MASTERFUL MEEKE CLAIMS SPANISH GLORY
HOW WALES WILL BE VITAL TO OGIER’ S TITLE HOPES
Jimi Hendrix never took a guitar lesson in his life. Nobody taught David Bowie how to play the piano. They took their instruments and made sense of them. Last week in Spain, Kris Meeke did the same with a Citroen C3 WRC. For much of the summer this man and that machine have been at complete odds. Not last week. Meeke didn’t give anybody a look in at Rally of Spain. Meeke, Paul Nagle and their French motor crushed allcomers in Catalunya. They made music.
Day one: 72.02 miles; Six stages
Weather: sunny 16-28ºc Having answered the next year question for the millionth time, getting into his Ford Fiesta WRC on Friday morning must have come as a blessed relief for championship leader Sebastien Ogier.
The Frenchman had spent the last week or so telling people he’d parked 2018 talk while he got on with the business of bringing 2017 to a successful conclusion. An explanation of that plan drew the same response. “Yeah, but where are you going?” The start of the rally meant the end of such talk. And the start of another familiar conversation: gravel, roadsweeping and running order.
There was a vague threat of rain inland from the Costa Daurada, but Friday dawned beautifully bright, sunny and soon to be hot. This was not what Ogier had ordered. He knew he would be sacrificed, but he had a plan. A plan he wasn’t willing to share. Luckily, team principal Malcolm Wilson was in on it.
“Watch him on the Tarmac sections…” grinned the Cumbrian.
This day of Spanish dirt south of Salou is littered with asphalt sections, most of which strike fear into the drivers who know keeping hot knobblies in anything resembling good order is one of the season’s trickiest tasks. Unless, that is, you’re from Gap and called Sebastien.
But the whole cleaning thing didn’t really happen in the first two stages.
Ogier’s team-mate Ott Tanak hit the front on SS1 and stayed there after two, but he was slightly bemused. “There’s so much loose [gravel] on the roads,” he said. “I think it’s too thick. There are some lines, but it’s not cleaning.”
Combined, the Caseres and Bot tests didn’t constitute even half the mileage of the Terra Alta stage which lay in wait at the end of the loop. The 24-miler –morning and afternoon – would be where the day was won and lost.
Arriving at the start of SS3, times were predictably close after such a small amount of competition. Hyundai new boy Andreas Mikkelsen was a largely unnoticed fifth. Starting ninth, there’s no doubt he would be starting to benefit from a more swept road, but the flip side was his lack of knowledge of the i20 Coupe WRC – just a day of running on the dirt before the start.
Fastest time and the lead after Terra Alta was, therefore, something of a surprise.
“I think I’m going to like this car,” he smiled after the stage.
And Norway was smiling with him; 0.6s behind was private Ford Fiesta WRC driver Mads Ostberg. Ostberg’s run hadn’t been so straightforward.
“I can’t see a thing,” Ostberg said at the finish. “We have dust coming in somewhere, it’s hard to breathe. Always it’s something stupid…”
As Ostberg nosed his Onebet-backed car in the direction of Salou service, and hopefully something to stick in the hole (if the hole could be found), the rest of the field crowded into position behind. Ogier was third, four seconds off Ostberg, with Tanak, Meeke, Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville in close attendance.
Sordo in particular was in determined form.
“I don’t want to be at the back here,” he said. “I’m pushing like hell.”
A lack of feeling from the hard tyres hindered him early doors, but the problem was the complete reverse for his Belgian team-mate.
Neuville was the only driver to run all soft tyres on Friday morning. The clouds stayed away, the sun shone, the temperature climbed and Ogier’s main title rival rocked up at the finish on slicks.
“It was not my choice,” he said, sternfaced at the finish. “OK, we managed it. Now we continue.”
The focus on the repeated short stages was the all-norwegian battle. Ostberg moved into the lead by threetenths after SS4, only for Mikkelsen to retake the place by 0.7s one stage later.
Then it was back to Terra Alta. Everybody had learned from Neuville’s morning mistake and, after an Indian Summer-baked day, the tortuous mix of gravel and asphalt would demand the hardest boots possible.
