Volkswagen WRC star Andreas Mikkelsen emerged victorious at Rally Poland 2016, racking up his second career win at elite level. The Norwegian becomes the sixth different winner in as many rounds in this most topsy-turvy of seasons.
There was heartbreak though for Ott Tänak and his DMACK world rally team. The crestfallen Estonian looked nailed on to register his first ever WRC win having led the way for most of the rally. However, he was cruelly denied by a puncture on the penultimate stage and relegated to second, 26.2secs adrift of Mikkelsen.
New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon ended a disappointing run of retirements to snatch the final podium spot in Poland, just 2.3 seconds behind the ailing Tänak . However, the last-gasp drama also extended to the battle for third, with Paddon’s Hyundai teammate Thierry Neuville coming within 0.8 seconds of sneaking onto the podium himself.
After making a triumphant return to the WRC calendar in 2014, this year’s edition of Rally Poland presents teams and drivers with a significantly different challenge. The breakneck speeds that make this event one of the fastest of the season remain as blistering as ever but a third of the overall 1253km total distance has been altered since 2015, with only four stages carried over unaltered from last year’s itinerary. Tall grass and the ubiquitous dust clouds kicked up off the parched road surface tend to hamper visibility throughout and soaring summer temperatures tend to increase wear on soft compound tyres, bringing the harder, more durable rubbers into play.
An unpredictable first day on the Polish roads opened with great promise for Tänak. Overhauling Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, leader after Thursday night’s brief inaugural test, the DMACK driver put himself in a position of strength from the off and sparked a day-long tussle with his rivals at VW and Hyundai. First to respond to Tänak was Mikkelsen who took stage 3 and edged into the lead. Before long, Paddon had forced his way into contention, riding on the coattails of the Norwegian by wrapping up a pair of stage wins in the morning to move to within just 2.6secs of the lead Polo R. The Kiwi continued to pile on the pressure in the afternoon loop by adding to his previous brace of fastest times on stage 9.
By then however, the pendulum had swung back towards DMACK’s Tänak. Despite his relatively low road position, the 28 year-old struggled for grip on the dry sand but nevertheless managed a grand total of five fastest times on Friday, including three in a row in the afternoon. These were enough to leave Tänak topping the timesheets after a fiercely competitive first day by 4.2 seconds over Mikkelsen, with the dogged Paddon still very much in touch 6secs further back.
All bets may have been off after day one in Poland but Saturday was a much more one sided affair, with Estonia’s rallying hero producing perhaps his most authoritative display ever at the wheel of a WRC car. Tänak pressed home his significant grip advantage over his rivals in a one-sided morning loop. A trio of fastest times opened up clear daylight to the chasing pack as the lead rocketed rapidly up from 4.2 to 18.0secs.
The playfield was levelled somewhat on the repeat run after lunch and Mikkelsen duly stepped up the chase to regain some time through the clearer lines. The Polo pilot could not follow up his victory on stage 14 though, with Jari-Matti Latvala and surprise package Stephane Lefebvre both upstaging the Norwegian in his quest to topple Tänak. The DMACK star decisively wrestled back control on Saturday’s final pair of tests, taking 4.4 secs out of Mikkelsen on stage 16 then winning the spectator-friendly super special at a packed Mikolajki Arena. Now over 20secs clear of chief pursuer Mikkelsen, and a further 6.5secs ahead of the erratic Paddon, Tänak was now within touching distance of his maiden win at WRC level.
Fate tends to deal the cruellest of blows to the most commendable of competitors; and so it would strike down the Estonian in agonising fashion on a momentous final day in Poland. Heavy overnight rain replaced the searing 30°C temperatures of the previous two days, reducing the strain on cooked tyres but bringing the significant hazard of slippery mud into play.
Adopting an understandably conservative approach, Tänak’s march to victory progressed without a hitch through stages 18 and 19, where he dropped an entirely manageable 2.7secs to the increasingly desperate Mikkelsen. Paddon could only manage fifth in both tests, his i20’s softer suspension set-up ill-suited to the greater than anticipated grip levels, leaving him seemingly out of the running for victory.
