Ogier shows his class in Wales
World champion controlled his pace to claim Wales Rally GB win.
Last year a subdued and visibly emotional Sebastien Ogier left the winner’s bottle of champagne untouched. Shocking events in Paris a day earlier quelled the mood for celebration. The Frenchman promised British fans he’d be back with a smile next time around.
Last Sunday afternoon, he couldn’t and wouldn’t stop smiling. He and co-driver Julien Ingrassia drained the champagne off the back of another superb performance.
Ogier’s summer of discontent must seem a very long time ago now. In the last five weeks he’s taken his first win in Corsica, his fourth title in Spain and now his first win of the year on gravel. Some would say Ogier’s returned to his purple patch. I propose he’s never left. One too-deep-ditch-hook in Finland aside, he’s been pretty peerless all year.
Four and four again
Ogier’s not really a man for numbers. He got the number four, that one came last time out in Spain. But the fact that he’s never won a rally four times on the bounce? He wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know,” he said ahead of the event. “If you tell me this, I believe you. I don’t really know the numbers…”
Rally GB or RAC Rally hat-tricks are nothing new. They’ve been happening since Erik Carlsson in the Sixties and Timo Makinen in the Seventies. But four in a row? Not quite so common. Petter Solberg’s the only one.
Joining Hollywood would be nice, but Ogier was driven by a more fundamental desire last week. He was driven by frustration, the frustration at not winning so far this season on gravel. Rally Australia’s shift to become the final round of the season in a little over a fortnight means the New South Wales roads will be drier and less favourable than ever to the man at the front of the field.
“I think this could be my last chance to win on gravel this season. And I want to do this, it’s my favourite surface,” said Ogier.
Said with a steel in the eye, the sentence resonated with the menace of a fighter pilot confirming missile lock. At the end of the first stage, Ogier looked less sure. He’d slipped and slithered his way through the opening 19 miles of competition in Myherin.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I couldn’t find the confidence. The visibility was bad, we had the fog and the wipers kept stopping. Every minute or so, they were sticking.” Fastest. Feet found, he didn’t miss a beat. His Volkswagen, however, wasn’t quite so compliant. A noisy driveshaft at the rear of the Polo remained in the back of Ogier’s mind for the afternoon, but only came to the forefront in the final few competitive metres of Friday, when the car started diving to the left under braking.
“I think we were quite lucky,” said Ogier.
Nonsense. Ogier’s car held together longer than his team-mates – we’ll come to them – because he drives it softer, straighter, cooler, calmer.
Much as the first run through Myherin might have unnerved him, the second shot cemented his confidence.
The fog was worse second time around. A real pea-souper, the sort found on the moorland-style road on top of Myherin, is a great leveler; it can turn an ace into an average driver and strip a world champion back to a mere mortal. Not this one.
“I really committed in the fog,” said Ogier. “I was much happier on the second time. I knew the notes worked, so I really drove to them and trusted them. It’s not nice in these conditions, but I was very happy with that time. The confidence was really there.”
The Frenchman’s pace was relentless and, frustratingly for his rivals, apparently free from the biggest of risks once he was away and in the clear.
Sensing there would be talk of his favourable position on the road, Ogier defused it immediately, by fronting up to it.
He said: “I know I have the advantage where I am. I know I’m in the best position and I have to make the most of it. I have to use this advantage because on Sunday we’re all in the same place [on the road].”
That he did, going into the final day with 33 seconds in hand, Ogier was able to slacken the commitment slightly, but he insisted Ott Tanak’s exceptional pace meant the final day was no Sunday drive.
DMACK’S dry dream
When Tanak arrived in Ruthin for service after a couple of runs at shakedown, the dream was coming true. He stepped out of the all-white DMACK Ford Fiesta RS WRC and smiled. Then grinned. Something was missing. “No mud…” said the Estonian. The car was spotless, the dream real.
BBC Breakfast’s ever-cheerful weather watcher Scottish Carol was in on it as well – talking of highs of 19 degrees in places just a stone’s throw from Clocaenog. Yes, there might have been the odd cloud on the horizon, but it wasn’t expected to deliver anything. And sunshine? There’d be enough.
Departing Chester’s Holiday Inn well before dawn on Friday morning, it was genuinely warm.