The only question was how many? You could certainly get through with one spare, but equations were done across the service park in an effort to chart the improved performance and balance from fitting two new tyres against the extra 20 kilos carrying a sixth tyre would cost.
Citroen and Hyundai went for six. M-sport and Toyota took five. Given Hyundai’s widely reported readiness to gamble to keep its own and Neuville’s title hopes alive, eyebrows were raised when all three i20s headed out of town fully laden.
Such was the intensity of the lead battle, it had carried them 8.5s clear of third-placed Ogier. But the Frenchman was ready. And, don’t forget, he was ready with a plan.
The 24 miles ahead were split by five miles on an asphalt road which wound its way up and down a hill and through a real mix of corners. The tyres were in for a real work over. Before the Tarmac, the splits were pretty uniform with most drivers at the races, but afterwards, one number shone through: the number one.
Ogier loves this stage because he knows what he can do. And what he can do is demand less from his tyres on Tarmac, while keeping the speed and performance of those around him.
So when the going gets dirty again, there’s enough left beneath him to carry him to the finish. That’s precisely what happened. That’s precisely how he arrived at the end of Friday just 1.4s off leader Mikkelsen.
Mikkelsen’s challenge had been blunted slightly by a damper problem mid-way through, while Ostberg had fallen away when the heater in his car couldn’t be switched off, rocketing cockpit temperatures.
“I can’t focus when it’s like this,” he fumed at the end. “Always something…” He dropped from the top to fifth, 7.1s off the front.
Mikkelsen took the plaudits for leading – a great story for the Hyundai newcomer – but it could so easily have been Meeke making the day one headlines. The only driver to win more than one stage in the day, he ended the leg third.
“I spun in the last hairpin on first stage of the afternoon,” he said. “I had to reverse, it cost us five seconds or so.”
The difference to the front? Three.
No matter. Tomorrow would be another day and another very different day as the teams set about an extended Friday night service to switch the cars from gravel to asphalt set-up for a weekend of sealed surface racing.
And the fight was finely balanced with just 12.8s separating Hyundai top dog Mikkelsen from his buddy and team-mate Neuville in seventh.
The Belgian would, however, be needing something for the weekend if he was going to fulfil his pre-event ambition of finishing ahead of series leader Ogier.
End of day one: 1 Mikkelsen/jaeger 1h11m56.3s; 2 Ogier/ Ingrassia +1.4s; 3 Meeke/ Nagle +3.0s; 4 Tanak/jarveoja +6.3s; 5 Ostberg/ Eriksen +7.1s; 6 Sordo/ Marti +10.8s
Day two: 75.72 miles; Seven stages
Weather: overcast/sunny 14-20ºc The one thing Mikkelsen wanted on Saturday morning was consistency. Learning a new car on asphalt is generally more demanding than on gravel, but learning one in changeable conditions on asphalt is toughest of the lot.
Cloud. Cloud everywhere. That’s what Andreas saw when he pulled back the curtains just after 0600hrs on Saturday morning.
“Rain coming later…” he said as he walked to the window of Hyundai’s command centre, “…that’s not so good.”
And he didn’t have to wait long. Just after the start of El Montmell, the storm arrived. And departed almost as quickly. “I struggled for the feeling,” was Mikkelsen’s predictable verdict on a seventh fastest time which dropped him to third place.
The lead was gone and gone to the team he passed over.
Gone to Citroen and Meeke. Meeke delivered an inch-perfect run to
himself into a 9.1s lead Ogier. Maybe he should every asphalt round of championship without a event test on that surface… had the wipers on full at one he said, “but then we went forest section and the road more protected.” was relaxed and cast little than a glance at the times. comparison, Ogier was too he knew it. And then he it. feeling wasn’t perfect,” he Some rain, some understeer. slow.” saw his chance and went for pushing the car that bit harder more circuit-style second 15.4s lead was the result. we have to look to manage said. “The car’s phenomenal though.”
