Newly crowned 2016 WRC world champion Sébastien Ogier continued his dominant run at Wales Rally GB by scooping his third career win at the penultimate round of the season. The French ace took his total of rally victories for 2016 up to six with a near faultless performance on the mud-caked roads of north Wales. His eventual 10.2sec advantage over second-place man Ott Tänak, who ramped up the pressure in an ultimately unsuccessful final day attack, was enough to secure the points that saw VW over the line in the race for the 2016 manufacturers’ championship. Elsewhere, a fourth consecutive podium finish for Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville puts the Belgian in pole position to snatch the runners-up spot behind Ogier in this year’s drivers’ championship.
Shifted forward from its traditional spot as the season finale, the historic Wales Rally GB remains one of the most iconic and best loved event on the calendar. Based exclusively in Wales since 2000, Britain’s premier rallying showpiece has seen its fair share of late-season drama over the years, not least the unforgettable 2009 title showdown between Mikko Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb. The legendary Frenchman secured his sixth consecutive title in the Welsh forests, beating his Finnish nemesis by 1 minute and snatching the championship by a solitary point. There’s been no repeat of that memorable face-off in more recent times, however spirits at Wales Rally GB are never as damp as the event’s trademark tree-lined gravel tracks. The infamously dank weather conditions in Wales often conspire to create a muddy reception for drivers. A sudden loss of grip on the devilishly slippery surface is an ever present danger and can so easily leave cars – and hopes – wallowing in a roadside ditch or dashed against a towering tree trunk.
It wasn’t the mud, but an enveloping cloud of thick fog that made the going tough during the opening exchanges of Wales Rally GB 2016. Contrary to the vast majority of the season’s gravel-based rallies, the soggy conditions played into the hands of the early runners as the muddy tracks cut up into an increasingly treacherous boggy soup with every passing car. This meant a pleasant change for road-opener Ogier, more accustomed to struggling through heaps of unswept gravel in the early stages of rallies. The Frenchman took full advantage, taking five out of eight stage wins on a day that accounted for over half of the rally’s total distance. It wasn’t all plain sailing for Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia however, as a suspected a broken driveshaft, a persistent problem that afflicted all three Polo Rs throughout the day, severely restricted his car’s performance on Friday’s final test.
This issue didn’t prevent Ogier from building a comfortable 37.3sec cushion over the impressive Ott Tänak by the end of a day in which the DMACK star scored two fastest times in his Ford Fiesta RS. By the mid-leg break, the gap to Ogier stood at just 7.7secs, however a suspension problem in the afternoon combined with a final stage puncture tarnished the Estonian’s otherwise exemplary day at the office.
Ogier’s driveshaft gremlins were felt far more acutely by his two Volkswagen colleagues. In an unusual turn of events, all three Polos were hamstrung by common reliability issues. Jari-Matti Latvala was restricted to eighth whilst Andreas Mikkelsen, embroiled in the battle for second in the drivers’ championship, was hit hardest having been relegated to 19th following a miserable day in the mid-Wales forests.
Mikkelsen’s nemesis in the race for the runners-up spot Thierry Neuville enjoyed a day of steady progress as he piloted his Hyundai i20 up from eighth to third. 3.8 secs behind him was fellow Hyundai star Haydon Paddon, who lost time on the final stage with a puncture. Abu Dhabi World Rally Team pilot Kris Meeke was also heading in the wrong direction, slipping two places to fifth in his Citroën DS3, whilst Hyundai’s Dani Sordo and M-Sport lead man Mads Østberg rounded out the top seven. The only WRC casualty of the day was Irishman Craig Breen, who started well before crashing his DS3 out of sixth in the afternoon loop.
Keen to seal an elusive first victory of the season, Tänak emerged rejuvenated after the overnight break and stormed to four out of six stage wins on Saturday morning. His lead trimmed to 24.8secs, world champion Ogier responded in the only way he knows how; by putting his foot to the floor and tearing up the Welsh mud. The Frenchman excelled in the afternoon loop, particularly on the penultimate Aberhirnant test where he scored a major victory over his Estonian pursuer who came up 7 secs short of the VW number one. Admitting he was driving on the limit, Ogier nevertheless ended the day content with his 33.8 secs advantage over Tänak.
Meanwhile, Thierry Neuville steered clear of trouble – just – to consolidate third. The Belgian pilot dodged a bullet when his Hyundai i20 emerged unscathed after mounting a bank on stage 10. His recovery was swift, however, as he came back fighting to win the very next test and further distance fourth-placed Paddon. The Kiwi was able to hold Kris Meeke – struggling with a string of slow punctures – at arm’s length, but wasn’t at all at home in the bog-like conditions. A mid-day set-up change did little to inspire the Hyundai man, more at home on grippier gravel where his aggressive driving style is at its most effective.
Sixth-placed Dani Sordo was also a man far removed from his asphelt comfort zone and struggled all day with the erratic conditions. He was fortunate to see Mads Østberg pick up a 10sec time penalty for leaving service late in the morning after an unscheduled suspension change, leaving the M-Sport number one almost 40 secs adrift of the Spaniard by the end of the day.
For the briefest of moments on Sunday, the normally unflappable Sébastien Ogier might well have been wiping away the odd drip of perspiration from his brow, such was the awesome pace of Ott Tänak through the morning loop. Irrepressible in his hunt for a maiden WRC career victory, the DMACK pilot powered his Fiesta RS to a clean sweep of fastest times on Sunday with a superb display of poise and control in the slippery mud. But even this double hat-trick of stage wins, perhaps the most impressive string of drives of his career to date, wasn’t enough to dislodge Ogier from the top of the podium and Tänak simply ran out of kilometres on Sunday afternoon. Even so, second in Wales equals the DMACK ace’s career best result; on another day with a fair wind, Tänak could easily have been celebrating his maiden WRC on the podium in Deeside.
Neuville, meanwhile, now sits in pole position to grab the runners-up spot in the 2016 drivers’ championship as he successfully defended third, a position he’d held and consolidated since Friday evening. A minor overshoot at a hairpin opened the door a crack to Hyundai teammate Haydon Paddon, but the 19.5sec gap between third and fourth proved insurmountable for the New Zealander.
Kris Meeke signed off for 2016 with a steady fifth place finish on home turf. The Citroën-affiliated Abu Dhabi team won’t travel to the final round in Australia, meaning this is the last time we’ll see the double championship-winning DS3 WRC car in competitive action.
Elsewhere, there was little joy for Dani Sordo after the elation of coming close to victory in Spain last month. The frustrated Hyundai man came home in an underwhelming sixth place on a rally that’s far from tailored to his strengths, just ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala who recovered from his first day transmission woes to sneak past Mads Østberg for seventh.
Even without major points registered by Latvala or Mikkelsen, a distant twelfth overall, Ogier’s sixth triumph of the season in Wales provides the points needed to rubber stamp Volkswagen WRC’s fourth manufacturer’s crown in as many years. It means the German manufacturer’s unquestionable dominance of the sport will stretch to the tail end of this current WRC era.
This also renders the concluding round of the 2016 season at Rally Australia something of a dead rubber, with VW and its star man Ogier now untouchable in both the major title races. The fight for second in the drivers’ competition will go down to the wire however; although its most certainly advantage Neuville who heads into the season finale with a sizable 14-point advantage over VW’s Mikkelsen.
This and any other remaining scores will be settled as WRC heads Down Under from the 17th to the 20th November for what will be not only the final round of the 2016 campaign but also the end of an era for the world’s premiere rallying series.
Final Results – Round 13: Wales Rally GB
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