Ogier takes his chance on Rally GB
The reigning champion is now the most successful driver in the history of Britain’s round of the WRC after a thrilling fight to the finish
It was agony. And ecstasy. Agony again. And a bit more ecstasy. Last week’s Rally GB was an emotional rollercoaster. They fought, drove like heroes, won seconds and lost minutes. In an impossible-to-call season that has ebbed and flowed around three drivers, round 11 followed that trend perfectly. But come Sunday afternoon it was reigning champion Sebastien
Ogier who won an absolute thriller.
It was some story that carried us through the four days to the finish.
Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi led the crews into Friday, although not actually on the road – that duty would still fall to championship leader Thierry Neuville.
Ahead of the rally, title contender Ott Tanak had been upbeat – not surprising given that the Toyota ace hadn’t lost a rally since Sardinia in early June. Sliding off on a square-right while fiddling with the wipers hadn’t been the best start to shakedown. He dinked the radiator on the Yaris, but his main concern was dented pride and an unexpected tenderness after an abrupt stop tightened his crotch strap painfully.
“The feeling is good now,” he said between mouthfuls of grapes and apple later on Thursday. “I’m making changes with the car and it’s working now.”
Feeding that confidence, the Estonian had been the only driver to test Michelin’s new soft tyre in nearly dry, damp and soaking conditions during his pre-event running.
Away from the spotlight, Tanak admitted the team had found something with the car, something that would suit the conditions. Last time out in Turkey, team principal Tommi Makinen had talked of his fears for the Yaris in changeable and particularly slippery conditions.
“I think it’s the opposite now,” smiled Tanak. And so it played out.
The Clocaenog stage is narrow, muddy under the trees and generally a tricky place to start. Tanak was fastest.
Moving on to Brenig, the event’s longest stage has more surface and grip changes than you could possibly imagine in 18 miles. Great gravel gave way to a lumpy, rutted, muddy nightmare, with rocky sections, the odd bit of bedrock and more asphalt than any other stage thrown in for good measure.
“It was the nightmare,” said Tanak.
“You didn’t know what was coming next. So hard to judge.” But he was still fastest.
Into the mountains and the drizzle of Snowdonia’s classic Penmachno test. Same story: Tanak was fastest.
By that point on Friday, the only driver able to hold a candle to the flying Toyota was local hero Elfyn Evans. By the time they rocked up at the all-new Slate Mountain stage, last year’s winner was nine seconds down – with his nearest rival Jari-matti Latvala a similar distance behind in third.
“It’s not a bad start,” said Evans, “it’s just been so hard to judge the grip –
I’ve been quite careful this morning.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The two runs around the former slate quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog were the last we’d see of the #2 Ford Fiesta WRC in competition on Friday. A flash of flame from the rear of the car coming out of service spelled disaster for Evans. A misfire hit the Fiesta and, despite solid work beneath the bonnet for the second rally in succession, he couldn’t coax this one back.
Evans isn’t a man who often shows his emotions, as the absence of any overt victory celebrations demonstrated last year. But the hurt this one delivered was written across his face.
“We could have done with this one,” said his co-driver Dan Barritt, before adding with a thin smile, “but at least we were there with Ott through the morning.”
Beyond breaking Tanak’s run of fastest times, the sodden and mist-shrouded
Slate Mountain test had little impact on the leaderboard. Tanak won two of the afternoon’s rerun three stages and arrived at the final control, just after the finish of Penmachno, with a big smile.
He switched the Toyota off just behind Neuville’s Hyundai. He’d conceded fastest time to his rival in the final Friday test, but held a near half-minute lead over him. Stepping from the Yaris, he pulled on his jacket and began to reflect on the day when the car started to roll forward. Quick as a flash he dived in and stamped on the brake.
Was that the biggest moment of the day? “Maybe it was,” he grinned, safe in the knowledge that the thing was firmly in gear and going nowhere. “Actually, there were some funny slides in there as well. Good day today. I didn’t think we were going crazy this morning, I was just driving neat, middle of the road. It’s good, but there’s a long way to go.”
Neuville may have been second, but his mood was dark. “We can’t stay with him,” said Hyundai’s championship leader of his nearest challenger coming into the event. “He is flying.”
Which made now a good time to fill us in on what changed with a Welsh-spec Yaris comprehensively outgunned here last year. But Tanak liked his secret and wanted to keep it. Turns out a working
week in the Welsh woods with five days of solid chassis, geometry and damper work had done wonders.
Beyond Tanak’s searing pace through the first of two days in north Wales, the other talking point was the abject misery that descended on M-sport. Last time the Cumbrians were here, they were winning everything. Now they were in danger of losing the lot.