Friday was a big day, but with new boots waiting in Newtown at lunchtime, the most important thing on day one was the weather staying dry for the weekend. Saturday was key. Eight dry stages and a shade over 60 competitive miles would be, so the theory went, just beyond Michelin’s soft cover (it’s possible tyre-saver extraordinaire Ogier might have had something to say about that…).
DMACK’S soft would have been even worse. But the hard compound, well that was a different matter. The shift in production base from China to the UK has given DMACK the ability to test and tune tyres far quicker and the hard variant of the DMG+2 GS61 was primed and ready for Saturday. Marginally harder than Michelin’s soft, this one had been cooked specifically for these conditions.
The reintroduction of Pantperthog was a further shot in the arm for DMACK’S plans – the slate-based five-miler just north of Machynlleth was about as abrasive as the roads come in this part of the world.
Across the board, everybody was talking Tanak whitewash in mid-wales.
Kris Meeke, Ruthin town centre car park Thursday morning: “Ott’s the dark horse, he’s the one to watch on those tyres…”
Such sentiment was echoed everywhere… right up until the point where the weather went south and the rain started.
All was not lost. The softer soft would still offer some advantage in damp conditions. Tanak charged hard. Fastest in Hafren and Dyfnant first time, he clung to Ogier’s coattails, just 7.7s behind the Frenchman. Four stages in, the best of the rest were already more than half a minute off the front.
A problem with the left-rear of the Fiesta was cause for concern in Newtown, but Tanak promised he was more than capable of dealing with a bit of squirming and darting around under braking. What he couldn’t cope with was a puncture and when he clipped a kerb-like rock a couple of miles from the end of Dyfnant, the right-front tyre flattened immediately.
In all honesty, Tanak had struggled to contain Ogier’s pace on Friday’s polished clean, even more slippery rerun stages. Arriving at the start of SS8, he was 22.3s behind. Coming out the other end, the gap was 37.3s.
At just over half a minute, the gap was just out of reach?
“I think you’re being kind,” smiled Tanak, “I think it’s more than a little bit out of reach. We can’t do this with just driving.”
That wouldn’t stop him trying. Quickest on four of the day’s seven forest stages, Tanak won the day by 3.5s.
Sunday merely rubbed salt into the wounds as Tanak wound the DMACK car up to win all six stages in a sublime display of driving talent. It also served as a timely reminder of just what an M-sport-made Fiesta’s
capable of. Tanak won the final day by an incredible 23.6s.
Victory in the weekend battle meant little to the men who’d had their eyes on winning the war just a couple of days earlier.
Nothing’s as good as a win, but for man, machine and tyre, this came as close as possible.
For 27 years, Johnny Foreigner didn’t get a look in. From Colonel Loughborough’s Lanchester in 1932 all the way through the Gerry Burgess in a Ford Zephyr in 1959, the RAC Rally was a Brit shoo-in. Then the Scandos arrived and spoiled everything. We waited 13 years for Roger Clark’s 1972 win – a success he repeated four years later. After 1976, a generation watched and waited. Eighteen events on and Colin Mcrae turned a rally lead into a rally win in 1994.
I grew up in the middle of those barren 18 years. They felt like a lifetime. We’re getting dangerously close to that number again: when we’re back in Deeside in 12 months, it’ll be 17 years since Richard Burns’ 2000 win. No pressure then Kris Meeke. The Dungannon driver couldn’t
have been more up front about his chances ahead of the rally. “Unlikely” was how he described them. Rarely has unlikely sounded more like “absolutely no chance.”
There were more than a few who were concerned at what they saw as something of a defeatist attitude from Meeke. When, for example, had you heard Colin or Richard talking about having no chance when they came home in equal machinery? It didn’t happen. They made this event their own and they ruled it for six consecutive seasons.
It’s as easy to look back fondly and remember the ballsy Brits walking on water, just as it’s easy to talk about the running order thing getting into Meeke’s head and forcing him to concede before the thing’s even begun.
But there’s more to this one than meets the eye. Let’s not forget, the dampers on the DS 3 WRC can be traced back to 2007. Granted, there’s been an evolution, but nothing like the revolution needed to keep pace with what Volkswagen has delivered. You only had to stand at the side of a slow or medium speed corner in Wales to see where some of the time was going. The Polo pitched and bucked under braking and acceleration, constantly feeling for the mechanical grip with the kind of subtlety that has always eluded Citroen and its DS 3. By contrast, Meeke’s motor was sitting on top, solid, unflinching.
