Reigning WRC world champion Sébastien Ogier put a tough run of results behind him by storming to his first win since February at Rallye Deutschland. His third win on the German asphalt was one of his most comfortable yet, overcoming a brief scare on day one to cross the final time control 20.3 seconds clear of the chasing pack. On an event that has traditionally suited them, the Hyundai i20s shone again. Both Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville know the ropes in Germany, having both won here in the past, so it was no surprise to see them completing the remaining spots on the podium this time out. In a pulse-racing finale, the former narrowly edged out his Belgian teammate for the runner-up spot by just a tenth of a second.
As the first pure asphalt event of the year, Rallye Deutschland heralds the start of the 2016 season run-in. The route remains largely unchanged from 2015 and is characterised by two things; wine and war. Leaving the historic town of Trier the 2015 route takes the drivers through the picturesque, winding and narrow roads of the Mosel wine-growing region, whose sprawling vineyards have claimed their fair share of WRC scalps in the past. Once the crews have negotiated those hazards, its full steam ahead to the infamous Panzerplatte military testing ground whose colossal, metal-crunching hinkelstein tank traps strike fear into the heart of many a WRC driver.
An outing that ended in glory for the triple world champion began in rather a different vein on Friday morning. After holding the lead early on, the imperious Frenchman’s veneer of consistency momentarily slipped as he overshot a hairpin on stage 2. Though by no means critical, this uncharacteristic faux-pas saw Ogier relinquish the rally lead to hard-charging teammate Andreas Mikkelsen. Despite not being the fastest man over Friday morning’s stages, the Norwegian was able to slip ahead of his senior colleague after stage 2.
Another beneficiary was Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville who followed suit despite damaging a wheel on a hairpin similar to that which caught Ogier napping. However, as the day wore on the VW number one began to claw back the seconds. Freed from the vice-like grip of road sweeping and the frustrating dearth of grip on the preceding gravel events, Ogier was able to stretch his legs from the off and was soon making up for his earlier spill with some of the quickest times of the whole afternoon loop. Two wins on the day’s last pair of tests finally broke down the stubborn resistance of Neuville and by close of play on Friday Ogier was just 4.3 secs adrift of Mikkelsen’s lead Polo R.
Despite conceding second spot late on, Neuville was content with the lay of the land after a promising opening day at the wheel of the i20. Like its predecessor, the 2016 model showed great pace on the black stuff, as Neuville’s teammate at Hyundai Dani Sordo would testify. The Spaniard had suffered a downturn in form of late after a consistent run of fourth places earlier this year, but the asphalt specialist hauled himself very much into podium contention on day one and sat fourth overnight, just 6.8s behind his Hyundai sparring partner.
It was also a decent day for DMACK, whose new range of asphalt tyres, sported by Ott Tänak’s Ford Fiesta RS for the first time in Germany, propelled the Estonian to fifth overall on Friday. Stéphane Lefebvre trailed Tänak in a privately-entered DS 3 WRC, just ahead of a frustrated Mads Østberg whose M-Sport Fiesta RS WRC failed to keep pace with his rivals on the harder surface. He ended the day down in seventh, but at least with all four wheels on the road. The same couldn’t be said of his young M-Sport teammate Eric Camilli who spun his Fiesta and got stuck off the road on Friday morning. Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon finished the day in eighth, 1m 45s off the lead and ill at ease on his least favourite surface. Meanwhile, the biggest casualty of the day was VW’s Jari-Matti Latvala whose Polo’s malfunctioning gearbox prevented him from completing even the first stage.
Battle lines drawn between the four pace-makers, Saturday’s action featured a salvo of passes through the infamous Baumholder army proving ground. It’s a rallying arena that’s certainly not for the faint-hearted but one which three-time world champion Sébastien Ogier has proven himself more than adept at conquering over the years. 2016 would prove no different as the VW pilot negotiated the intimidating concrete tank traps with military precision. After a cagy opening session, Ogier demolished the deficit to leader Mikkelsen and preceeded to erect an ironclad advantage of his own with a masterful showing through the 40.80km Panzerplatte Lang. Already 9.2 secs in credit by the time the stages were revisited in the afternoon, Ogier rammed home the initiative by adding another 13.1s to his lead on damp roads that suited his softer tyres down to the ground.
Swiftly relieved of top spot, Mikkelsen’s lack of pace on Saturday was in part down his decision to fit a set of what proved to be the slower hard tyres to his Polo at midday service. Even so, he wasn’t the only man unable to live with his more experienced teammate’s blistering pace throughout the day. The Norwegian ended Saturday looking nervously over his shoulder rather than ahead of him, with the Hyundai duo of Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville gaining precious seconds as the second leg drew to a close. Both looked in fine fettle as the day wore on and became embroiled in their own inter-team battle on stage 14 where the Spaniard snuck past his younger colleague to hold third by less than half a second.
The gap to fifth was rather more gaping, but a less tentative Hayden Paddon was able to make some headway in the battle for the minor places as he began to find his feet on the alien asphalt. Overheating brakes on the last stage compounded Mads Østberg’s frustrations and prevented the M-Sport star from pushing his Fiesta RS to anywhere near its peak performance. Like Paddon, Østberg was elevated two places following mechanical gremlins aboard Tänak’s DMACK Fiesta and a nasty accident for Stéphane Lefebvre on Panzerplatte. Lying sixth at the time, the DS3 crew were taken to hospital with fractures and some internal injuries, where co-driver Gabin Moreau was treated for a broken ankle. Fortunately, both are now on the mend.
Ogier’s 33.4s cushion gave him ample breathing space on Sunday’s final loop of tests. Throttling back for much of the final day, he eventually ended his barren run of six rallies without a win by securing a 20.3sec victory over second place man Dani Sordo.
The Spaniard’s route to the podium couldn’t have been any less straightforward, however. He, Neuville and Mikkelsen went into the final 14.8km Power Stage separated by barely 4secs in the overall standings after the latter had been relegated two places earlier in the day by the quicker Hyundais. With the penultimate stage cancelled, Mikkelsen faced an uphill battle to regain the lost ground; a battle he lost due to fading brakes on the event-closing test. This left only the tussling i20s in the hunt for second and although it was Neuville who displayed superior speed through the Power Stage by topping the timesheets, Sordo’s previous advantage proved too much to overturn and the 33 year-old held on by the thinnest of margins. Behind Mikkelsen, the top six was rounded out by the other two surviving WRC cars of Paddon and Østberg
After nine rounds, the 2016 drivers’ standings makes for pleasant reading for our championship leader Sébastien Ogier. Opening up a 55-point gap at the top of the pile, it’s impossible to comprehend the Frenchman letting a fourth title slip form his grasp at this stage. The battle for the minor places is hotting-up though. Neuville and Paddon now sit dead-level in third on 94 points apiece, just 16 shy of second-place Mikkelsen. On the slide is Jari-Matti Latvala, who drops below the aforementioned Hyundai duo.
Following Rally China’s late removal from the 2016 calendar, Sébastien Ogier has several weeks in which to get his Polo R looking its best in time for his home event in France. The Tour de Corse 2016 gets underway on the 29th September.
Final Results: Round 9 – Rallye Deutschland
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