JACK COZENS JU­NIOR RE­PORTER

Motor Sport News - - Images: Pictures Of The Year -

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… ■

Kris Meeke had a stunning back­drop over the Fafe jump in his Por­tu­gal win Niall Mur­ray was the story of the FF1600 sea­son and he pushes on at Brands

Ost­berg claimed a podium in Mex­ico

Meeke made his­tory with Rally Fin­land win Le­feb­vre was lucky to es­cape Ger­man crash

Breen earned a full time Citroen ride

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