MAS­TER­FUL MEEKE CLAIMS SPAN­ISH GLORY

HOW WALES WILL BE VI­TAL TO OGIER’ S TI­TLE HOPES

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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

Photos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

Neuville pushed hard for points, but dam­aged his car

Evans scored more points with sev­enth

Photos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

Lat­vala’s oil leak halted his rally

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