A highly dramatic final stage off for rally leader Sébastien Ogier handed fellow Volkwagen star Andreas Mikkelsen his maiden WRC victory at Rally de España 2015. The Norwegian, who struck gold at the 64th time of asking, had been locked in an enthralling dual with the third Polo R of Jari-Matti Latvala for what would have been second place. Mikkelsen edged out the Finn on the power stage to cement the runner-up spot, before Ogier’s startling retirement just 4km from the finish gifted the man from Oslo an unexpected and emotional 3.1sec victory.
First inducted onto the WRC calendar in 1991, Rally de España has been based around the pretty Catalonian seaside town of Salou since 2002. This year’s edition of the popular Costa Daurada-based event has been considerably lengthened and now includes no less than seven brand-new stages for crews to get their teeth into. It is also the sole mixed surface round of the season, combining a series of rough gravel tests on Friday with the altogether different prospect of smooth race track-like asphalt stages over the weekend. This switch makes Rally de España a tricky proposition both for those at the wheel and for those in the service park. Both driving style and car spec must be seamlessly adapted to master the change in road surface and, ultimately, to challenge for top honours.
After the brief curtain-raising street stage in Barcelona on Thursday night, the action proper got underway on Friday morning in the hills around Tarragona. Running first on the virgin gravel roads blunted world champion Sébastien Ogier’s armoury somewhat and his overnight advantage gained in Barcelona was swiftly stamped out by an assured-looking Robert Kubica. The ex-F1 star went third fastest through stage 2 before snatching the lead with fastest time on the following stage. He held top spot until the midday mark before being crippled by a double puncture on Terra Alta, the longest, most demanding stage of the rally. Mads Østberg , also well-placed in second following the morning’s action, suffered a similar blow, driving the final 13km with a slow puncture on his Citroën DS3 and dropping down to fifth in the process. Quick to snatch back the advantage was Ogier, who completed the 35km marathon marginally slower than teammate Latvala but swiftly enough to regain the overall lead.
It was not with the Frenchman for long however. Latvala ditched his earlier cautious approach and favoured an aggressive strategy through the afternoon loop. This shift in emphasis immediately paid dividends as the Finn instantly usurped a helpless Ogier after the midday interval. He held the lead for a grand total of three stages despite a concerted effort by M-Sport’s Ott Tänak to topple him. The Estonian propelled his Fiesta RS to three stage wins, the most of any driver on Friday, and appeared well-placed to challenge Latvala for the overnight lead on the second running of Terra Alta. However, it was Ogier, not Tänak, who was to provide the main threat. Despite opening the roads all day long, it was the Frenchman who led the way by 4.0 seconds as Friday’s action came to a close, with Latvala and Tänak in tow.
Elsewhere, home favourite Dani Sordo kept things neat and tidy to end the day just outside the top three. Østberg, who claimed two stage wins early on, was reasonably satisfied to sit fifth after his dramas on Terra Alta. Meanwhile, Andreas Mikkelsen was sixth with Hayden Paddon, Kris Meeke, Thierry Neuville and Elfyn Evans rounding out the leaderboard.
Ogier’s position out-front was further solidified as a catalogue of misfortunes afflicted his closest rivals on Saturday morning. First, Tänak’s impressive display was brought to an abrupt halt as the M-Sport man left the road on stage 10, crashing heavily and ripping a wheel from his Ford Fiesta RS.
With Tänak now out of the picture, it was Latvala’s turn to hit trouble. The Finn ended stage 11 complaining of debilitating break problems, with trapped air in the system to blame for an unresponsive peddle and the loss of precious seconds. To make matters worse for the recent Tour de Corse winner, Ogier had already set fastest time through both morning stages and led by an increasingly imposing 11secs heading into stage 12 at Poboleda. He emerged from the asphalt test with another fastest time under his belt and a lead of almost 1 minute as disaster struck his VW colleague. With the early break issues having cleared up, Latvala could finally go on the offensive. However, the pressure to make up for lost time would prove his undoing when, barley 1km into the stage, his Polo R collided with a concrete block on the inside of a corner. It was a cut too far for the Finn who badly damaged a wheel and endured an agonising limp through the remaining 10km with a flat tyre.
