An emotional Sébastien Ogier stormed to victory at the WRC 2015 season finale at Wales Rally GB, an event that was overshadowed by the shocking attacks in Paris over the weekend. The triple world champion dedicated the success, his eighth of the season, to the victims of the terrorist atrocities in the French capital on Friday night after initially considering pulling out of the rally on Saturday morning.
Ogier led from start to finish, looking imperious against the backdrop of foul weather conditions that reduced much of the heavily forested route in north Wales to a mud bath. He comfortably held off Kris Meeke, who brought his Citroën DS3 home in an impressive second place, 26secs adrift of the eventual winner. The Northern Irishman’s efforts, combined with teammate Mads Østberg’s point-scoring finish, wrapped up the long-running battle for second in the manufacturer’s championship in Citroën’s favour.
Andreas Mikkelsen’s followed up his shock win in Spain with another strong showing and returned to the podium in third. However, this wasn’t enough to snatch second place in the drivers’ standings from teammate Jari-Matti Latvala who, despite a torrid outing with two retirements in as many days, clung on to the runners-up spot thanks to a maximum points haul on the power stage.
Once again reprising its traditional role as the WRC season finale, the historic Wales Rally GB remains one of the most iconic and best loved event on the calendar. Based exclusively in Wales since 2000, Britain’s premier rallying showpiece has seen its fair share of late-season drama over the years, not least the unforgettable 2009 title showdown between Mikko Hirvonen and Sébastien Loeb. The legendary Frenchman secured his sixth consecutive title in the Welsh forests, beating his Finnish nemesis by 1 minute and snatching the championship by a solitary point. There may well have been no repeat of that memorable face-off in more recent times, however spirits at Wales Rally GB are never as damp as the event’s trademark tree-lined gravel tracks. The infamously dank weather conditions here often conspire to give drivers a muddy reception. A sudden loss of grip on the devilishly slippery surface is an ever present danger and can so easily leave cars – and hopes – wallowing in a roadside ditch or dashed against a towering tree trunk.
When the downpour inevitably came on Thursday night, Volkswagen number one Sébastien Ogier must have been licking his lips with glee. The slimy state of Friday’s mud-caked stages dispelled any potential disadvantages posed by road-sweeping to create a level – if highly challenging – playing field. First out, the VW ace wasted no time in getting stuck in to the forest tracks and ended the day with a near-perfect card of five out of six stage wins. The only real resistance was provided by Citroën’s Kris Meeke who scuppered the Frenchman’s quest for a full-house by going fastest on stage 4 and duly led the chasing pack on Friday evening, 12.9 secs adrift of Ogier.
Andreas Mikkelsen was next up in a Polo R, holding a comfortable third and benefitting in no small part from two big accidents for major rivals earlier on in the day. First, Latvala, then running second, fell victim to the diminishing grip by sliding off into a ditch just a few hundred metres into stage 2. The Finn found himself stranded and forced to retire. He was soon joined back at the service park by Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville who slipped wide on the very next test, clipping a tree and tearing a wheel from his i20.
Of the survivors after day one in Wales, Mads Østberg battled to fourth aboard a Citroën DS3 festooned with muddy water. A hole in the cockpit floor made life for the Norwegian less than comfortable as he was forced to cope with slippery pedals and a very damp pair of boots for much of the day. Despite all that, the Citroën man held a sizable 35.7sec ahead of Dani Sordo’s fith-placed Hyundai i20 after the Spaniard lost a handful of seconds with a spin on stage 3.
Ott Tänak sidestepped trouble to end the day sixth for M-Sport. He was initially headed by teammate and home favourite Elfyn Evans after the morning loop but a late puncture and subsequent stool for the young Welshman dropped him to eighth. The Fiesta RS pair sandwiched Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon, the Kiwi being beset by hydraulic problems for much of the day.
As the first news reports of the Paris attacks filtered through to the service park on Friday night and Saturday morning, a visibly shocked Sébastien Ogier seriously considered the possibility of pulling out of the event altogether. Ultimately, the Frenchman, along with his many compatriots in the Citroën garage, bravely opted to continue on despite the tragic events unfolding back home.
Back on the road, Ogier quickly justified his decision. Despite the obvious distractions, the 2015 world champion applied himself to the task at hand admirably, clocking up another four stage wins during the day and increasing his cushion over Meeke to 35.7secs. The only blip in proceedings came on stage 12 where Ogier was delayed for a several minutes after Thierry Neuville rolled half way through the test. The Belgian’s upturned i20 blocked the route for some time before nearby spectators were able help the crew move the car to safety. Ogier’s time was revised accordingly to allow for the unforeseen stoppage and the Frenchman credited with another stage win.
