A CHAMPION’S DRIVE
OGIER SEALS MONTE CARLO WIN
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
A Saturday afternoon challenge failed to pay off for Ott Tanak
Meeke was forced into a “clever” rally
Lappi: Late shunt was a blot