JACK COZENS JUNIOR REPORTER
My first experience of Le Mans was one I’ll cherish for a long time, and could easily stand on its own as a memory of the year. But instead, it’s one of the subplots from the event that stands out in my mind.
Frederic Sausset. His name is not one decorated with motorsport achievements, but it is one that – to me at least – stands for strength in the face of adversity.
Sausset contracted an aggressive infection while on holiday, which resulted in the amputation of both of his hands, as well as his legs above both knees. But that didn’t deter the Frenchman who, with no racing experience, set out to contest the famous 24 Hours.
Granted an entry for 2016, Sausset took on the challenge with Christophe Tinseau and Jean-bernard Bouvet in a specially modified MorganNissan LMP2 car, completing five full stints of the race into the early morning.
With half an hour of the race to go, back out went Sausset for one last hurrah.
Despite the madness of the final minutes of the 2016 event, trickles of tears threatened to burst my emotional barrier as Sausset crossed the line, so I can only imagine what those in the SRT41 garage must have been going through at the time. Bravo Frederic Sausset.
regulations jumped off the page and smacked Ogier between the eyes.
Friday: Championship classification. Saturday: Championship classification. Sunday: Reverse classification order.
Now here’s the killer line: P1 drivers re-starting on Saturday under Rally 2 regulations shall start as a merged group after the other P1 drivers. After? After. One word changed everything. Last year, restarting drivers ran before the P1 crews. Before. That meant, by the time the leader of the priority one crews – inevitably Ogier – got to Saturday in 2015, he would have a handful of cars ahead, scattering the stones, creating a line and allowing the four boots beneath him some hope of connecting with mother earth. Not this time. Mexico, Sardinia and Australia were the worst, but Argentina, Portugal and Poland weren’t much better. On each of those events, Ogier was able to run a softer Michelin than most, simply because, on the first loop of stages at least, the tyre was just spinning through the loose gravel and rarely making contact with terra firm.
After Sweden in February, Ogier wasn’t seen on the podium’s top step until Trier in August. And to say that was a source of frustration was a massive, massive understatement.
In Argentina, that frustration exploded in full view of the watching service park on Saturday night. Eventual winner in South America Hayden Paddon took Ogier to task over his issues with the running order. Paddon pointed out that forcing less experienced drivers new to the WRC to run first on the road would demotivate them and rob them of confidence. The Kiwi felt the rule was about right. Ogier? Hmm, he wasn’t so sure. A very – like very, very – frank exchange of words ensued. Ogier calmed down the following morning, when he reportedly told Paddon: “I am sorry for my words… but you’re still wrong.”
Asked about the situation, he told MN: “I am so bored of talking about this. I just wanted to finish this rally and go home to think about something else. Rallying is quite boring for me at the moment. Yes, we can be champion again, but I know we deserve more than this.
“The problem is that it only comes from me and it’s the same story, but my point of view is always the same. For me, year after year, this championship is getting more and more a joke.”
At that point, he wasn’t getting much change from the governing body, with FIA rally director Jarmo Mahonen admitting he’d pondered running the championship leader first on all three days.
Can you imagine? Ogier would have gone into meltdown.
Mahonen explained his theory: “Our intention was to decrease the gaps by not offering the best starting position to the best guy in the championship. Before this, the rallies could be over on Friday. We wanted to bring uncertainty and it seems we have done this. What is the championship if it finishes in the middle of the season? I would like to see it decided on the last round.”
The promoter did a deal with solid and reportedly sizeable government funding to take the WRC back to Turkey for the first time since 2010. The FIA stepped in and stepped on such plans. There will be no Turkey next season. Instead, the calendar remains identical to this year. Once again, a move to be applauded by those running our sport.
That said, we do desperately need to be heading east once more. Korea and Japan are on the cards, but right now New Zealand is looking the best bet for a second Asia-pacific round in 2018. Much as I love the land of the long white cloud, that’s much more Pacific than Asia.
Naturally, Hyundai would be pretty chuffed to land a Korean round, especially with the manufacturer developing into a genuine rallying superpower. The first i20 WRC to be developed entirely by Michel Nandan’s 200-strong Hyundai Motorsport workforce in Frankfurt was a very different prospect to the machine made in partnership with Seoul that went before it. Don’t get me wrong, the original i20 was a good car, but the base car was never terribly well suited to a World Rally Car.
The hike in performance from the new car was immediately apparent as Paddon harried Ogier through Sweden on round two and before Hyundai celebrated two wins from three rallies soon after.
The resurgence of Thierry Neuville was another story of significance this season and with the Belgian back on song, Hyundai romped to second in the makes’ race while Thierry managed a similar result in the drivers’ standings. Such a result would have been worthy of very long odds just 12 months ago.