That mistake cost Latvala two places as he tumbled from second to fourth overall. In his absence, Dani Sordo and Andreas Mikkelsen took up the fight for second. The Spaniard’s understeering Hyundai i20 scuppered his attempts to kick on and Mikkelsen, who had started the day in sixth, raced past him to briefly claim second.
However, the day of frenetic action was not yet at an end. An improbable Latvala fightback, during which the VW pilot won three of the five afternoon stages, saw him reclaim second by the close of play on Saturday. He therefore sat 2.9secs clear of Mikkelsen and 54secs shy of a cruising Ogier as the Volkswagen team held a 1-2-3 on Saturday evening.
With Sordo a further 4.5 sec back in fourth, Kris Meeke ended the day as the highest placed Citroën in fifth. The Ulsterman steadily climbed from eighth to sixth before edging out teammate Mads Østberg on the final stage after the Norwegian stalled his DS3.
The Hyundai pairing of Paddon and Neuville ended the day tied for seventh but M-Sport endured a disastrous day. Elfyn Evans followed Tänak on to the back of the recovery truck after plunging into a ditch on stage 13.
Heading into Sunday’s final six stages, an eighth victory of the season looked virtually assured for Sébastien Ogier. The battle for second continued in earnest behind him with Mikkelsen and Latvala separated by just 1.4 seconds heading into the power stage. Earlier, Mikkelsen looked to have stolen a march on his fellow Scandinavian when Latvala punctured on stage 21. The gap between the Polo duo increased to a sizable 8.1 seconds as a result, but in the very next test, Mikkelsen let the advantage slip with a spin mid-stage. Delicately poised it may have been, but the intra-team dual was merely for the minor podium places. Or at least, it should have been.
Mikkelsen had already completed the event-closing power stage by the time the bombshell hit. Knowing he had already edged out Latvala by 1.7secs, the Norwegian was all set to celebrate the fifth second place finish of his career when news reached the final time control of a catastrophic accident for the rally leader. All present, including Mikkelsen, were stunned into disbelief when it was confirmed that Ogier, over 50 seconds clear of the field and totally pressure-free, had slammed his Polo R into a metal barrier just 4km from the finish. The impact was severe enough to wrench the rear right wheel from the world champion’s car, leaving it smoldering on the roadside. In an uncharacteristic moment of madness, Ogier had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. After a precautionary trip to hospital, the 31 year-old was thankfully given a clean bill of health, with only his pride left battered and bruised.
By his own admission, Mikkelsen’s maiden career win could have come in somewhat better circumstances. However, nothing could detract from the emotion of the podium celebrations, with the 26 year-old clearly overwhelmed by his first taste of WRC glory. After so many near misses, you can’t help but think the likeable Norwegian has earned his day in the sun.
Ogier’s late demise meant that the entire field shifted up a place. This was especially good news for runner-up Latvala as well as local hero Dani Sordo who took third place at his home event and climbed the podium in Spain for a sixth time.
Citroën’s Mads Østberg overhauled teammate Kris Meeke for fourth on Sunday. The Brit spun his DS3 on the final leg to finish 1.9sec adrift in fifth, with Hayden Paddon completing the top six. The Kiwi, who has just earned himself a three year deal with Hyundai, was in danger of being caught by the third i20 of Thierry Neuville until the Belgian went off on the penultimate stage and dropped to eighth overall.
Heading into the final round of the 2015 season, Mikkelsen’s Spanish haul of 28 points ensures he retains an outside chance of snatching second in the drivers’ championship from the grasp of Jari-Matti Latvala. Meanwhile, the fight for the runner-up spot in the manufacturers’ championship rages on. Citroën’s cushion over Hyundai now stands at 4 points with one round remaining, however Sordo’s solid showing on home soil means the Korean team remains very much in the running to seize second place from their rivals’ clutches.
The traditional WRC season finale on the gravel roads of Wales Rally GB runs from the 12th – 15th November.
Final Results: Round 13 – Rally de España
World Rally Championship – Results Spain – wrc.com
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