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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 [2017] 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

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­

Neuville starred across the open­ing day to lead for Hyundai

In­gras­sia (l) and Ogier: New team, new car, but same re­sult

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­

Tanak beat en­gine is­sue to take third

Meeke had a tough Monte run

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