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

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - DAVID EVANS

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

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