As Meeke moved clear, the fight for second intensified with four drivers within a second of each other. After SS8, it was Sordo-ogier-tanakNeuville, but one stage later that four had become three with Neuville dropping time in the most unusual circumstances.
The #5 Hyundai had lost hydraulic pressure right at the end of SS8. On the short road section between the end of eight and the start of nine, Neuville stopped the car to investigate the issue. The car then refused to start. When it did start, he was late for the stage, pushed on and promptly went off on the road section damaging the rear of the i20. Three minutes late translated to a 30-second penalty. One second off second became eighth overall and almost a minute off the lead.
His season was unravelling before his eyes.
Three stages later and Hyundai’s collapse was pretty much complete – even if, ironically, it helped Neuville in the overall classification. Sordo and Mikkelsen both fell victim to the same cut in the same second gear Savalla corner. Ostberg and Tanak hit the same object buried deep in the righthander, but without anything like the gut-wrenching consequences for the boys in blue and orange.
The angst was everywhere. Sordo had lost his shot at a possible home win; Mikkelsen had ruined his good first impression and Hyundai looked to have thrown away its last chance to challenge M-sport for the makes’ title. This one was hard to take. Team boss Michel Nandan said: “This was not a good day, but these things happen and you have to accept it.”
Almost in the blink of an eye the fight had gone from the event. Post-hyundai connection with camouflaged concrete box (or post, depending who you listened to), the only scrap of note was the 1.5s gap which separated Ogier and Tanak in second and third. That all-m-sport affair brought its own considerations; yes, Ott wanted to keep his own championship going, but holding position would pretty much bank the Cumbrians a first world championship crown in a decade. Malcolm? “No team orders,” he announced. “We’re close to Kris and Juho’s close behind. There’s everything to play for. Let’s keep the guys going and see what happens.”
Hanninen drove brilliantly, scoring two fastest times in the morning, to home in on a podium slot. The Finn ended Saturday the thick end of 20s behind Tanak, with Neuville a similar distance behind him in fifth.
Out front, Meeke would take a 13s lead into the final 46 competitive miles of asphalt this season. A mark of how relaxed the Dungannon man was feeling came as he arrived on the Salou seafront for the notoriously slippery and tricky superspecial.
“I didn’t exactly cover myself in glory on the superspecial in Germany,” he said. “I have to concentrate here!”
He did. One day to go.
End of day two:
1 Meeke/ Nagle 2h16m21.1s; 2 Ogier/ Ingrassia +13.0s; 3 Tanak/jarveoja +14.5s 4 Hanninen/ Lindstrom +34.0s; 5 Neuville/ Gilsoul +53.2s; 6 Lappi/ Ferm +1m22.1s Day three: 46.14 miles; Six stages
Weather: sunny 13-21ºc Two stages in the dark might have spooked a lesser man. Not Meeke. He was ready for the additional challenge that came with running a C3 complete with lamp pod and map light illuminated. And he loved it.
He won them both and said: “It was beautiful, you go into this tunnel of light and in a car working this well, it’s just perfect.”
Finding a rhythm in the dark made everything that little bit easier when daylight came. And when the sun came up, Meeke kept on winning the stages, taking five from six on the final day.
Ogier and Tanak quarreled initially over second, but heading into the second loop, the Estonian’s phone rang. ‘Malcolm Wilson’ flashed up. He knew what was coming. He settled for third with Ogier one place ahead and one step nearer another title.
That fifth crown came closer still when Neuville damaged the suspension on the front-right of his Hyundai. With wheel-opening damage reminiscent of his team-mates on Saturday and his own car in Germany, the Belgian was out.
Hyundai’s darkest hour contrasted hugely with the delight at the front of the field as Meeke and Nagle stood on the roof of their Citroen at the end of the final stage.
Nobody was going to deny the C3 men their moment; collectively, onlookers have winced at the pain this pair has endured at times this year. If Hyundai is looking for a torch to guide them out of the darkness, Meeke would gladly hand over the one he used to find a path back from the pits of despair. Success in Salou was a long way from sorrow in Saarbrucken last time out.
Ogier: a man with a plan in Spain
Neuville pushed hard for points, but damaged his car