CHAMPION OGIER GOES FOURTH
VW STAR GRABS RALLY CATALUNYA GLORY AND THE WRC CROWN
Sebastien Ogier’s not a man known for reading history. He’s too busy writing it. The latest chapter – the one where he joins a fairly elite club including Sebastien Loeb, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen – was duly delivered in Tarragona last week. The Gap man delivered a drive that was as measured as it was inch-perfect and – when it needed to be – devastatingly quick. He overcame both the weather and a typically determined charge from home hero Dani Sordo to join the big three with title number four.
Day one: 74.00 miles; 7 stages rain then overcast 10-18 celsius
Weather: Friday was a day for Shirley Manson. By her own admission, the Garbage lead singer’s only happy when it rains. On Friday, she was very happy.
It rained on Friday. Like it rained on Thursday. And Wednesday.
The rain in this part of Spain had simply never fallen like this before. Not on the plain, not in the main. Friday was unprecedented with the Spanish equivalent of Michael Fish reaching for the “not since records began” line throughout the day.
It really was that bad. At least it was in the morning.
Typically, the heaviness of the rain was localised, with most drivers feeling hard done by at least once in the morning.
After sweeping gravel clear at the front of the field for much of the season, Ogier left Corsica a fortnight earlier talking of his hopes that a shower might help bind the Catalan gravel together, negating his disadvantage, possibly offering an advantage.
“I wanted some rain,” he said, “but not this much!”
Roads turned to rivers and wipers wilted under the weight of water they were being asked to shift.
Through that first morning, it was Jari-matti Latvala who emerged, powder dry and full of confidence. It didn’t last. He was out on the first afternoon stage, running wide and damaging the front-right suspension on his Volkswagen.
The Finn’s fall from grace was made slightly more acceptable when Ogier arrived at the end of the second run through Caseres.
“That was ’orrible,” he said. “Undriveable. There was nothing I could do. The ruts were unbelievable. The car was moving all of the time and all the time I was fighting with the car to make it turn. I don’t like it like this.”
Ogier doesn’t like it like that. If he has a nemesis, it’s rough and rutted conditions where the only way forward is to be forcibly more aggressive with the car. Even a morning aquaplaning was preferable to this.
By the afternoon, the rain had stopped, but it had left the first stage after a remote tyre zone caked in mud. Arriving at the end of the stage, the cars were reminiscent of some of Mcklein’s stunning wet Safari imagery. It was that muddy. Opening the door to talk to the drivers, was like opening the curtains: there was a blink and then some very wide eyes. Clearly there had been some nightmares in the last seven and threequarter miles.
Mikkelsen: “I was a passenger in there…”
Something changed. Hayden Paddon rolled into view. Devoid of anti-lag aboard his Hyundai from the morning loop, the Kiwi had perfected the oldschool brake-burning approach of keeping the blower on the boil. But still the i20’s response was far from perfect. Yet he took 11.1s out of Ogier.
Next in was Paddon’s team-mate Dani Sordo. The Spaniard’s dislike for changeable grip levels has been well documented down the years, but his home advantage always seems to give him a little something extra on the dirt. After the morning, he was fourth, just 10.2s off the lead.
Stage five changed all that. Before the car had stopped Sordo was punching the air. In the middle of the mud, he’d found a purple patch.
“The car was perfect,” he beamed. “The stage was so, so slippery, but I had a good feeling. I took a lot, a lot of risks, but it worked. I am happy with this time.”
Rightly so: he’d taken 16.3s out of Ogier and moved to the top of the timesheets.
The second stage in the loop, the shorter Bot test, started three miles down the same road. Conditions wouldn’t be too different. Sordo kept the edge and took another five from Ogier.
“It was the same feeling in there,” said the leader, “it was a fantastic feeling. Everything with the car is working just like I want. The balance is perfect.”
Only Kris Meeke could stand in the way of a Sordo whitewash of the afternoon. The Briton recovered from a 15-second roll on SS2 to go quickest on the day’s final stage. Crucially, though, Sordo hauled another 6.9s from Ogier to head the champ into the weekend by 17 seconds on the nose.
The reception for the Spaniard at the end of leg press conference – held in front of a huge crowd in the centre of the service park – was incredible. The noise almost lifting the man sandwiched between a brace of Volkswagen suits out of his seat.
Not that he was about to talk openly about it before his people, but Dani was worried about the transition from gravel to asphalt – not a sentence you expect to write about the man who has finished on the podium of his home rally six times, four of which have been in second place.
“In Corsica,” he said, “I couldn’t get comfortable with the car, we had too much understeer all the time. We need to find a good feeling tomorrow.”
Ogier was fairly relaxed about his position. “If you look at it, we lost 17 seconds to Dani Sordo in the first stage this afternoon and that’s where we are now: 17s behind him. I’m not going to go crazy tomorrow, but I want to win the rally to become world champion.”
Perfectionist that he is, Ogier wanted the job doing properly.
End of day one: 1 Sordo/ Marti 1h18m44.4s; 2 Ogier/ Ingrassia +17.0s; 3 Mikkelsen/jaeger +35.1s; 4 Neuville/ Gilsoul +46.3s; 5 Paddon/ Kennard +47.5s; 6 Ostberg/ Floene +54.3s Day two: 86.48 miles; 8 stages
Weather: Sunny 11-24 celsius
For the Cantabria town of Torrelavega on Spain’s north coast, Saturday would be the longest day; 350 miles to the east its most famous son was taking on the world.
