Ogier shows his class in Wales

World cham­pion con­trolled his pace to claim Wales Rally GB win.

Motor Sport News - - Headline News - By David Evans

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.

Home rule?

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.”

VW’S trou­bles

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

Meeke strug­gled to find de­cent grip lev­els

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

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