NEW ERA, NEW CAR, NEW TEAM, SAME RESULT FOR FORD STAR OGIER
CREATES A NEW CHAPTER WITH THE OLD ROUTINE
Standing in front of his new car on Wednesday afternoon, Sebastien Ogier glanced absent-mindedly at his phone. Co-driver Julien Ingrassia tapped the roof. Ogier looked up put his phone down, gave the Gap massive a wink and slid into his new motor. Backing a Ford Fiesta WRC out of M-sport’s service, the Frenchman had a new world – even newer than the rest of the World Rally Championship’s new world – that he was set to discover.
South of the mountains on Sunday, he got out of the car four days’ wiser. The result? Nothing had changed. Ogier still rules the Monte.
Day one: 128.96 miles; 8 stages Weather: sunny -15 – 4 celsius
As the first page of a new chapter, this was not the story anybody wanted to write. An apparently innocent and typically Monte-style crash had turned horribly sinister for Hayden Paddon. The lack of urgency to right the rolled Hyundai told its own tale.
The true tragedy of that tale unfolded over the next few hours; a spectator had lost his life watching this new start for the sport.
Less than 10 minutes before Paddon’s i20 failed to make an icy left-hander – and just half a mile further up the road – Ogier had arrived at the first stage end of the season.
At that point, the Frenchman’s feelings about his new Ford were all that mattered.
The reigning champ’s eyes were reddened from the unblinking commitment required to get M-sport’s all-new rocketship Fiesta WRC through the last 13 miles.
“We can go faster,” he said. “This is the first stage of the year. I hope it’s not too bad…”
Neuville’s was the only other time through before Thursday night’s opener was cancelled. Despite feeling the car was too soft, the Belgian’s confidence was clear as he scorched his way through the final icy miles to edge Ogier by seven-tenths. Soon after, yellow flags turned red and the stage was stopped.
The score was the same after SS2, the first stage to count, when Neuville stopped the clocks 7.8s up on Ogier.
Third fastest for Toyota’s Juho Hanninen raised eyebrows, but gave more weight to the theory that this unpredictable rally was at its least predictable as a freezing Thursday night neared an even colder Friday morning on the Breziers stage south-east of Gap.
Rather unkindly, some suggested daylight would bring a rather more recognisable order. It did. And it didn’t. It started with the alarming news that Ogier was in a ditch. He’d struggled to get the Fiesta turned into a skating-rink open hairpin right and was powerless to stop the car slipping off the road at walking pace.
“I wanted to rotate the car,” he said, “but pulling the handbrake produced the opposite effect. I don’t understand the behavior of the car in the hairpin. I have no confidence in the car in this section and every hairpin I lose time because I can’t make the car turn and be progressive like I want.”
Ogier dropped to eighth, 49.4s off the lead. The M-sport team prepared a new set of ‘diff maps and softer roll-bars in an effort to help the champion find more confidence from the Fiesta.
Finding any kind of confidence on the switchback roads through the French Alps last Friday brought constant reference to a haystack and a needle.
Neuville had a rummage around and came up with said needle firmly in his grasp.
Fastest on four, five and six, the Belgian’s confidence went through the roof. He was walking on water and dancing on ice.
“I am taking a lot of information from the car,” he said. “I can feel the grip. I don’t feel like I’m taking chances or taking risks. On this rally it’s really important to find the confidence from the car early on.”
Drivers rarely admit they’ve been on the door handles to do the times they’re doing, but Neuville’s demeanour tallied: he was super-cool, completely collected and 38.2s in the lead after SS6. He’d found that confidence.
By that point, Ogier was back up to third position, with just his team-mate, Ott Tanak, between him and the P1 Hyundai.
Fastest times on the day’s final two stages were enough for the number one Fiesta to edge its Estonian sister car by three-tenths of a second. Malcolm Wilson grinned at the question of team-orders.
“No chance,” he smiled. “These boys can fight. That’s what we’re here for.”
Tanak ventured it might be a slightly one-sided scrap, not least because Ogier had grown up on the roads around Gap.
“I think he has some tricks around here,” laughed Tanak after a sensational first full day back in the factory squad.
Ogier admitted the afternoon had offered some improvement in the feeling, but at the same time he was no longer opening roads and finding the worst of the conditions (apart from in SS6, where he was confronted by a slushy mess) on a day which demanded studded winter tyres throughout.
But what about the not-so-small matter of the 45 seconds separating him from the top of the timesheets?
