Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY EVANS EDVAAVNIDSDAVID

Stand­ing high above the vil­lage of Authon, the fire­works light­ing up a cloud­less night sky were re­flected beau­ti­fully in the pure ice top­ping a series of Sis­teron switch­backs. The sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion for the open­ing stage of the 2018 World Rally Cham­pi­onship was quite ex­tra­or­di­nary. And al­most too much for the man dressed as a pink rab­bit.

Se­bastien Ogier’s Ford Fi­esta WRC was first in and ex­cite­ment lev­els went through the roof as the noise of nigh on 400 horses con­stantly be­ing leashed and un­leashed bounced around the val­ley. When it fi­nally came into view, it was in­con­gru­ous to say the least.

Here was this half-mil­lion-pound World Rally Car, quiv­er­ing with pent-up ag­gres­sion, tip-toe­ing its way down the road at what looked to be lit­tle more than walk­ing speed. The man in pink let out the sort of noise rarely, if ever, made by a rab­bit be­fore.

Two min­utes later, it’s all hap­pen­ing again. But Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai is car­ry­ing more speed. It’s only a hand­ful of miles per hour, more of a jog than a brisk walk. Keep­ing to the in­side of the right-han­der, the Bel­gian snatches the hand­brake in an ef­fort to ro­tate the car and open the apex slightly. Nope. In­stead the i20 Coupe WRC slews to­wards the out­side and a small snow­bank.

Neuville’s re­sponse is in­stan­ta­neous. And fruit­less. Power! The seren­ity of the evening is shat­tered as four Miche­lins fight a los­ing bat­tle with physics and chem­istry. Slicks on ice. For­get it. He’s beached.

Pink man’s on it, quicker than Neuville into the cor­ner, he locks up, slides into the side of the car and, along with as many mates as he can muster, starts heav­ing.

Four min­utes later, Thierry’s on his way again. His Monte hopes and dreams were shat­tered for another year. He wasn’t the only high-pro­file ca­su­alty of these most fa­mously treach­er­ous turns, but he paid the high­est price.

One chance to top­ple to mas­ter had passed. Two more would come. Two more would go. Last year in Monte Carlo, Ogier looked vul­ner­a­ble. Vul­ner­a­ble? OK, he looked vaguely beat­able. This year, Ott Tanak came close, but when the weather closed in and a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity was opened, it was the French­man who slammed it shut. And he did so with a Satur­day morn­ing run through the snow equally as mas­ter­ful as he’d been on the opener 36 hours ear­lier.

Ogier wasn’t per­fect, though. He’d half­spun in Sis­teron, but in Christ­mas card con­di­tions on the road from Ag­nieres en Devoluy to Corps, he was su­perb. Granted, run­ning as the last-but-one World Rally Car, the road was cleaner for him than for his ri­vals (a su­per­al­ly­ing An­dreas Mikkelsen was be­hind him and went event quicker), but still the con­sis­tency of speed and ac­cu­racy of ap­proach were sec­ond to none. He went into that stage 14.9s up on Tanak and came out a whop­ping 1m18.4s to the good.

As the driv­ers lined up for ser­vice soon af­ter, there was a de­brief. Jump­ing into MN’S in­ter­view with the Es­to­nian, the world cham­pion came up with a far more per­ti­nent ques­tion. “Did you spin?”

Tanak nod­ded, look­ing slightly non­plussed at the query.

“Where? There were so many marks from so many spins!”

M-sport Ford team prin­ci­pal Mal­colm Wil­son stepped in and put his arm around Tanak and say­ing: “No wor­ries, Seb, we’ll sort some team or­ders…”

Ogier was quick to ad­mit the con­di­tions were shock­ing.

“It was hor­ri­ble,” he said. “You are so happy to cross the fin­ish line when it’s like this, but you never know [what] the time [is like]. You could eas­ily have lost a minute or won a minute. We won a minute, but it re­ally felt su­per-slow. It’s the same like Sis­teron, you have to drive like a grandma, stay calm and wait for the end of the stage.”

Look­ing again at the minute-plus gap to Tanak’s time, Ogier ven­tured: “I guess Ott lost the rhythm. Be­cause we have no split times, some­times you can get in the wrong rhythm and you can lose more. I think that’s what hap­pened to him. If you have the split, you don’t re­ally get the gap like one minute; it can usu­ally be closer or a crash!”

Armed with a safe bet as to where Tanak’s chal­lenge had fal­tered, I walked back to re­con­vene my ear­lier in­ter­view with the man mak­ing an ex­cep­tional maiden ap­pear­ance with the Toy­ota team. I re­layed Ogier’s thoughts and Tanak con­sid­ered them be­fore say­ing: “We had a damper prob­lem. That’s where the time went. The car was too stiff and we had no grip.”

