Sébastien Ogier cemented his place at the summit of the 2015 drivers’ world championship standings by posting a second consecutive WRC victory, scorching his way to top spot on the sun-baked gravel tracks of Poland.
With the eastern European country in the grip of a soaring summer heatwave and temperatures hitting 33°C at times, the only thing matching the sun’s blistering rays was Ogier’s searing pace aboard his Polo R. Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen was able to keep his cool in the blazing conditions but eventually fell just short of toppling his French teammate, finishing the event 11.9secs adrift in second.
The Volkswagen team didn’t quite have things all their own way, however, with Estonia’s Ott Tänak pipping the third Polo of Jari-Matti Latvala to the final podium place on the event-closing power stage. The Finn, who sustained radiator damage during the tight tussle, was eventually demoted to fifth overall after he was slapped with a retrospective penalty for clocking in late at the finish.
After making a triumphant return to the WRC calendar last year, Rally Poland’s 2015 edition presents teams and drivers with a vastly different challenge this time around. The breakneck speeds that make this event one of the fastest of the season remain as blistering as ever but over 90% of the gravel course has been changed for 2015. Tall grass and the ubiquitous dust clouds kicked up off the parched road surface tend to hamper visibility throughout and this year’s heatwave only serves to increase wear on soft compound tyres, bringing the harder, more durable rubbers into play.
Road opener Ogier once again found himself compromised on the unwept gravel roads of Friday’s morning loop. Whilst the double world champion was bogged down, the lead swung first the way of his VW colleague Mikkelsen and then across to M-Sport’s Tänak during a seesaw opening morning. The Norwegian rocketed through Stage 2 at an average speed of 81mph, only to see his early lead wiped out a by a combination of Tänak’s brilliant hat-trick of wins on Stages 3,4 and 5 and a unplanned detour into a field during Stage 6.
Unfortunately for the M-Sport star, his full-throttle approach on the initial loop of stages had taken its toll on his car. His choice of soft tyres proved costly in the long run and was compounded by a persistent brake problem that left his rubbers almost bald by the afternoon leg. Tänak conceded 16secs and the lead on Stage 7 and ended what had initially seemed like a promising day a full 16.7secs off the lead in fourth.
The man to profit, as always, was Ogier. Picking up speed on the freshly swept roads during the afternoon, the 31 year-old took a brace of stage wins to nudge ahead at the end of day one by slim 2.1secs over a recovering Mikkelsen. Jari-Matti Latvala posted one fastest time himself in the other Polo R to slot into third, just ahead of Tänak. After his wonderful performance in Italy, New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon was at it again this time out, showing great pace and, impressively for such a young driver, a good nose for the conditions. His choice of hard tyres certainly bucked the trend but ultimately proved to be on the money and hoisted his Hyundai i20 up to fifth after day one. Below Paddon, home hero Robert Kubica lay in a solid sixth, whilst fellow i20 pilots Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo were a little off the pace, languishing in seventh and ninth overall.
There was precious little to smile about in the Citroën garage, however, with Kris Meeke, who had suffered a nasty roll during shakedown, back in eighth and teammate Mads Østberg capable only of tenth overall. Elfyn Evans completed a clean sweep of WRC finishers on Friday, however eleventh place was all that he had to show for his efforts after a punishing day in the Polish heat.
If the drivers were hoping for a chance to cool down on Saturday‘s stages, they were in for a sizzling shock. The mercury rose yet further on day 2 of Rally Poland, increasing the feeling that tyre choice was king. And so it proved. Virtually unhindered by opening the roads, the impressive Ogier not only maintained his advantage over Mikkelsen on Saturday morning but managed to increase it to over 7secs by midday service. The afternoon leg brought with it the most extreme weather conditions of the weekend. Ogier’s choice of two hard and two soft tyres prompted Mikkelsen’s side of the garage into adopting a different strategy. Hitting the afternoon’s roads with a full set of hards proved an inspired decision as the youngster clearly had the faster package of the duo over the latter part of the day.
However, some economical driving and a no small amount of fortune came to Ogier’s rescue. Well aware that he would require every last kilometre of road to fully press home his speed advantage over Ogier, Mikkelsen was dispirited to see the 17.7km Stage 14 cancelled by organisers on safety grounds. The Norwegian did outpace Ogier on the following two tests but swirling dust clouds hampered his progress and he was ultimately unable to make the most of the golden opportunity to reel in the weakened Frenchman. Mikkelsen ended the day 5.6secs adrift in second.
Meanwhile, the two-way dual for the final podium spot was hotting up quicker than the Polish countryside. Latvala profited from a Tänak spin on Saturday’s opener to extend his lead but the Fiesta pilot, free from Friday’s brake problems, soon rediscovered his earlier confidence and blazed his way to two stage wins and a second place to leave the pair virtually dead level at midday service. Latvala responded well to pull ahead once more on Stage 15 but the persistent Tänak was again back on top of the time sheets on the next test to end the day back in third by the narrowest of margins.
Elsewhere, there was mixed fortunes for Hyundai as Hayden Paddon not only held but increased the gap to sixth-placed teammate Neuville. However, Dani Sordo went backwards, overtaken by the marginally improved Citroëns of Meeke and Østberg. Elfyn Evans’ difficult rally was brought to an end by a broken water pump on Saturday afternoon.
Sunday’s brief 30km sprint encompassed just two stages, both of which were won by Ogier who swept to victory by almost 12secs and picked up 3 championship bonus points on the way. Another maximum haul for the series leader pulls him 78 points clear of closest rival Mikkelsen in the 2015 standings. The Norwegian did manage to move up to third overall by virtue of his 19 point haul in Poland and Mads Østberg’s underwhelming performance. The Citroën man never came close to emulating his previous good results in Mexico and Argentina but does retain third overall by the skin of his teeth from Latvala.
Third place for the Finn would have seen him leapfrog Østberg but he struck a tree while in hot pursuit of Tänak on the final stage, damaging his radiator and ending his challenge. The Volkswagen man’s disappointment was further compounded when he clocked in late at the final time control after stopping to patch up the Polo en route to the service park, dropping him further down to fifth below a delighted Paddon.
For the second rally in succession, Hyundai number one Thierry Neuville was beaten by his less experienced colleague but in truth the Belgian was luckly to finish at all following a dramatic barrel roll on the penultimate stage. Kris Meeke struggled for confidence after a roll of his own in shakedown but the real disappointment for Citroën was the lacklustre display of Østberg, who can and must deliver better than ninth place finishes if he is to remain near the top of the drivers’ rankings for much longer.
With over half of the season behind us, time is fast running out for those drivers of a non-French persuasion to turn this year’s championship into anything other than an Ogier procession. Battle will recommence at the Mecca of rallying when Rally Finland gets underway on 30th July.
Final Results: Round 7 – Rally Poland 2015
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*Latvala demoted to 5th after penalty