“Nothing is impossible on this rally,” he said quietly.
Neuville admitted he’d been cautious on the ice in SS7, dropping 19.6s, but was there more concern in the last test, where the leader talked about a loss of boost for 500 metres.
“I had nothing,” he says, “not boost, no power. Eventually, Nicolas [Gilsoul, co-driver] found the [button] and pushed it.”
Had we just seen Hyundai’s first gremlin of 2017?
“No,” said team principal Michel Nandan. “He stalled the car because the revs went too low in a hairpin. And when you re-start this car, you have to do things in a certain order. He forgot that. And then he remembered it!”
That issue was lost as Neuville sat down to supper in service. Everything was looking very good.
“I wouldn’t say I’m confident,” said the Belgian, “but I am a bit more comfortable. We have 45 seconds and that is much.”
Checking himself, he grinned and quickly added: “But on this rally, also this is not much! Let’s see what is happening tomorrow night.”
Hanninen and his Toyota team-mate Jari-matti Latvala justified the optimism of Thursday night with strong stage times when daylight arrived on Friday. Unfortunately the former’s efforts came to nought when he slid into a tree “at walking pace” and damaged the front suspension on SS5.
Latvala kept it on the straight and narrow and drove conservatively to fourth overnight.
“I have been learning today,” said the cheerful Finn. “I learned that I must not take the clutch when I go to the handbrake – this opens the transmission and makes the car spin. And, like I promised to you, I am not playing all of the time with the clicks in the suspension. I’m learning!”
Dani Sordo was also learning, but the Spaniard was far from in the comfortable class. Running the same set-up as Neuville, he couldn’t find any confidence in the car and dropped close to three minutes to the leader.
Conversely, Craig Breen was driving beautifully in a DS 3 WRC. The Irishman actually ran ahead of Sordo, before ‘the old girl’ was outpaced by Sordo and his extra 80 horses in SS8. End of day one: 1 Neuville/ Gilsoul 2h05m24.6s; 2 Ogier/ Ingrassia +45.1s; 3 Tanak/jarveoja +45.4s; 4 Latvala/anttila +2m09.7s; 5 Sordo/ Marti +2h57m.8s; 6 Breen/ Martin +3m04.1s
Day two: 75.43 miles; 5 stages Weather: sunny -9 – 11 celsius
Saturday morning’s opener posed the perennial Monte problem. The first five or six miles on the road out of Lardier et Valenca were dry and bathed in glorious mid-winter sunshine. After that? Ice. Full ice and snow. Lots of it.
Every car went with at least two studded tyres, but the question was how hard to push on the first section? With more power and torque than any of these drivers have ever had before, nobody really knew how much punishment the covers would take.
Ogier admitted he was too cautious. Neuville was quickest. Arriving at the finish, his eyes searched the times on the board… another 2.6s out of Ogier. A brief smile and a wink.
“It’s OK,” Neuville said, “it was a clean run. I’m feeling more confident now.”
Back in Gap after the second stage, you got the feeling the leader was starting to believe, starting to think about where he was and what he was doing.
Another stunner of a time in SS10
had lifted his lead north of a minute. Typically, Ogier is quicker on the second run through the stages. He likes to take as much information as possible on the opening loop and put it to
good use on the repeat. But with 60.7s between him and the Hyundai ahead, it was beginning to look like one might be beyond even him. He took nine out of Neuville on the repeated tests later in the morning and
might have had more had it not been for a brief trip to a field in SS12. "There was a lot of dirt on the road,” said
a resigned Ogier. He paused for a moment, before admitting: “I needed to do more this morning.” One more Saturday stage, a couple of three-milers and a brace of runs over Turini were all that stood between Thierry and his biggest win yet.
We took the snow tyre for these two,” he said. “We are trying to be clever now.”
Neuville is clever. He knew full well his words would be interpreted as a shift into a mode of driving aimed at controlling rather than expanding the gap. And he knew full well that would get back to Ogier.
Approaching the halfway point of Saturday’s final test, everything was well for the leaders. They’d dropped a second at the first split, but it was no drama.
As is so often the case with this rally, drama is never far away. For Neuville, it was just around the next corner.
A one second drop became a 4m19.4s deficit to Ogier at split two. The right-rear suspension on the Hyundai was wrecked. Neuville’s dreams destroyed, and with that, Hyundai’s hopes shattered.
