Finland’s Jari Matti Latvala produced a superb drive to take victory on round 11 of the 2014 WRC calendar in France. With this win, his first on asphalt, the Volkswagen ace can now claim to be a true WRC all-rounder. It is an achievement that has been a long time in the making for both Latvala and his nation; the last Finn to taste victory on tarmac roads was Tommi Mäkinen, all the way back in 1999.
However, unlike his asphalt heartbreak in Germany, when he crashed out from the lead on the final morning, there was no sign that the 29 year-old was about to let this chance slip through his grasp. Leading virtually from start to finish, Latvala coolly piloted the number 2 polo to a 44.8 second win over his young teammate Andreas Mikklesen. The Norwegian headed Citroën’s steadily improving Kris Meeke by a further 20.5 seconds, with the Northern Irishman recording his fourth podium finish of the year.
At just over 300km, Rallye de France-Alsace is the shortest but by no means the easiest event of the 2014 season. Cold temperatures and wet roads are a regular feature here, as are the undulating hills of the vineyard stages, not unlike those that litter Rallye Deutschland. Cars can hit speeds of up to a dizzying 125mph on some of these narrow lanes. Although the locals come out in their droves to roar on Sébastien Ogier, this is really Leob country. In fact, this year’s addition enters unfamiliar territory as it is the first in over a decade not to feature the nine times world champion who retired last year.
For defending world champion Sébastien Ogier, a fairy-tale climax to the season looked to be in prospect. He knew that a win in his own back yard coupled with a lower finish for Latvala would have prompted a repeat of the joyous scenes witnessed here in 2013 when the Frenchman confirmed his maiden world title. However, from the off it became clear that such celebrations would have to wait. As early as stage 2 things began to go array for the VW star when he span 3km in to the test and then lost power due to a faulty gearbox sensor. His poorly Polo was caught and passed on that stage, shedding 4min 15secs in the process and, to cap off a disastrous morning, Ogier was then lumped with a further 4 minute penalty for arriving at the next stage early in an attempt to fix the issue.
By the end of day one Ogier was nearly 9 minutes adrift of Latvala who, by contrast, was in fine form. He scooped four of the day’s seven stage wins and together with Mikkelsen, who stuck with the pace in the morning but faded slightly late on, led the charge for Volkswagen. Kris Meeke, who has of late been adopting the mantel of head Polo hunter, again found himself in the thick of the action after day one. He trailed Mikkelsen by 14.9 seconds but provided more resistance than others could muster. Asphalt specialist Dani Sordo sat a further 28.1secs back in fourth with only 14secs covering his i20 and the pursuing pack of Mads Østberg, Mikko Hirvonen and Robert Kubica. Elsewhere, Thierry Neuville endured a less-than perfect start when his i20 developed a turbo fault leaving him eleventh.
Consolidation was Saturday’s buzz word as Latvala first extended and then hammered home his advantage with a string of rapid times on day two’s morning loop. Four consecutive stage wins firmly closed the door on his young colleague’s challenge and once the lead ticked over the 20 second mark, Mikkelsen eased back. In much the same vein, Meeke also opted against trying to chase down the lead pair and jeopardise a potential podium finish. The Brit is beginning to regularly display the kind of cool headedness that comes with experience in this cut-throat sport; making the right calls at the right time for minimum risk and maximum reward.
Behind Meeke, the battle for the minor places raged on. It was two men who are not averse to tussling on tarmac, Sordo and Kubica, who contested fourth spot throughout the day. It was the former Rallye Deutschland winner Sordo who held on by a slim 0.9secs by close of play but Kubica was lucky to remain in the hunt after he clipped a wall in the afternoon and almost wrenched the right rear tyre off of its rim. Mikko Hirvonen was next ahead of Mads Østberg who dropped back after differential problems and a subsequent oil leak blighted his day. Ogier meanwhile climbed to eighteenth, marking his 300th stage win en route, although not in the circumstances he would have wished.
There were no Germany-esc dramas for Latvala on the final day as he coasted to his twelfth career victory. Mikkelsen ensured that Volkswagen continued to dominate the business end of the leader-board with his third second place finish of 2014. He now has his sights firmly set on the next rally where he could secure third overall in the championship.
Meeke held on for a rock-solid third, however the real drama unfolded behind him. Robert Kubica, never one to fly under the radar, finally usurped the DS3 of Dani Sordo with only a handful of stages to go. He began the event-closing power stage with an 11sec cushion over the Citroën man but conspired to plant his Fiesta RS in to a ditch just 1.8km, misjudging the grip on a wet strip of road. The Pole could only blame himself for letting what would have been a career-best finish slip through his fingers.
Like Kubica, Mads Østberg has also been struggling to score big of late and he was once again forced to settle for an underwhelming seventh place after losing out to M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans on the final test. Evans himself surprised everyone by splitting the Polos of Ogier and Latvala on the power stage and claiming two bonus championship points.
It may not have been a happy homecoming for Ogier but that won’t overly concern the unflappable Frenchman. He knows full well that he has points in the bag, as do his opponents. Ogier requires only to better Latvala’s result in Spain in order to rubber-stamp his second consecutive drivers’ title.
Round 12 gets underway in Cataluña on 23rd October.
Final Results: Round 11 – Rallye de France-Alsace
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