Evans was out and team-mate
Teemu Suninen joined him on the
Friday retirement list on the second run through Penmachno, where he dropped his Fiesta in a ditch.
But what of Ogier? What of the man who had talked so eloquently and determinedly of his need to show Tanak and Neuville a clean pair of heels to keep his title hopes alive?
Try fifth, 38.2s behind (albeit just 10s behind Neuville in second). The first time through Penmachno had done for the Frenchman. He’d spun the Fiesta and tried to snatch reverse too quickly.
“It was my fault,” said Ogier. “It was between gears and it broke the dogs.
I lost first and second gear. Now we have nothing to lose tomorrow – we have to make the full attack. Finishing in fourth or fifth place means nothing for us.”
Ogier cut a disgruntled figure as he eyed a top 10 that had him in the middle and his two main title rivals right at the top.
Looking to offer some sliver of silver lining in the gathering gloom, Autosport pointed out that Saturday’s wider and faster stages were more to his liking than Friday’s narrow, nadgery mileage. “You’re right, they’re beautiful,” he said. “But with the speed, it’s harder to make the time.”
Next morning, Ogier delivered on the opener. Above the generator station that harvests power from the wind turbines dominating a clear-felled stretch across the top of Myherin, nobody could have denied Ogier’s delivery on his commitment call.
The cars come into sight over a brow and accelerate hard downhill through a fast right and left. The third corner is the one to watch. It’s a right-hander that’s flat. Sometimes – if you’re feeling brave enough.
The Fiesta was flat. “Actually it was not completely flat,” he smiled later that morning. “I take a small lift to help
“It was a nightmare. you didn’t know what was coming next. So hard to judge”
rotate the car into the corner.”
That small lift came in top gear, with the speed already well above 100mph.
And rotating the car into the corner delivered a savage yet inch-perfect drift into the maintenance car park that sits at the foot of the modern-day windmill. “I knew we had this parking lot to use,” said Ogier, “so we used it.”
That was the way to start Saturday, both for Ogier and for the massive number of fans lining the banks. The result was an immediate elevation of two places, into third and onto Neuville’s bumper, as his Myherin time slashed the difference between the M-sport Ford and lead Hyundai to 2.2s.
One stage later and Neuville’s bumper would be out of sight – left in the bottom of a ditch on the outside of a long righthander three quarters of the way through the 12 miles of Hafren. Too quick in, Neuville grabbed the handbrake and tried his luck on the throttle. No chance. It slid off the road, left-rear first.
Onboard footage showed wide-eyed co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul imploring spectators to heave them back onto the road, by implication pleading with them to keep his and Neuville’s title tilt on track. They lost 51.4s and finished the stage eighth. “When you are driving on the edge, these things can happen,” said Neuville. “My fault.”
Few would question Neuville blaming himself for his arrival in the ditch not far from the source of the River Severn but, rewinding to that quick downhill in Myherin an hour or so earlier, the Belgian-flagged i20 Coupe WRC had looked more of a handful than anything else.
For the remainder of Saturday, Neuville looked to be anywhere but at the races.
Was his title challenge slipping away?
As the crews lined up for the start of Sweet Lamb the second time, it seemed a good moment to take a snapshot of provisional championship positions. Forgetting the powerstage and the potential for a Hyundai reshuffle, Tanak would lead the title race on 189, with Neuville next, eight behind, and Ogier third on 172.
None of the interested parties were interested in such calculations. The points were all at the finish (apart from a bonus that waited at the end of Gwydir early on Sunday morning).
As a double act, Sweet Lamb and
Hafren have prompted plenty of WRC storylines down the years. It was here that Colin Mcrae usurped team-mate Carlos Sainz for the box seat in the
1995 world championship.
Not content with having potentially seen Neuville knobbled, the fans lining one of rallying’s most famous hillsides were on for even more drama in the afternoon. Out of the bowl, Tanak pulled gears up the hill, slotted the Yaris through the hairpin and
thundered over a jump. Braking for the next left, the car bottomed out and almost immediately the engine note quietened on the next incline. At junction 13, he pulled off the stage and switched the car off.
A water-pressure and temperature warning warranted a quick inspection of the car’s front corner. Damage to the sumpguard and cooling package allied to steam from the radiator signalled the end of one of the finest drives in the recent history of
Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship. A heartbroken Tanak could do nothing but lie on the ground and gaze up at beautiful blue skies. Such promise, such pace and such potential all gone.
The championship had taken another turn, swinging firmly in Ogier’s direction. We’d been here before, though. Three Saturdays earlier on Rally Turkey, M-sport’s Frenchman had been presented with a golden opportunity, only to let it slip through his fingers. Surely he wouldn’t make the same mistake…
Having had the time to compose himself on the journey north through Machynlleth, Ogier arrived at the start of Dyfi with a thin smile. Now was no time for triumph. Jubilation could and would wait. Now was a moment to think about his mate.
