested and maybe even the most im­por­tant seat of them all. Why? Well for one sim­ple rea­son, it could well be the only seat up or sale at the start of per­haps the most im­por­tant sea­son the WRC has seen in decades.

For driv­ers on the fringes and those as­pir­ing young­sters look­ing to make the step up to play with the big boys, the cost of that seat, high as it most likely will be, could well be a price worth pay­ing. One sea­son with the M-sport beast of a 2017 car might well be the mak­ing of a num­ber of driv­ers.

And it all goes back to that in­ter­est­ing shift in dy­namic be­tween driv­ers and team bosses. There just aren’t enough top-line pi­lots out there. But that doesn’t mat­ter be­cause our man­u­fac­turer teams are set­tled right? Wrong...

The 2018 sea­son of­fers the pos­si­bil­ity of two or maybe even three seats be­com­ing avail­able to those ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the step up. There are con­tin­u­ing ru­mours that VW might well be look­ing for an­other driver come the end of 2017. Like­wise, if the Fin­nish ex­per­i­ment doesn’t work out, Toy­ota might be look­ing. And what bout Citroen? There’s al­ways the chance that with their clear pri­or­ity of man­u­fac­turer suc­cess they might have to shake thing up at the end of 2017.

For the likes of Mads Ost­berg, Teemu Sun­ni­nen, Robert Ku­bica, El­fyn Evans and maybe even Pet­ter Sol­berg the, no doubt, enor­mous cheque that might have to be writ­ten for 2017 could well be re­warded by a meaty man­u­fac­tur­ers con­tract at the end of the year.

I reckon Mr Wil­son can more or less name his price for that seat. The next few weeks might well tell us who turns out be the WRC’S big­gest gam­bler.

Jon Arm­strong took his sec­ond vic­tory of the Drive DMACK Fi­esta Tro­phy sea­son in Spain on Sun­day. The North­ern Ir­ish­man took con­trol of the fi­nal round of the one-make Ford Fi­esta R2 se­ries on the third stage and held it in a vice-like grip un­til the fin­ish.

Arm­strong’s win backs up his third in Ger­many and bags him the fi­nal two WRC2 prize drives next sea­son.

He and Noel O’sul­li­van en­joyed a largely trou­ble-free run through the stages, save for a starter mo­tor is­sue that forced them to push the car into ser­vice on Satur­day lunchtime.

“It’s been a bril­liant event,” said Arm­strong. “It was a case of man­ag­ing the lead through the week­end, but the key was get­ting Fri­day without trou­ble – the weather made it so tough.”

Gus Green­smith was sec­ond. His hopes of a fi­nal-round win were dented when a rock on a sec­ond-stage line dam­aged the left-front suspension. The Manch­ester man drove well to con­tain the time loss – run­ning with lit­tle or no damp­ing on one cor­ner for the re­main­der of day one, where there was no ser­vice per­mit­ted.

Max Vata­nen rounded off the podium, while fifth-placed Osian Pryce took the ti­tle. The Welsh­man re­tired from day one on the fi­nal day with a chronic mis­fire. That cost him the chance of chal­leng­ing Arm­strong for the fi­nal two drives, but he did en­joy the con­so­la­tion of the sea­son-long ti­tle.

Sit­ting on a three-sec­ond WRC2 lead on Fri­day night, you kind of got the feel­ing Pon­tus Tide­mand knew the game was up. The day on the dirt was his mo­ment to open up an ad­van­tage over his fac­tory Skoda team-mate Jan Kopecky. The Czech star drove su­perbly on his weaker sur­face to lead the Swede un­til the day’s penul­ti­mate test.

“I have to wake up well to­mor­row,” said Tide­mand. “Jan will be tough on Tar­mac.”

And so it turned out. Kopecky flew through the Cata­lan hills, fastest on ev­ery Satur­day stage bar one: Querol 2, where a punc­ture slashed his lead from 25 to five sec­onds. He’d re­built that ad­van­tage to 14s by the close of play on Satur­day and man­aged that ad­van­tage to fi­nally end his run of three sec­ond places in WRC2.

“I was happy with the speed on gravel,” said Kopecky, “and the punc­ture was the only prob­lem for us dur­ing the rally. It’s good to fi­nally make the top step of the podium!”

WRC2 ti­tle-wise, last week was a good one for El­fyn Evans – and the Welsh­man wasn’t even in Spain. His chief ri­val Teemu Suni­nen re­tired from day one with turbo trou­ble aboard his Skoda. The Finn re­turned, but could only man­age fifth place, nar­row­ing the gap to the Welsh­man by just 10 points. Suni­nen now needs to fin­ish first or sec­ond at Rally GB to deny Evans the ti­tle.

Fabio An­dolfi made a win­ning re­turn to his Peu­geot 208 R2 after stepping up to a Hyundai i20 R5 in Cor­sica. An­dolfi dom­i­nated the WRC3 cat­e­gory.

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