This worked perfectly in Finland, where a direct and precise car is needed to fire the thing from one high-speed curve and crest to another, but in Wales traction was at an absolute premium and the DS 3 WRC was exposed badly for the comparative dinosaur that it is.
If it were needed, further evidence came in from the scorched Michelins beneath Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle.
“We struggle for traction,” said Meeke, “so we’re getting wheelspin in fourth gear in some stages. That wears the tyres and when the tyres are worn we get even more wheelspin.”
Meeke’s challenge for third was stymied by tyre trouble of a more prosaic nature on Saturday: a couple of slow punctures on successive stages left him with no spares and even less reason to take risks on the second loop.
As much as anything, the weather scuppered Meeke’s chances. If it had stayed dry, the DS 3 would have found more grip and Ogier’s advantage at the front of the field would have been negated.
“Friday and Saturday were exactly the conditions we didn’t want,” said Meeke. “We did everything we could, but I wasn’t prepared to risk absolutely everything for another second or two. What would have been the point? There would have been a corner waiting… We’ve had the perfect scenario for running first on the road, no doubt about that. In all honesty, Sebastien’s earned his chance to run first after going through what he’s gone through this year. I just hope he enjoyed it…”
Meeke hadn’t much enjoyed his time in Wales, but he wasn’t interested in dwelling on the immediate past.
“Next year,” he said, “it’s up to me. I want to come here in a position to be challenging for the championship and if I’m challenging for the championship then I’m going to be in a similar position to him [Ogier, it’s a natural assumption the Frenchman will be fighting for a fifth] on the road. That’ll mean I’m in much better shape to be fighting to win this rally.”
Deeside and Dungannon, put that Welsh champagne on ice. Come back to us in a year.
Meeke’s team-mates Craig Breen and Scott Martin started the event in pursuit of a podium, only to suffer the same fate when the rain fell on Friday.
Breen’s pace through Myherin was impressive: fourth fastest and 3.6s up on Meeke. He took another half a second in Sweet Lamb, but that was as good as it would get for the Irish-english DS 3 crew. They rolled second time through Myherin.
“The start was good,” said Breen. “The first stage felt horrible, but maybe that was the key. I wasn’t chasing the time, the time came to me. I chased it in the next couple and maybe overdrove a bit and lost some time. Second time through Myherin, we hit a bank and rolled. I’m so disappointed, I was so looking forward to this event.”
Winning a fourth successive world manufacturers championship is never going to be a bad result to take home from a rally, but Volkswagen team principal Sven Smeets admitted Friday had given the Germans something of a scare.
All three Polos were hit by a front driveshaft problem. Andreas Mikkelsen was troubled from the start, but Jari-matti Latvala and Ogier’s issues arrived later in the day. Hannover held its breath. If Ogier hadn’t made it out of Friday in one piece, that first gravel win of the year could have been in serious jeopardy given that the number one Polo’s not expected to feature in the final-round fight.
Latvala finished a forgettable seventh, Mikkelsen a tortured 12th, both deserved better.
The Norwegian’s problems also cost him valuable ground in the fight for second in the championship. Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville moved 15 points clear with the final podium spot. Neuville and team-mate Hayden Paddon fought tooth and nail throughout the event, but the Belgian always looked to have the edge. Certainly, both had the legs on Dani Sordo, who ended an event he never particularly enjoys in sixth place behind Meeke and just ahead of Latvala. M-sport factory drivers Mads Ostberg and Eric Camilli sandwiched a ninth-placed Stephane Lefebvre, the Citroen star making a very welcome return to the stages following his shocking Rally Germany crash in August.
Talking of welcome returns, Ogier made good on the promise he’d offered British fans 12 months earlier. He came back, won the rally, wore the smile and soaked an enthusiastic and utterly appreciative audience with champagne.
Last Sunday, everything went to plan.
Ogier built up a big cushion on the opening day in Wales
Ogier used his head as well as his right foot to collect a fourth Rally GB victory
DMACK’S Ott Tanak kept the pressure on the leader throughout
Podium helped Neuville consolidate second in the points table
Breen admitted to pushing too hard, which led to a roll Jari-matti Latvala finished seventh after driveshaft woes