The loss of Volkswagen allied to a change of rules allowing three drivers to be registered to score manufacturer points on every round (with the top two actually picking up the points) has nudged Hyundai firmly into the frame as favourites for next season. Nandan might be kicking himself for re-signing Neuville, Paddon and Dani Sordo for two more years – a decision made before three VW drivers flooded the market – but a consistent, point-scoring approach enhanced by ever-improving pace does make the gorgeous-looking i20 Coupe WRC an irresistible force for the year ahead.
Citroen’s decision to sit out 2016 looks to have been a sensible one. Meeke and his 2017 team-mates Craig Breen and Stephane Lefebvre have kept themselves sharp with a limited private programme through the season, while testing of the C3 WRC is reported to have gone without a hitch.
Meeke and Breen delivered the best of headlines with their Finland first and third. The Irishman’s presence on the bottom step of the Jyvaskyla podium was what clinched him full-time employment in Versailles. It was a drive as merit-worthy as any other this season.
Lefebvre’s pace was also right up there, but the Frenchman made the worst kind of headlines when he crashed in Germany. Momentarily, the Trier service park was silenced, breath held as the sport feared the worst. Fortunately, Lefebvre and co-driver Gabin Moreau emerged injured but alive. They pick up their fight in a C3 WRC next season.
That accident sparked fears for the speed of the next generation of cars and the opportunity for young drivers to come through the ranks before landing a seat in what will be the fastest rally cars ever made.
Fortunately, a home for the current 2016 cars has been found – via the FIA’S inaugural WRC Trophy. It’s absolutely necessary for a stepping-stone between R5 cars and the 2017 rocket ships to be maintained.
M-sport has been central to the development of that all-new privateers’ award and some have felt such a place would have been a better fit for Elfyn Evans’ replacement for this season Eric Camilli.
Coming into this year, the Frenchman had limited experience of World Rally Cars. And when I say limited, I mean his experience was limited to watching them from the sidelines. He’d never driven one. In fact, he’d only started 10 rounds of the world championship in total. History has shown M-sport team principal Malcolm Wilson as a deadeye talentspotter, but there are those who fear he was wide of the mark this time.
Learning your craft in the white heat of competition is never the easiest of ways forward and you had to feel for Camilli from time to time. Rolling out of the last stage of the season was, however, just about the worst possible way to end the year.
The highlight of M-sport’s season was its 200th consecutive point-scoring world championship finish, which came courtesy of Mads Ostberg’s third place in Mexico. Leon was Mads’ last trip to the podium in what was a forgettable season for the Norwegian.
The Fiesta’s honour was regularly defended by DMACK World Rally Team driver Ott Tanak. If Camilli’s in need of somebody to talk to about how to a) find your feet in the WRC and b) deal with those special MW ‘chats’ which follow more bent metal, he could do a lot worse than talk to the Estonian.
Tanak’s been down and he’s been out, but he’s bounced back and this year he was stronger than ever. He came closer than ever to victory in Poland and was only denied by a final-day puncture. His time will come.
And so will M-sport’s. The next generation Ford Fiesta RS WRC looks to be one of the most potent propositions for 2017 and if Wilson
manages to convince one of Camilli’s countrymen to join him in Cockermouth, the world could well be at the Cumbrian squad’s feet.
This has been a season with plenty to celebrate for British fans. Meeke’s win in Portugal was great, his win in Finland history-making, but it’s the consistency he’s shown that has been the primary reason for hope and cheer going into the New Year.
Beyond that, there’s Rally GB, which has definitely retaken its place among world rallying’s elite events.
Wales was entirely drama-free this year. But if it was drama you were after, you didn’t have to wait long post-deeside. Two days, in fact. That was how long it took a Wolfsburg board meeting to sour Volkswagen’s celebrations of its fourth manufacturers’ title with the news the Hannover-based team would be departing our world as a factory team.
Shock turned to awe as realisation dawned that the 2017-specification Polo R WRC – a car 18 months in the making and most likely the fastest rally car ever to turn a wheel on planet earth – might never be seen in competition.
Then there was the wider context of redundant drivers. Ogier will be fine, and despite his worst season as a professional driver Jari-matti Latvala has found gainful employment with Toyota.
But, at the time of writing, Mikkelsen’s future remains unclear and that’s harsh on a man who drove brilliantly to deliver a farewell win for the Polo down under.
The Norwegian’s had four years at the top table, but he’s earned the right to stay there and shown the speed to sit at the head of that table.
Let’s see what next season brings – a season when the tables are likely to be well and truly turned… ■