Volkswagen’s Jari-Matti Latvala scooped the top honours at Rallye de France for the second year in a row, beating not only his rivals but also the inclement weather as the island of Corsica was battered by extreme rain storms over the weekend.
The Finn successfully held off the challenge of surprise package Elfyn Evans aboard an M-Sport Fiesta RS. The Welsh youngster refused to let the monsoon-like conditions dampen his spirits and pulled off a career-best second place finish after having led the pack for much of the first two days. Andreas Mikkelsen pushed hard to overhaul the Briton but ultimately failed in his quest to make it a VW one-two, settling for a strong third instead.
After a seven year hiatus, Rallye de France returns to its spiritual home on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. The wild and desolate landscape here is a natural haven for rallying and unsurprisingly the Tour de Corse was mainstay on the WRC calendar for some 35 years. Many fans mourned its passing when, in 2010, it was confirmed that Rallye de France would be upping sticks and heading on to the mainland for the first time in its history. However, the event they call ‘the rally of 10,000 turns’ makes its triumphant return to the WRC calendar for 2015. Of the top eight finishers from the last time the World Rally Championship landed on Corsica, only Jari-Matti Latvala remains at the wheel of a WRC car. The Finn and co-driver Miikka Anttila will no doubt have been digging into their pace-note archives in preparation for this year’s French challenge. The rest of the current WRC crop, will be entering somewhat unknown territory when they come to tackle Corsica’s characteristic snaking asphalt roads, narrow village lanes and sheer drops to the ocean below.
From the outset it was clear that hostile conditions overhead were going to play a big part in the outcome of the rally. A day’s worth of rain had left much of the island swamped with the rally route bearing the brunt of a rare tropical storm. The numerous submerged sections of road and landslips left large parts of Friday’s stages impassable and although the opening test went ahead relatively unhindered, stage 2 fell victim to the elements as organisers deemed the route too dangerous to tackle. With the already short 9 stage event truncated, the opportunity arose for some less familiar faces to come to the fore. Elfyn Evans began by posting a steady time on stage 1, leaving him 16 seconds adrift of early leader Robert Kubica. However, the Welshman showed no fear in the face of the terrible conditions that blighted the day’s final stage. Not only did the M-Sport ace negotiate the treacherous damaged roads successfully, he blew his opposition out of the floodwater by completing the stage a full 10secs faster than anyone else in the field.
Evans, who endured a rough ride in Australia last month, held a healthy 18.7sec lead going into day two. Behind him sat another surprise package in the form of Hyundai junior driver Kevin Abbring. The 26 year-old Dutchman, nominally a development driver for the Korean outfit, was another of the lesser-fancied drivers to reap the rewards by throwing caution to the howling winds whilst the big guns played it safe at the end of day one.
Latvala was one of that number who decided to play the long game with conditions proving hazardous in the extreme. Slotting in behind the early leaders, the VW star piloted his Polo to third fastest on stage 3 and ended the day third overall. However, that was the only piece of positive news emanating from the Volkswagen garage on Friday evening. Andreas Mikkelsen struggled for grip in the wet along with many others and ended the day seventh overall whilst newly-crowned 2015 world champion Sébastien Ogier once again found little in the way of home comforts in France. Following a forgettable outing on home soil last year, Ogier initially started well this time round. However, the triple world champion was stopped in his tracks by a puncture on stage 3, sending him tumbling down to tenth overall. Worse was to come when the already disgruntled Frenchman was forced to retire when his Polo R developed a terminal gearbox failure on the road section back to parc-fermé in Bastia. The ensuing 10 minute penalty relegated the 31 year-old from tenth to the depths of 55th overall.
Elsewhere, a rejuvenated Mads Østberg headed early pace-setter Robert Kubica in fourth, the Citroën pilot bouncing back-from the rib injury sustained in shakedown at Rally Australia. The second DS3 of Kris Meeke occupied eighth at the close of play whilst Hyundai Motorsport’s senior pairing of Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville were left well down the order after the former lost 2mins changing a puncture and the latter came off worse in a collision with a bridge. The Belgian was forced to retire barley 1km into the first stage of the rally.