However, the increasingly inclement weather conditions had a decisive part to play in the final shakeup and specifically in the pivotal penultimate test. It’s hard to know whether to point the finger at Tänak’s lack of experience when hitting the front or at pure misfortune, but what followed was nothing less than crushing for the long-time leader. His DMACK Fiesta RS slid briefly off the road on stage 20 and the subsequent puncture was serious enough to completely decimate his 20secs cushion. Mikkelsen, also struggling in the wet, negotiated the stage unscathed and found himself promoted almost by default to the top of the leaderboard. By the time the power stage came around, a devastated Tänak was powerless the claw back the lost time and watched what had seemed an almost certain triumph agonisingly slip through his fingers.
A sympathetic Mikkelsen was magnanimous on the podium, having been on the receiving end of last minute drama himself in Sweden last year. The Norwegian’s second WRC win is the first scored with Anders Jaeger in the passenger’s seat and elevates VW’s number three pilot up to second in the 2016 world championship standings.
Tänak can be proud of his stellar efforts at the wheel of the DMACK Fiesta in what must go down as his best WRC performance to date. Having his hopes dashed in such harsh circumstances this time out should spur him on with even greater vigour in the search for that elusive first career victory.
Hayden Paddon completed the podium in third, a position he had held consistently since Friday afternoon. However, his conservative approach nearly cost him dear as a late charge form teammate Thierry Neuville very nearly snatched bronze away from the Kiwi’s grasp.
The Belgian, on a high after his superb win in Italy, continued his renaissance at the wheel of the Hyundai i20 and pulled to within 0.8 seconds of his cruising colleague on the event-closing power stage. He had previously survived a bizarre incident when his i20’s gear stick snapped off and fell into the footwell on Saturday morning.
Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala and reigning world champion Sébastien Ogier both endured the worst of the conditions in Poland. The Volkswagen duo never seriously threatened the leading group. Triple world champion Ogier spent another frustrating rally opening the road from where he was severely hampered by almost non-existent grip. Fourth was his highest position of the rally, but the disconsolate Frenchman was overhauled by both Neuville and latterly Latvala himself on Saturday morning. The rain that would’ve washed away the troublesome top layer of sand didn’t come to Ogier’s aide until Sunday, by which point the running order had already been reversed and just surviving was the order of the day for the VW star. He finished 6.5secs behind Latvala in sixth but maintained his remarkable run of power stage victories.
Irishman Craig Breen can be happy with his seventh place finish aboard a 2015 spec Citroën DS3. It was a rally of mixed emotions however for another Citroën pilot, Stéphane Lefebvre, who claimed his maiden stage win before spinning off and striking a tree on Sunday to leave himself down in ninth.
The M-Sport duo of Mads Østberg and Eric Camilli struggled to live with the pace throughout, a conundrum that will concern Malcolm Wilson considering Tänak ’s outstanding performance in a similarly equipped Ford Fiesta. Østberg could only muster eighth overall whilst youngster Camilli languished down in tenth after limping through the last stage with broken suspension.
Dani Sordo’s run of fourth place finishes came to a stuttering halt after the Spaniard slammed his i20 into hay bales at a chicane and then retired with rear suspension damaged sustained in an impact with a tree.
With the halfway point of the season already upon us, Andreas Mikkelsen is the big mover as he leapfrogs Dani Sordo into second in the drivers’ standings. Hayden Padden and Jari-Matti Latvala also shuffle up a step; however Ogier retains his iron grip on the championship despite a very difficult outing in Poland. His overall lead has been chipped away somewhat; nevertheless, the gap remains at a daunting 51 points.
The second half of the 2016 campaign explodes into life at the most high-octane event on the WRC calendar; Rally Finland. Rallying comes home from the 28th-31st July.
Final Results: Round 7 – Rally Poland
|POS||#||DRIVER…………||TEAM….||POINTS….||TOTAL TIME||DIFF PREV||DIFF 1ST|