“I’d played a little bit with the ‘diff settings at the start,” said Neuville. “But the car felt good. Everything was well. We went wide in a third or fourth-gear corner. There was some gravel, but I knew about it from my gravel-note crew, but I must have gone to the throttle too quick. The car went wide and we hit something.” Something? “Something concrete,” he added disconsolately. “I knew immediately something had broken and we had to stop and fix it. It was a small mistake. I’m so disappointed, more for the team, which has worked so hard. I really wanted to bring for them this win…”
‘Something concrete’ was a bridge parapet on the exit of a left-hander. It wasn’t for moving. No more words were sought, needed or delivered.
The shock of Neuville’s departure from the top spot had barely sunk in before the news arrived that M-sport was now running one-two with four stages left.
The British team’s base was almost as quiet as their Korean counterparts. Suddenly, the pressure had gone through the roof.
Wilson’s face reflected that pressure. “Please,” he said, “let’s wait until tomorrow...”
Understandable sentiment from a man who hasn’t won a World Rally since 2012. What about the man who hasn’t won since October? “We are one-two,” Ogier said, “it would be a disaster if one of us doesn’t make it!”
Ogier’s calming influence was already much in evidence on Saturday evening. Except at the end of leg press conference, where he sent the massed ranks of French fans wild with a top-three selfie. Back to the front, Ogier was enjoying himself again.
Tanak’s car had endured the odd hiccup through Saturday, notably a gearbox with a mind of its own, but with a minute and a half in-hand over Latvala, things were looking good.
J-ML was similarly mindful of the need for Sunday driving with a debut podium looming for the Yaris WRC.
Breen’s heroic effort continued as he battled his way back past Sordo – who has power steering trouble and lost time – and into fourth with one day to run. There was more delight behind the troubled Spaniard as Elfyn Evans fought back from a tricky opening day. On Friday, his DMACKS offered little resistance on the ice. A bit more asphalt on Saturday gave his Cumbrian boots a chance and the Welshman took it. Fastest on three of the day’s five stages was an exceptional display, but he saved his best until last. The totally dry 13th stage provided the most level of playing fields and Evans, DMACK and the M-sport Ford Fiesta WRC smashed everybody. End of day two: 1 Ogier/ Ingrassia 3h26m10.7s; 2 Tanak/jarveoja +47.1s; 3 Latvala/anttila +2m20.6s; 4 Breen/ Martin +3m47.3s 5 Sordo/ Marti +4m03.2s 6 Evans Barritt +7m27.2s.
Day three: 33.38 miles; 4 stages Weather: cloudy then snow -3 – 6
Harbourside, Monaco, Sunday morning. Wilson’s locked into conversation with Ogier and Tanak. There’s energy and intensity in equal measure. The pair depart in search of a result to cheer one corner of Cumbria and offer one Cumbrian some return on a multi-millionpound investment.
Almost immediately, things start to go wrong. End of the opening threemiler and Tanak’s engine’s gone sick with an ignition coil problem. The loss of a cylinder has ruined that fabulous growl and is threatening to gatecrash M-sport’s planned party.
Tanak’s powerless to stop Latvala pinching second, but an epic effort on the downhill section of the final stage is enough to keep his feet on the podium’s bottom step. He’s a hero.
And so is Ogier. For years, Wilson has eyed Ogier’s trademark confidence and supreme speed with deep envy. No more. He’s an M-sport man now and those character traits transferred brilliantly to deliver a first win in five years for Wilson.
Stepping from the car back in Monaco, the pair grinned at each other. The deal had taken some doing, but the dividends were coming early. For both.
There was plenty to celebrate for the Finns too, with Latvala and Makinen feeling vindicated in their choice of each other.
The final day’s great race – the one for fourth – went Sordo’s way. A largely dry day played into his hands. For once an Irishman wasn’t pleased to see so much of the…
“Black stuff,” said Breen. “That was the problem. Those  cars just drive away from this one [DS 3] in the dry. But still, I’d have taken a fighting fifth before the start.”
While Breen’s massed ranks of Irish fans went in search celebration and forgiveness of the black stuff, the world championship was left to reflect on a spectacular new dawn for the sport.
Ogier fought back to claim win for M-sport
Latvala kept it steady in new Toyota
Neuville starred across the opening day to lead for Hyundai
Ingrassia (l) and Ogier: New team, new car, but same result
Tanak beat engine issue to take third
Meeke had a tough Monte run