There was no break in the weather overnight in Corsica, so for the second day running the opening stage was shelved by organisers on safety grounds. But despite the condensed route, Jari-Matti Latvala required just the two stages that remained open on Saturday to reel-in and pass Evans for the lead. The hammer blow was dealt on stage 5 where Latvala hit the overdrive button to set the fastest time and munch a huge 21sec chunk out of Evans’ lead. The Welshman, in search of his maiden WRC victory, responded well on the following Col de Sorba test by going third fastest. Unfortunately for Evans, the flying Finn went one better and finally overhauled his advantage to grab the lead and earn himself a slender 2sec cushion heading into the closing day.
Abbring’s choice of hard tyres on Saturday morning cost him several places, with the rubbers proving ill-suited to the inconsistent grip available on the mud-caked mountain passes. The Dutchman slipped to fifth overall as both Andreas Mikkelsen and Kris Meeke bounded up the leaderboard to end the day third and fourth respectively. Another man left ruing a detrimental set-up choice was Mads Østberg. Meeke’s Citroen colleague dropped two places to sixth in a DS3 that looked ill-at-ease on the slippery sections.
After a promotion to the senior squad Down Under, Hyundai’s Haydon Paddon found himself back in the B-team for France. He still managed to outperform his senior partners however, who both hit trouble on day one, and the Kiwi sat a respectable seventh after a brace of drama-free runs on Saturday.
Sébastien Ogier showed the home fans what could have been with a dominant performance on stage 6. He will no doubt have been pleased with his second fastest time of the rally, however 24th place on the leaderboard will still have made for some pretty grim reading in the VW camp.
To the relief of all concerned, Sunday’s trio of tests went ahead as planed with the worst of the storm now passed. The opener saw Latvala immediately stretch his advantage on the damp roads. The Finn opted for soft tyres and, barring a couple of minor scares, emerged through the final time control in fine fettle. Second-place Evans could only muster sixth fastest on stage 7. He complained of tough conditions whilst also hinting that his pace-notes may have been a touch too conservative in places.
The Fiesta pilot need only peer over his shoulder for an incentive to step up the pace. Andreas Mikkelsen was by now in the groove and went third fastest on Sunday’s opener to complete the first Volkswagen 1-2-3 of the rally. More significantly, this cut the gap to Evans to just over 20secs. Alarm bells at M-Sport must surely have begun ringing after the very next test, a Tour de Corse classic, when Evans’ remaining cushion was slashed in half. Once again, a Mikkelsen masterclass turned up the heat on his rival, although the Norwegian himself admitted that wiping out the remaining 9.8sec deficit would be a tall order with just the power stage still to run.
As anticipated, the battle for second came down to the final stage of the rally. In a thrilling culmination to the dual, Mikkelsen looked to have snatched the runner-up trophy from the Welshman’s grasp as both men crossed the midway point of the 16.7km power stage. However, Evans responded in kind and bravely upped the ante over the final few kilometres to ultimately hold on to a hard-earned second place, much to the delight of his watching father, ex-British rally champion Gwyndaf.
Kris Meeke followed in fourth as the highest placed Citroën for the second rally in succession. Paddon was understandably delighted with his performance on asphalt, a surface the Kiwi is not overly familiar with. The Hyundai youngster turned a possible sixth into fifth by leapfrogging Mads Østberg on the penultimate test. That wasn’t enough though to prevent Citroën snatching back second place in the manufacturers’ championship by a solitary point as Yves Matton’s team finished with both cars in the top six.
Sordo rounded out the top seven for Hyundai but there was no sign of Thierry Neuville or Sébastien Ogier in the points scoring positions. Ogier partly rectified that blemish by scooping a maximum three bonus points on the event-closing power stage but still suffered the ignominy of ending his home rally as the fifth-placed Frenchman.
However, the day, and the weekend, belonged to Latvala. By his own admission, the Finn never had to push to the limit at any point. Even so, he can be proud of a careful, considered and ultimately dominant performance in the face of extreme conditions, the likes of which have rarely been encountered before in WRC.
The championship may be gone, but Jari-Matti is still on course to meet his personal target of winning the final three rallies of the 2015 campaign. The next piece in the puzzle comes on Catalonia’s Costa Daurada as the WRC makes its penultimate stop-off of the year at Rally Spain (22 – 25 October).
Final Results: Round 11 – Rallye de France
|Pos||Driver||Team….||Points….||Total Time….||Diff Prev….||Diff 1st|