CHAM­PION OGIER GOES FOURTH

VW STAR GRABS RALLY CATALUNYA GLORY AND THE WRC CROWN

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY DAVID EVANS

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

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

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

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