Ah. As if to demon­strate that, he’d hit back im­me­di­ately on the fol­low­ing stage – the one which ran pretty much past the Ogier fam­ily back door – and taken 15s out of the leader.

“That wasn’t so good for the lo­cal guy,” said Ogier rue­fully.

In­deed Ogier wouldn’t beat Tanak again for the rest of Satur­day, but still ar­rived in Monaco with 33.5s in hand. Had he been manag­ing the gap?

“The plan was to have half-a-minute in hand be­fore the fi­nal day,” said Ogier with a smile. “I’m pretty happy with that. To be hon­est, I haven’t felt well for the whole rally. I had some flu thing which made it hard to sleep and then when I was in the stage my eyes were cry­ing a lit­tle bit – the adrenalin has been get­ting me through, but it’s not per­fect.”

What was look­ing per­fect was a Toy­ota at­tack in the fi­nal day. Jari-matti Lat­vala was third, a minute down on Tanak and Es­apekka Lappi had been run­ning fourth for much of the event but had mo­men­tar­ily slipped be­hind Kris Meeke for fifth, but would be back in po­si­tion af­ter the first Sun­day stage.

So… Tanak was primed for a big at­tack over Col de Turini and Col de Braus. If he dropped it, it wouldn’t be a night­mare: Toy­ota would still bag big points for sec­ond and third. So, what did Tommi Maki­nen tell Tanak as he headed north from the Monaco har­bour­side?

“I re­mem­ber when I was driv­ing on this event,” said Maki­nen. “It made it more com­pli­cated if you were be­ing told how to drive or what to do. We don’t need to tell these guys.”

Happy that he’d got that mes­sage across, Tommi then leaned back in and added: “But I did say, since I won this rally four times, I think the win­ner has al­ways been called Seb – so I told them it would be nice to see another name. Ott might be nice…”

Sun­day morn­ing dawned and de­liv­ered op­por­tu­nity num­ber three. De­spite the heavy snow ear­lier in the week in the Hautes Alpes, the think­ing was that the more southerly Alpes Mar­itimes would be free from snow. Yes, Turini peaked at more than 1600 me­tres, the rally’s high point, but you could pretty much see the Mediter­ranean from there. Sun­day would be about sun­shine, not snow.

As the crews ar­rived in the tyre-fit­ting zone along­side the world’s most fa­mous start-fin­ish straight, word started to come through. The far side of Turini was a shocker. Patches of ice, bits of snow, but a whole load of frosti­ness.

Craig Breen and Thierry Neuville were the first to de­part and looked com­fort­able with a mix­ture of soft and su­per­soft tyres. Then peo­ple started talk­ing studs. As word spread, al­most to a man, the re­main­ing driv­ers went back on their phone to quiz their ice-note crews again.

Softs came out, softs went back. Studs were in, studs were out.

“We’re chang­ing our mind ev­ery other minute right now,” said Meeke’s co-driver Paul Na­gle. In the end, they crossed slicks and studs. Ogier was in the box seat. He watched what ev­ery­body took and then had two min­utes to make his mind up be­fore he was due out. He fol­lowed Tanak down the crossed road, ru­in­ing any hopes the Es­to­nian might have had of gam­bling and win­ning big.

Crest­ing the Turini, and div­ing down into the shade, the tem­per­a­ture dropped and the mo­ments started.

Again, at the key point, Ogier worked his magic and went fastest.

“The oth­ers can push if they want,” said Tanak. “I’m not.”

The gap had rock­eted to 45s. The deal done. The only re­main­ing clause was the pow­er­stage: Ogier added another point and came home more than happy with his lot.

When he and Julien In­gras­sia won this event 12 months ago, the hand­shakes were just a lit­tle bit stiff. These world cham­pi­ons had only known their Cum­brian col­leagues a lit­tle over a month. This time, it took the start-tofin­ish win­ners ages to get through the hugs, which were heart­felt, gen­uine and full of mu­tual ad­mi­ra­tion.

The gap to Tanak ended just shy of a minute, but the run­ner-up was still able to see plenty of pos­i­tives.

“We were fight­ing with him in his back­yard,” Tanak said. “The next one looks much more like our back­yard... I’m happy with how things have gone here. We came to this rally and I thought ev­ery­thing had gone well with the test, I felt quite com­fort­able with the car – but the test is the test, it’s not the rally. To be able to be at this speed here is good.” Ahead of the event, there was much talk (not an in­con­sid­er­able amount of it from me) warn­ing of the pos­si­ble Lat­vala melt­down should Tanak get ahead of him from round one. No sign of it in Monte. What there was a sign of on the first full day was the Finn us­ing the dreaded c-word: con­fi­dence.

