Ogier makes itf ive wins on rally gb
SNATCHES AN UNLIKELY WIN
Ogier rescued his title hopes with a battling performance
It was agony. And ecstasy. Agony again. And a bit more ecstasy. Last week’s Wales Rally GB was a genuine emotional rollercoaster. Folk fought, drove like heroes, won seconds and lost minutes. In an impossible-to-call season which has ebbed and flowed in the direction of three drivers, round 11 followed that trend perfectly.
But come Sunday afternoon, it was the defending champion Sebastien Ogier who won an absolute thriller.
But it was some story that carried us through the previous four days to the finish.
By the time he’d finished his plate of fruit in the middle of Thursday afternoon, Ott Tanak was getting restless. Fortunately, the time to depart had arrived. The odd backslap here and handshake there, the Estonian slid behind the wheel of his Toyota Yaris WRC and nosed it out of Deeside, bound for the westbound A55.
His boss Tommi Makinen looked on, almost wistfully. The firing of three World Rally Cars killed his train of thought. Not that he minded too much. “They’re going to the stage?” It was part question, part statement, part stalling tactic. “OK, so, what were we talking about?” He wasn’t getting away that easily. “Kris…” I offered. “OK, yes.” Reluctantly. He was back to the world of stories and speculation.
The feeling of release was felt across the service park. Deeside was awash with rumour, drivers’ managers were omnipresent and seemingly tripping over each other for some face time with the folk holding the keys to cars for next year.
The Tir Prince trotting track fulfilled its brief and pleased the fans – it also fulfilled predictions of dust. Not that many expected that to last into day one proper.
For the record, it would be Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi leading the crews into Friday – although not actually on the road, that duty would still fall to championship leader Thierry Neuville.
Ahead of the rally, Tanak had been upbeat – not surprising given he hasn’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 in the trouser region after an abrupt stop tightened the crotch strap painfully.
“The feeling is good now,” he told MN 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 was the only driver to test Michelin’s new soft tyre in nearly dry, damp and soaking conditions during his pre-event running.
With that in mind, he was asked in the pre-event press conference about his test.
“It was wet,” came the straight-faced reply. He knew where this was going.
Asked more specifically about the new boots, he returned a straight bat. “They were wet too.” Away from the spotlight, Tanak admitted the team had found something with the car, something which would suit the conditions. Last time out in Turkey, team principal 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. Clocaenog’s narrow, muddy under the trees and generally a tricky, tricky place to start. Tanak was fastest.
Moving on to Brenig, the event’s longest stage has more surface and grip changes than drivers could ever possibly imagine in 18 miles. Great gravel gave way to a lumpy, rutted muddy nightmare, with rocky sections, the odd bit of bedrock and, of course, more asphalt than any other stage thrown in for good measure. How was it? “It was the nightmare,” said Tanak at the finish. “You didn’t know what was coming next. So hard to judge.” The result? Fastest. Into the mountains and the drizzle of Snowdonia’s classic Penmachno test. Same story. 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 have been quite careful this morning.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. The two runs around the former slate quarry in Blaenau Ffestiniog was 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. The Fiesta lurched into a misfire and, despite solid work from him 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, the absence of any overt victory celebrations demonstrated that last year. But the hurt this one delivered was written across his face.
“We could have done with this one,” said Evans’ 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 mistshrouded Slate Mountain test had little impact on the leaderboard as everybody kept their cars between what looked like the kind of hinkelsteins used to keep the tanks on the tracks used in Rally Germany’s Panzerplatte stage. Except the Welsh hinkelsteins sat vertically. And they were made of slate. Obviously.
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 Belgian 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 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 long way to go.”
Neuville might have been second, but his mood was dark.
“We can’t stay with him,” said the championship leader of his nearest challenger. “He is flying.”
Which made now a good time to fill us in on what changed with a Welshspec Yaris comprehensively outgunned here last year. Tanak wasn’t so sure. He liked his secret and wanted to keep it. Turns out a week in the Welsh woods with five days of solid chassis, geometry and damper testing had worked wonders.
Beyond Tanak’s searing pace through the first of two days in Wales’ north, the other talking point was the abject misery which 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 10 behind Neuville in second).
Penmachno the first time through 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 which had him in the middle and his two main title rivals right at the very top. Looking to offer some slither of silver in the gathering gloom, Saturday’s wider and faster stages would be more to his liking than Friday’s narrow, nadgery mileage.
“They’re beautiful,” he said, “but with the speed, it’s harder to make the time.”
Next morning, Ogier delivered on the opener.
Standing above the generator station which 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 which is flat. Sometimes. If you’re feeling brave enough. The Fiesta? Flat. “Actually,” he smiled later that morning, “it was not completely flat. I take a small lift to help 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 which 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 scratch 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 right-hander three-quarters of the way through the 12 miles of Hafren. Too quick in, the Belgian grabbed the handbrake and tried his luck on the throttle. No chance, left-rear first it slid off the road.
Onboard footage showed a wide-eyed Nicolas Gilsoul imploring spectators to heave them back to the road, mentally pleading with them to keep his and Thierry’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 the Belgian. “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 looked more of a handful needing to be hustled 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 which waited at the end of Gwydir early on Sunday morning).
As a double act, Sweet Lamb and Hafren have prompted plenty of WRC story lines down the years. It was here in these very woods that Colin Mcrae usurped his team-mate Carlos Sainz for the box seat in the 1995 world championship.
Not content with having potentially knobbled Neuville, the fans lining one of world 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, something was wrong.
And, 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 signaled 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 down on the ground and gaze up into beautiful blue skies. Such promise, such pace and such potential all gone.
The championship took another turn, swinging firmly into Ogier’s direction. We’d been here before though. Three Saturdays earlier, 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 of triumph. Jubilation could and would wait. Now was a moment to think about his mate.
“Ott didn’t deserve this,” he said quietly. “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 very, very badly. “Yesterday was the worst I ever felt,” he said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t want anybody to feel that. There aren’t words [to describe the hurt].”
The interview was done. An arm around the shoulder far more appropriate than any more questions.
But now what? Surely this season was running out of curve balls?
Apparently not. Toyota might have lost its lead car, but a brace of Finns in two more Finnish-built motors were right there ready to hassle Ogier all the way home. Latvala was 4.4s behind Seb with Esapekka 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.
But 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 really an option. And it would have taken a brave man to suggest such a line to J-ML.
“I’m here and I want to fight for the victory,” Latvala said firmly. “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.
If the season had run out of curved balls, the Welsh weather hadn’t. 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 0500hrs 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 in 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 start line, there was a little more energy in his pre-stage routine of beating himself up. He was ready. And he flew, beating Tanak by 0.8s. His 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 Tarmac, just 0.2s separated the top two 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 might or might not have been using. Latvala charged through, fastest. On the medium compound. He said: “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, Seb 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.
Ogier had to push hard to keep ahead of the pack
off Neuville recovered after an early
Ogier overcame early gearbox problems to claim a dramatic win on Rally GB
Tanak was well in command before gremlins struck
Breen was in the heart of the fight
Engine problems blunted Elfyn Evans