Sébastien Ogier is now officially a four-time WRC world champion after his victory at Rally Spain 2016 handed him an unassailable lead in the drivers’ championship. He joins an exclusive club of four men to have won rallying’s biggest prize on four or more occasions, moving level with WRC legends Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen and trailing only his compatriot and nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb on the all-time winners list.
Ogier edged out home favourite Dani Sordo by 15.6secs, despite trailing the Torrelavega native for much of the first two days. Fellow Hyundai star Thierry Neuville trailed his teammate by a further 59.4 seconds to make it two cars in the top three for the Korean outfit.
First inducted onto the WRC calendar in 1991, Rally de España has been based around the pretty south Catalonian seaside town of Salou since 2002. This year’s edition of the popular Costa Daurada-based event sees three new tests included on Saturday’s itinerary as well as a dimly-lit slog through the Pratdip stage at dawn on Sunday morning. As the only true mixed surface round on the 2016 calendar, Rally de España combines 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 round 11 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.
Treacherously muddy conditions on Friday morning blighted the rally’s early stages and although Ogier and Neuville both found form and fastest times on the trio of early morning tests, they were both eclipsed by Sordo’s masterclass through the afternoon loop. Bidding to become the first Spaniard since Carlos Sainz to win on home soil, the Hyundai man followed up a brace of wins on stages 5 and 6 with a second fastest time on the re-run through Terra Alta to jump from fourth to first in the rankings, relegating the champion-elect and his own teammate in the process.
A return to road-sweeping duties on the gravel was never going to be to the VW number one’s liking, and this handicap was further confounded by the damp and slippery road surface. As the Frenchman entered damage-limitation mode, others threw themselves into the podium mix. One such man was Andreas Mikkelsen. Fighting to retain second in the drivers’ championship, the Norwegian enjoyed a good opening day in Catalonia by climbing to third despite persistent brake issues on Friday evening.
The aforementioned Neuville slipped down the timesheets after an initially promising start. A collision with a tree on stage 5 that left his i20’s front bodywork and radiator in a bad way hampered him for the remainder of the day. He held off Hyundai colleague Hayden Paddon by the slimmest of margins and would surely have conceded the position had the Kiwi’s day not been marred by a malfunctioning anti-lag system.
M-Sport’s Mads Østberg was sixth ahead of the erratic Kris Meeke. So often the hero this season, the DS3 pilot’s hopes of victory were effectively dashed on the very first stage when he clipped a bank and rolled off the road. A minor recovery to seventh was the best the Briton could manage with young teammate Craig Breen and the Ford Fiesta pair of Ott Tänak and Eric Camilli rounding out the top ten.
Conspicuous by his absence from the leaderboard was Volkswagen’s Jari-Matti Latvala. Despite looking quick through the opening three stages, two of which he won, the Finn fell foul of a broken suspension arm in the afternoon which rendered his Polo R undrivable.
There was no such strife for fellow Polo R pilot Ogier the following day. On perhaps the most decisive day of the entire campaign, the Frenchman unleashed a barrage of fastest times on Saturday afternoon to all but rubber stamp his fourth world title. The shift from gravel to asphalt was the signal for Ogier to unleash his A-game and the results proved devastating for the hopes of his key rivals and the Sordo-inspired spectators alike. A run of no less than five consecutive fastest times toppled home favourite Sordo from his perch as rally leader despite the 33 year-old Hyundai ace having initially held his own on his favoured asphalt surface. By Saturday evening the deflated Spaniard had admitted defeat, blaming an understeering i20 for his inability to fend of the marauding Frenchman.
However, the key moment in deciding the fate of the 2016 world championship was to occur further down the field on Saturday afternoon. Andreas Mikkelsen, the only man with remotely realistic ambitions of denying the Frenchman his fourth crown, was already slipping back from the lead duo when his gamble to up the pace went disastrously array on stage 12. Flicking an Armco barrier on the outside of a fast corner 2.5km into the afternoon’s first stage, Mikkelsen was powerless to prevent his Polo R barrel-rolling off the road and into the scenery. Neither driver or co-driver were hurt but the Norwegian was the first to acknowledge his luck in escaping in one piece. The same could not be said for the car however, permanently out of action thereafter.
Mikkelsen’s demise removed the last major obstacle in Ogier’s path to a fourth WRC crown. Victory on Sunday’s early morning opener and then second fastest on Duesaigües, the scene of the Frenchman’s infamous rally-ending accident in 2015, increased the gap to Sordo from 5.5 to 12.7secs. Thierry Neuville, by now the only man mathematically able to deny Ogier the 2016 title, opted merely to consolidate his own podium position. Also frustrated by an understeering i20 WRC, Neuville’s brace of fourth fastest times on both stages was nevertheless enough to see him hold third spot ahead of Paddon and ultimately clinch his third podium finish in as many rallies.
Both men, separated by 12.8 secs in the final standings, are now in with a very real chance of snatching the runners-up spot in the drivers’ championship from Andreas Mikkelsen following the Norwegian’s costly DNF in Spain.
Mads Østberg secured his and M-Sport’s best result since April by claiming fifth; he would have been placed lower had Kris Meeke’s Citroën DS3’s not been struck down by a critical engine failure on Sunday’s opening test.
Ott Tänak and Kevin Abbring completed the top seven. For Hyundai Test Driver Abbring, seventh represents a career-best result and furthers speculation that he could be offered a drive with the senior team in 2017 if Neuville moves on to pastures new.
So, the 21-year wait for a Spanish victor on Spanish soil goes on; but for Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia, their 37th career victory will be one to savour for a long time to come. Eleven rallies, nine podium finishes, and five WRC victories in 2016 proves categorically that, right now, no one on the planet can even come close to toppling the Gallic masters from their perch at the pinnacle of rallying. Yet another world title in the locker with at least one round to spare confirms beyond any shadow of a doubt that Ogier and Ingrassia are untouchable in WRC’s current format.
Will their dominance continue into the new era of WRC in 2017? That’s a question for another day. For now, there are still two more rally wins up for grabs at the tail end of this enthralling 2016 campaign, the first of which gets underway on Deeside on 27 October. Next stop, Wales Rally GB.
Final Results: Round 11 – Rally Spain
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