“Ott didn’t deserve this,” he said. “Honestly, he was on another planet on this rally. We could do nothing. I know from Turkey how hard this can be. This sport… sometimes it hurts.”
And Tanak was hurting badly. “Yesterday was the worst I ever felt,” he said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t want anybody to feel that.
There aren’t words…”
But now what? Surely this season was running out of curveballs… Apparently not. Toyota may have lost its lead car, but a brace of Finns in two more Yaris WRCS were right there ready to hassle Ogier all the way home. Latvala was 4.4s behind, with Lappi 7.4s down on his team-mate after what had been the sort of action-packed, perfect-conditions ‘Super Saturday’ the organisers could only dream of.
What did Latvala and Lappi do?
Holding station would mean increasing Toyota’s lead in the makes’ race, but
Latvala wanted his shot. And anyway, Citroen’s Craig Breen was only 1.7s behind Lappi, so throttling back wasn’t an option. And it would have taken a brave man to suggest such a line to J-ML.
“When you are driving on the edge, these things can happen. My fault”
“I’m here and I want to fight for the victory,” Latvala said. “It’s been one and a half years since I won last time and that’s a long, long, long time. The motivation is almost higher than ever. I want this one.”
Ogier smiled when Latvala’s line was relayed to him. “I know,” he said. “I tried to speak to him earlier, I tried to joke a little bit, to remind him how important is the manufacturers’ championship. He didn’t get it – his answer was that he would fight for the win. I know he will.”
Latvala’s not a man to hold a grudge, but four years firmly in the shadow of Ogier at Volkswagen was enough to test the patience of any man. His time had come.
Through Saturday, some drivers had been concerned about ‘smoke’ coming from the front wheels – until they realised it was dust, as conditions dried rapidly after the deluge of the day before. Collecting cars from parc ferme just after five on Sunday morning, and screens had to be cleared of thick ice. “It’s more like Monte,” grumbled more than one as numb fingers scraped frost away to clear a view.
Sunday morning was more complicated than usual, with the powerstage following immediately after the shock to the system that was the Elsi opener. With the frost still sitting at the side of the road in places, the narrow tracks above Betws-y-coed were treacherous in the extreme and, with five points on offer on the next stage, nobody was willing to take a risk in SS19.
But who would take the risk in Gwydir? Would Ogier and Neuville risk what they had in the bank in the pursuit of five more? Would Latvala risk a rally win? And how much would Tanak beat everybody by?
Latvala’s answer was emphatic. On the startline, there was a little more energy in his pre-stage routine. He was ready.
And he flew, beating Tanak by 0.8s.
It had almost cost him everything. “I went over one crest and the car was sideways straight away,” he panted. “I was waiting for the impact. Waiting… but it didn’t come.”
His effort had delivered the lead.
Now there was just the small matter of holding it. Privately, Latvala would have expected Ogier to take some of the 3.6s back on the all-asphalt Great Orme stage. After another sublime display of how to get the best out of the wrong boots on asphalt, just 0.2s separated the top two
“‘It’s more like Monte,’ grumbled more than one as numb fingers scraped frost away”
ahead of the penultimate stage.
Before the second run at Gwydir, there was a tyre zone and the chance to fit new covers. If you had them. The soft ‘option’ tyre had been so popular since Friday that few had any new ones left. It would be a case of making the best of what they’d got.
But nobody was telling anybody what they may or may not have beneath them. Latvala charged through, fastest – on the medium compound: “If he [Ogier] is on a medium and he’s quicker, then I lift my hat.”
Get ready with that hat. On the medium, Ogier went a staggering 3.3s quicker to lead into the last stage by 3.1s.
Ogier was fully fired up at the finish: “I want this. I’m fighting for it!”
And he took it. Clipping a kerb a mile into the final run around Orme left the Latvala Yaris toeing out for the rally’s final miles, but the Finn knew his day was done.
A spin earlier in the day cost Breen his shot at the win. He finished fourth, one place up on a fast-recovering Neuville. But the podium was all about two Toyotas as Lappi joined Latvala on the lower two steps to look up at Ogier.
In winning on Sunday, Ogier became the most successful driver in the history of Britain’s round of the world championship. That made him happy. Moving to within seven points of the championship lead made him happier still.
Evans was in a strong second place until a misfire intervened
Tanak’s pace was peerless, but a hard landing ended his hopes
Neuville dropped his Hyundai into a ditch, then fought back to fifth
Latvala gave it his all, but at the last gasp could not keep Ogier at bay
Ogier and Ingrassia are now five-time Rally GB winners
Breen upheld Citroen honours in fourth and had a shot at victory until he spun