“We are hav­ing too much un­der­steer,” he told MN at lunchtime on Fri­day. “We have a new front dif­fer­en­tial and the feel­ing’s

so good. I need to change this.” Oh dear, haven’t we heard this all be­fore? And haven’t we then watched as Lat­vala spi­rals mis­er­ably down the order, his only an­swer seem­ingly to push his glasses up off his nose and rub the sides of his head in frus­tra­tion. Not this time. In­stead, he turned sixth to third and even found time for re­flec­tion af­ter the ap­palling Satur­day roads. How had he found a line through the melt­ing snow, pre­cisely the con­di­tions which sent him off the road five years ear­lier and left him hat­ing this very rally? Asked the ques­tion, he grinned, he'd been wait­ing for this one. You re­mem­ber,” he said, “in 2013, when I was 500 me­tres into the Col de Turnini stage and I hit some slush? I went to the wall like a ping-pong ball and there were no wheels left on the Polo… I could know more what to ex­pect af­ter this.”

So, what about the third Yaris? Did Lappi make it the nearly per­fect re­sult? Un­for­tu­nately for the Fin­nish ace, he didn’t. Caught out by a par­tic­u­larly grav­elly right-han­der, the car ploughed straight on and bounced off a tree.

He dropped half-a-minute ex­tri­cat­ing his mo­tor and get­ting back on the road. Such was the in­ten­sity of the com­pe­ti­tion in the mid­dle order, his mis­take dropped him to seventh.

“I don’t have the words,” was all Lappi of­fered when asked to de­scribe his feel­ings at the fin­ish. He shut the door qui­etly and looked like a man who very much wanted to be some­where else.

A man who very much had been some­where else was Kris Meeke. In any­thing other than dry as­phalt, the #10 Citroen looked ill-at-ease and only marginally bet­ter than the car which promised much and de­liv­ered zero here 12 months ago. But, through dogged deter­mi­na­tion, mis­for­tune for oth­ers and a very dif­fer­ent ap­proach, Meeke dragged it up to fourth. ‘Dragged’ might be a touch harsh when you con­sider his sub­lime five-pointer on the pow­er­stage.

“I gave it ev­ery­thing in there,” he said. On a road, which for the most part looked more Catalunya than Monte Carlo, KM re­minded the world what he was ca­pa­ble of when the con­di­tions came to him.

“I’ve tried to be clever on this rally,” Meeke said, adding with a wry smile, “that doesn’t come eas­ily to me.”

Another driver who had sal­vaged some­thing from noth­ing was Neuville. Last week­end was some­thing of a mi­cro­cosm of 2017 for him: no­body set more fastest times than him, but he came away emp­ty­handed. His tena­cious drive back into the top 10 was one of the high­lights of the event – and a source of gen­uine com­fort for an other­wise deeply dis­ap­pointed Hyundai team.

Neuville’s team-mates An­dreas Mikkelsen and Dani Sordo had both fallen by the way­side early on, when the Nor­we­gian dropped out of sec­ond with a dam­aged al­ter­na­tor belt, while Dani Sordo dropped third in the snow.

Neuville’s fi­nal act was to deny El­fyn Evans of fifth place. The Welsh­man’s rally was ru­ined when he dropped four min­utes chang­ing a punc­ture on the open­ing stage, but like Thierry, he stuck at it, set some fastest times and scaled the leader­board. The Welsh­man ad­mit­ted his con­fi­dence was shot by a cou­ple of near-misses on the way down the Turini’s north-face first thing Sun­day, but the frus­tra­tion was clear that he’d missed fifth by a sec­ond when he knew he should have been knock­ing on the door of fourth.

Be­hind the shat­tered Lappi, Bryan Bouffier de­liv­ered driver points on his Fi­esta WRC de­but, with Meeke’s Citroen team-mate Craig Breen ninth. Breen’s rally was doomed as soon as he found him­self first on the road through Satur­day. The C3 be­came a high-speed snow­plough as he shipped three min­utes in the first stage alone.

Two cars at the fin­ish was a pos­i­tive for Citroen and it wasn’t last in the makes’ race as it had been af­ter com­ing in as favourite this time last year. The round one wooden spoon went to this year’s pre-sea­son favourite Hyundai. Up top, it was business as usual for Ogier and M-sport as they picked up where they left off in Coffs Har­bour. This time though, the Bri­tish squad’s early series lead was shared with Toy­ota – a team col­lec­tively count­ing the days un­til Karl­stad.

Aren’t we all? The pink rab­bit cer­tainly is...

Sixth Monte Carlo Rally vic­tory for champ Ogier Ogier mea­sured his pace for Monte glory

An early slip thwarted Neuville

Pho­tos: Baudin-aus­tral, mck­lein-im­age­database.com

A Satur­day af­ter­noon chal­lenge failed to pay off for Ott Tanak

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com, LAT

Meeke was forced into a “clever” rally

Lappi: Late shunt was a blot

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