Meanwhile, Kris Meeke was in no mood to up the stakes in search of a second win of the season. Fully aware of Citroën’s priority to secure second place in the manufacture’s standings over rivals Hyundai, the Ulsterman took no risks as more rain came and conditions deteriorated on Saturday afternoon. After a hairy moment aquaplaning in sixth gear on the lightning fast stage 12, Meeke throttled back and conserved his 24.7sec advantage over third-place Andreas Mikkelsen. The Norwegian’s challenge was severely blunted when he hit a hole on the morning loop, puncturing and braking a damper on his Polo R. The car was restored to health after midday service, allowing him to fend off the challenge of compatriot Østberg as well as deliver a brace of fastest times during the evening. The second of these was a particularly gutsy run through the howling winds, torrential rain and pitch-black darkness of Dyfnant.
Further back, Mads Østberg, Ott Tänak and Dani Sordo diced for fourth. It was Tänak who eventually came out on top in the three way duel after Østberg punctured and strayed into a ditch on stage 11 whilst Sordo struggled with a downshift problem that caused him to stall and clip a barrier on stage 10. Hayden Paddon’s similar Hyundai i20 was also afflicted by gearbox gremlins that restricted him to sixth overall, 4.4secs ahead of M-Sport’s Evans.
Conspicuous by his absence for the second day in succession was Jari-Matti Latvala. The Finn did restart on Saturday morning but his second bite at cherry in Wales lasted little longer than his first attempt as the VW Polo R he was piloting suffered a broken driveshaft early in the morning loop. A second retirement in as many days was the inevitable consequence.
Sunday’s short 36km sprint encompassed four stages, including a cliff-hanging test around the Great Orme headland. After his final stage disaster in Spain, Sébastien Ogier was not about to let lightning strike twice and settled for carefully managing his comfortable advantage over Meeke. There was no repeat of the pain in Spain for the triple world champion who eased his Polo R through the final quartet of stages, always remaining in or around the top 6 fastest times. The mission was by then already accomplished and a somber Ogier crossed the final time control to secure his 32nd career victory; perhaps the most poignant of all. He was followed on to the podium by Kris Meeke and Andreas Mikkelsen who both kept on the straight and narrow during Sunday’s tests.
As Latvala returned for the second time to dominate all four Sunday stages, the only major casualty on the final day of the 2015 season was M-Sport’s Ott Tänak. After battling tooth and nail to displace Sordo and Østberg for much of the rally, the Estonian crashed out of fourth on the day’s opening test. He left the road just over 5km into the wind and rain-battered Brenig test, damaging his Fiesta’s rear left section and leaving himself high, if not necessarily dry.
With Tänak out of the picture, Dani Sordo found himself promoted back up to fourth, a position the Spaniard duly cemented and retained. However, the combined efforts of Sordo and young teammate Hayden Paddon, 9.2 secs further back in fifth, were not enough to prevent second place in the manufacturers’ championship from slipping through Hyundai’s fingers. The Korean outfit ends the 2015 season in third spot, 6 points in arrears of Citroën.
Elsewhere, Elfyn Evans was cheered home by the Welsh faithful to a well-earned sixth place, 1min 20secs ahead of the waterlogged DS3 of Mads Østberg . Despite a far from stellar outing for the Norwegian, it is his 6 point haul for seventh place that ultimately tips the balance in Citroën’s favor in the final championship shakeup.
Given the circumstances, the podium celebrations at Rally GB 2015 were an understandably somber affair. The familiar sound of popping champagne corks was replaced instead by quiet contemplation as every member of the World Rally Championship family, from drivers and mechanics to backroom staff, gathered silently together behind the tricolore flag in a powerful tribute to those caught up in the Paris tragedy. As the 2015 WRC season finally reaches its conclusion in Wales, events over the channel provide a timely reminder of how sport, even at the very highest level, can be instantly plunged into insignificance. The 2015 world champion himself summed up the thoughts of all present;
“It was hard to carry on after the tragedy in France and our thoughts were with the people. We wanted this victory as our small sign for those who have been touched, and to show we must be even stronger against these things.”
Strength is a characteristic that Sébastien Ogier possesses in abundance. It is that extraordinary mental fortitude that could inspire this three-time champion of the world to climb to even greater heights next year.
Ogier’s near-perfect 2015 season with Volkswagen will be extremely hard to top. But, going forward, the question is this; just how far could the 31 year-old Frenchman go? If WRC 2015 is anything to go by, the sky’s the limit.
Final Results: Round 13 – Wales Rally GB
|POS…||DRIVER…………..||TEAM….||POINTS….||TOTAL TIME….||DIFF PREV….||DIFF 1ST|
WRC Drivers’ World Championship 2015: Final Standings
WRC Manufacturers’ World Championship 2015: Final Standings
|2.||Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT||230|
|4.||M-Sport World Rally Team||181|