Thierry Neuville finally claimed his first victory of the 2017 WRC season after twice crashing out from the lead in two of the opening three rounds. There was no such despair at round four on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, however, as Hyundai’s Belgian ace scored a comfortable 54.7sec win over runner-up Sébastien Ogier. After early pace-setter Kris Meeke dropped out of contention with engine problems on Saturday, it was the 28 year-old who grasped the nettle to net maximum points on the French asphalt.
Dani Sordo’s first podium finish of the year was extra cause for celebration in the Hyundai camp; indeed, it could have been even better for the Korean team had the Spaniard not been demoted to third by Ogier on the very last test.
Bumped forward on the WRC calendar this year, the Tour de Corse is the first taste of a pure asphalt rally for the 2017 crews. The wild and desolate coastal landscape here is a natural haven for rallying and, unsurprisingly, the Tour de Corse was a mainstay on the WRC calendar for some 35 years. After a brief hiatus between 2010 and 2014, the event dubbed ‘the rally of 10,000 turns’ reclaimed its place as a permanent fixture on the WRC calendar in 2015. Recent conquerors of the island’s snaking cliffside roads and narrow village lanes include former VW pair Jari-Matti Latvala and Sébastien Ogier. For 2017 edition of Rally France, the competitive route remains largely unaltered, save some minor tinkering that sees the overall distance trimmed to just over 316km.
Flush with success after winning in Mexico last time out, Citroën’s Kris Meeke set the early pace on Friday. The combination of pleasant spring sunshine and a light breeze was a world away from the notoriously harsh winter climate that makes a habit of battering Corsica in its usual late-season berth. As such, crews could push to their hearts content without worrying about torrential rain or gale-force winds ravaging the roads. Meeke stood out as the most fluent of the field on Friday, as his three stage wins clearly testified. Only Sébastien Ogier could deny the Ulsterman a clean sweep by going fastest on stage 3. Nevertheless, the reigning world champion found himself more than 10secs in arrears after day one, with the new C3 WRC looking in fine fettle on the closed surface roads.
Third in each of the opening four stages was Thierry Neuville; however the Belgian trailed Meeke’s time by a substantial margin of 25.8secs. Neither he nor Hyundai teammate Dani Sordo could account for the i20’s lack of pace compared to the leaders and the team’s frustrations were accentuated when Citroën’s Craig Breen snatched fourth on the final test to spilt the Hyundai pair by the end of day one.
6.4secs adrift of the Spaniard sat Rally Sweden victor Jari-Matti Latvala. The Toyota Yaris pilot’s tentative performance on Friday revealed a peculiar sense of unease on his return to the asphalt. One man who certainly prefers getting gravel in his tyre tread is Hayden Paddon. The Kiwi sat seventh in his Hyundai i20 after a minor scrape with a rock cost him precious seconds.
Elsewhere, Citroën’s Stéphane Lefebvre ended the day in eighth, whilst Elfyn Evans, Ott Tänak and Juho Hänninen all endured a rough time. The Welshman’s Fiesta was crippled by debilitating gearshift and differential problems for much of the day, whilst his M-Sport partner Tänak careered off into a ditch. Hänninen, meanwhile, lasted just two stages in the Corsican sun before slamming into a bridge and writing off his Yaris’ steering arm.
What, for Meeke, was shaping up to be a second consecutive victory in 2017 quite literally went up in smoke on Saturday morning. The hammer blow fell on stage 6, when the C3’s engine expired in dramatic fashion near the end of the 17.27km run through Novella.
While the Brit’s victory hopes roasted along with his engine, it was Neuville, not Ogier, who turned the screw. Three out of four fastest times on Saturday sent a clear statement of intent to the rest of the field, including the rejuvenated Ogier, with whom an intriguing final-day dual seemed to be in the offing. That was until he too was struck down by mechanical problems on Saturday afternoon. A significant win on the second pass through Valle di Rostino had initially moved Ogier onto the shoulder of the charging Neuville. However, unbeknownst to onlookers, the world champion’s Fiesta had lost hydraulic pressure in the last few kilometres of the test. Forced to tackle Saturday’s final stage with no gearshift and only rear-wheel drive, the Frenchman haemorrhaged some 36secs on the return run through Novella, leaving Neuville with a commanding 38.9sec advantage.
Another beneficiary of Meeke’s retirment was Dani Sordo, who climbed into the podium mix – albeit remaining nearly a minute off the lead. 11.7secds further back was Latvala, whose fresh set-up payed instant dividends. Both Sordo and Latvala leapfrogged Craig Breen on Saturday. A faulty intercom in the Citroën C3 meant the Irishman tackled one particular stage ‘blind’ with audible no pace notes. Hayden Paddon rounded out the top six, but there was no sign of Elfyn Evans or home hero Stéphane Lefebvre. They respectively came to grief at the bottom of a steep bank and against an unforgivingly solid bridge support.
Having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory twice already this season, Neuville was in an understandably cautious mood on Sunday. That, however, didn’t prevent him from notching up his fourth and final fastest time of the weekend on the mammoth 53.78km run to Poggio di Nazza on Sunday morning. There was to be no sting in the tail this time for Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul, who become the fourth different crew to win in the opening four rounds of the new WRC season.
What drama there was on Sunday unfolded behind the Belgian duo, where teammate Sordo looked primed to pinch second place from Ogier’s grasp. Electrical problems hampered the Frenchman on stage nine, allowing the Spaniard to sneak ahead by 2.5secs. The experienced Sordo couldn’t consolidate his gains, however, and Ogier duly recovered to second spot by edging out his Hyundai nemesis on the event-closing power stage.
Away from the podium mix, Jari-Matti Latvala finished the event strongly to claim fourth, 13.6sec behind former VW sparring-partner Ogier. The Finn headed fifth-place Craig Breen by just a tenth of a second and ended the rally on a positive note by securing five bonus points on the Power Stage. New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon held sixth to complete his Hyundai team’s biggest points haul of the season so far.
Second for Sébastien Ogier in his native France keeps him at the head of the field in the drivers’ standings after four rounds. The M-Sport pilot’s cushion stands at 13 points, with Latvala and now Neuville leading the pursuit in second and third respectively.
Next up, the WRC leaves the asphalt behind as a long run of gravel events beckons for the 2017 crews. The first of these sees the action shift back across the Atlantic to Argentina, where the stars of the show will resume hostilities from the 27 – 30 April.
Final Results: Round 4 – Tour de Corse
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