Four times Sordo had finished second on his home round of the championship.
If he was going to remove the monkey from his back, surely Saturday offered his best opportunity yet. But what about the understeer?
The team had used every second of the 75 minutes available for the change from gravel to asphalt specification. Roll bars, spring rates, damper clicks, everything was primed to precision in terms of what Dani wanted to get rid of the front-end push.
The Hyundai flashed across the line a tenth down on Ogier in SS8. Well? “There was some understeer,” said Sordo, “the car was not perfect, but the time’s not too bad…”
Ogier admitted to finding some damp patches in the stage. Rome, the overtone implied, wasn’t built in a day. The foundation stone had, however, be laid.
Building was stopped on the next stage when Sordo hauled six-tenths back.
Getting out of the car after the stage, Sordo smiled a wry smile. “I think he’s still sleeping a little bit,” said the leader conspiratorially, as though hoping not to wake him.
Ogier admitted his start had been a touch on the steady side.
“I don’t have the full confidence yet,” he said. “There are still some damp patches. I can see most of them and we have the others in the notes, but still, I’m being sensible. The confidence is coming though.” Confidence is coming though… Stand by. Three seconds out of Sordo in Querol and a warning ahead of the morning loop’s fourth and final stage: “I’m not at full speed yet.”
El Montmell demands inspiration, bravery, commitment and absolute confidence – especially a two-mile section in the middle spent on the limiter in top, right at the edge of adhesion and way beyond reason.
As ever, Ogier timed it to perfection. Synced and psyched, he pulled six out of Sordo. The gap was down to 7.7s.
Lunchtime service was a tense affair, with Hyundai concerned that the rising ambient temperature through the afternoon would accentuate the i20’s apparent intrinsic desire to lead with the nose at the apex of corners. Collectively, the team scratched its head and fiddled around the edges. That was all at that could be done.
“I will keep trying,” said Sordo. “Keep pushing. But I think he’s awake now!”
He certainly was. Awake and unbeatable on the afternoon’s three long stages. The midday sun had well and truly burned off any damp patches, allowing Ogier to slot his extra gear and push towards the maximum.
The Polo driver took 2.5s in the first stage after lunch, 2.7s in the next and 4.2s on the second lap of El Montmell was enough for Ogier to lead for the first time since SS4.
But still, Sordo was only 1.7s back ahead of the dash along Salou seafront. And Ogier’s rally had taken another turn mid-way through SS12. While the
champion got on with the task in hand, his team-mate Mikkelsen ran wide on a fast right-hander and was launched into a roll by the Armco barrier.
Last season, a Spanish crash barrier helped the Norwegian realise his dream (when Ogier collided with one on the final stage), but this time around it was his nightmare. A nightmare with potential ramifications for Ogier. Yes, Mikkelsen’s exit effectively handed him the world title, but it also added pressure for him to make the finish.
“If I don’t finish, it gives Hyundai a one-two,” said Ogier. “That would make the manufacturers’ championship very close. My team doesn’t deserve this sh•t present. My team deserves this title.”
There was plenty to ponder as Ogier sat and waited for his run along what’s become known as the beach stage. It’s only 1.4 miles long, but the sand-covered polished promenade is as treacherous as any verglas-laden lane through the French Alps – minus the massive drops, of course. The Salou stage runs, quite literally, at sea level.
Continued from page 23 But it still broke Sordo’s heart. He attacked the least attackable stage on the itinerary, overdrove it and dropped another four seconds.
The Spaniard was furious with himself. “I have nothing nice to tell you tonight,” he said. “I hate this stage; so stupid stage.”
Typically, Sordo couldn’t and wouldn’t maintain his tirade. He accepted responsibility while pointing to a degree of inevitability in the result.
“Today,” he said, “Ogier killed me slowly. That made me sad. Normally, second is OK. Not today.”
Ogier was simply brilliant on Saturday. He played himself in, did his thing and went back to the front. End of day two: 1 Ogier/ Ingrassia 2h35m12.8s; 2 Sordo/ Marti +5.8s; 3 Neuville/ Gilsoul +1m03.9s; 4 Paddon/ Kennard +1m20.0s; 5 Meeke/ Nagle +1m57.9s; 6 Ostberg/ Floene +2m35.7s
Day three: 39.02 miles; 4 stages
Weather: sunny 9-17 celsius
Sitting down to his 200th omelette as a Volkswagen driver (seriously, somebody has counted how many two-egg breakfasts he’s had), the number four was closer to the front of Ogier’s mind.
Four stages would lead him to become the fourth driver to win four world titles.
Hyundai team principal Michel Nandan promised Sordo had was free to chase Ogier – at least that’s what he said in front of the thousand or so Spaniards watching the Saturday night press conference… Sordo gave it a go, but nothing had changed. Ogier had all the answers.
The only crumb of Korean comfort came with a strong manufacturer showing, with Sordo and Neuville second and third to keep the makes’ race open. Just.
Twelve months ago, Ogier famously fell at the final hurdle here, this time the Frenchman got the Polo tucked in nicely for the final-stage left-hander that spat him into the barrier last year. Nothing and nobody was going to stop him this time.
Third win in Spain, fourth title and fifth victory this season. Those mid-year frustrations were a million miles away when he and Julien Ingrassia enjoyed a champagne shower by the sea on Sunday afternoon.
Local hero Sordo came up just short
Ogier’s classic display gave him title number four
Mikkelsen lost his chance of the title with a crash
Meeke was fast – but fragile
Ostberg drove a strong event