A flawless display from defending world champion Sébastien Ogier secured maximum points and a third consecutive Rallye Monte Carlo win at the 2016 WRC season opener in the Mediterranean principality. The Volkswagen number one rebuffed stern challenges form Abu Dhabi WRT’s Kris Meeke and teammate Jari-Matti Latvala on consecutive days before both rivals crashed out of the running, leaving Ogier in complete control.
Despite Latvala’s demise, Volkswagen did have a one-two finish to celebrate as Andreas Mikkelsen secured the runner-up spot in Monte in a similar Polo R WRC. It was also a promising debut for the all-new Hyundai i20 world rally car, piloted to third on the podium by Belgium’s Thierry Neuville.
Monte Carlo is quite simply the Zenith of rallying. First run way back 1911, it is by some distance the oldest event on the calendar and regarded by many as the most prestigious title up for grabs. Probably best remembered for the giant-killing exploits of the legendary Mini Coopers that defined rallying for much of the 1960’s, Rally Monte Carlo has always had that air of magic about it. Today’s drivers face the very same challenges that their counterparts of 50 years ago would have encountered. This means radically varying mountain conditions as well as roads that can turn from dry asphalt to ice and then to snow all in the space of a single stage, rendering the art of finding optimum grip settings a near-impossible task. Needless to say, shrewd tyre choices and a good nose for predicting overhead conditions are very much the keys to success in Monte.
What ended as a relatively routine cruise to the finish and a first rally victory of the season for Ogier began as anything but. Locked in a fierce battle with DS3 pilot Kris Meeke over Thursday evening’s brief loop of stages and the entirety of Friday’s leg, the pair traded fastest time after fastest time as the lead changed hands on three occasions. It was Ogier who held the upper hand heading into Saturday’s 173.96km leg, the longest of the rally, after blitzing his Northern Irish nemesis on Friday’s closing test by more than 9 seconds.
Ogier’s Finnish teammate Jari-Matti Latvala had nicked third on Friday’s penultimate test after Andreas Mikkelsen, at the wheel of a third Polo R, relinquished the spot when he slid off at high speed, ceding almost 30 seconds to his VW colleague and dropping a place to fourth.
Leader Ogier continued to hold the Meeke onslaught at bay on Saturday’s stages. Despite just a solitary stage win on the day, the Frenchman’s task was greatly facilitated by Meeke’s downfall on stage 12. After having gained 3.5 seconds on Ogier on stage 11, the Briton left the road momentary on the day’s penultimate test, damaging his DS3’s undercarriage. Preliminary checks at the end of the staged revealed heavy damage to car’s sump guard and gearbox, forcing Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle to reluctantly throw in the towel.
By this point in proceedings, the only other man within touching distance of Ogier was fellow Polo pilot Latvala. The Finn had enjoyed a steady start to day three until coming to grief on stage 11 when a costly slide into a water-filled ditch snapped his car’s front left suspension arm. The Finn limped to the end of the test, already almost 2mins down on pace-maker Ogier’s time. However, his attempts at a roadside repair proved futile and the 2015 championship runner-up pulled out before the start of the following test.
As a result, Sunday in Monte Carlo was very much a day of consolidation and lead-management for the untroubled Ogier. It is a skill in which the three-time champion is well versed and he showed every inch of his hard-earned nous and experience to guide the number one Polo R home to victory in an overall time of 3:49:53, a full 1min 54.5secs clear of the rest of the field. A power stage victory topped up his points total further to a hansom 28, meaning the defending champion begins 2016 on the perfect possible footing.
Though never in a position to realistically worry Ogier, Andreas Mikkelsen capped off what he described as a “perfect” start to the season with second in Monte. Friday’s spin was more than made up for by some consistent driving in the tricky, icy conditions over the subsequent two days and the Norwegian kept all four wheels firmly planted on the road thereafter to join his senior teammate on the podium. 19 championship points, including a bonus point on the event-closing power stage, is testament not only to the 26-year old’s composure at the wheel, but also to his smooth transition to life with new co-driver Anders Jäger in the passenger’s seat.
Thierry Neuville was another man to profit from the demise of front-runners Meeke and Latvala. Plagued by suspension and handling issues in Hyundai’s new-generation i20 the Belgian stuck with the top five on day two before seizing his chance to clamber up the standings on Saturday and ensured the brand-new i20 enjoyed a top three finish on its maiden WRC outing. The result could even have been one better for the Hyundai star had a broken prop shaft bearing not reduced the Belgian’s car to two-wheel drive on the final stage.
M-Sport new-boy Mads Østberg trailed in sixth on day two after taking time to get in tune with new co-driver Ola Fløene. However, an incident-free outing on Saturday allowed him to shuffle up the pack at the expense of Meeke and Latvala and the Norwegian marked his return to the cockpit of a Ford Fiesta RS after two years away with fourth overall in Monte.
Young Stéphane Lefebvre took the accolade of top Abu Dhabi finisher with fifth, a career-high for the promising Frenchman. His DS3 suffered a broken anti-roll bar on day 2, limiting him to eighth overall. A two-day long duel with privateer Bryan Bouffier ended when the latter broke the rear left suspension arm on his Ford Fiesta RS on Saturday’s last stage, and Lefebvre’s second full WRC outing was a smooth one thereafter.
Unlike his Hyundai teammate Neuville, Dani Sordo seemed at pains to get to grips with his new-spec i20. Back in seventh after Friday’s loop, the Spaniard lost six minutes on day three’s opener with damaged suspension and, hampered by persistent handling problems, could only muster sixth overall.
Ott Tänak suffered a rather inauspicious start to life with his new DMACK team by rolling his Ford Fiesta RS on Friday afternoon but recovered well from tenth to claim seventh place in the final standings.
Eric Camilli’s world rally car debut was cut short after five stages after the inexperienced Frenchman crashed out of eighth. Roll cage damage prevented him from restarting on the same event where the man he replaced at M-Sport, Elfyn Evans, secured eighth spot and overall victory in the WRC2 category. The Welshman will no doubt be out to prove his former employers were wrong to cut him adrift over the course of the new season.
Camilli was joined on the naughty step by Robert Kubica and Hayden Paddon who both had big offs in the slushy conditions on stage 3. The pair each struck the same tree, leaving Paddon’s i20 with wrecked suspension and restricted to 25th overall whilst the Pole’s Fiesta was deemed too damaged to salvage.
With the 2016 WRC campaign officially up and running, it seems like a case of ‘normal service resumed’ at Volkswagen. As was the case this time last year, Sébastien Ogier remains the man to be shot at, with the three-time world champion as imperious as ever in Monte Carlo. However a promising podium for the new-generation Hyundai i20 on debut suggests that reigning manufacturers’ champions VW might not have things all their own way this season.
Sweden is the traditional second stop-off on the WRC calendar and that’s exactly where we’re heading next, for the only true snow-bound rally of the season. The action in Karlstad gets underway on the 11 February.
Final Results – Round 1: Rallye Monte Carlo
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