Sébastien Ogier has taken a big step to retaining his WRC crown by battling his way to a hard fought win on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia at Rally Italia 2014. The reigning world champion, who lost out to teammate Jari-Matti Latvala at the previous round in Argentina, was understandably desperate to get back to winning ways. He did just that, overhauling his Finnish colleague’s lead mid-way through the rally and secured an iron grip on top spot thereafter.
Despite racing to an early lead, Latvala was unable to make it yet another VW top two. He settled for third whilst Citroën’s Mads Østberg grabbed second place to spoil the German team’s party. This represented the Norwegian’s best ever result in a DS3 and his third podium finish in five races promotes him up to third place in the drivers’ world championship standings after six of the thirteen rounds.
For 2014, Rally Italia Sardegna moved home from the east coast town of Olbia to Alghero on the opposite side of the island. However, the gravel event still retained many of its familiar old trials and challenges, not least the longest stage in the entire 2014 championship; the marathon 59km Monte Lerno test which the drivers had to tackle not once but twice on an energy sapping Saturday afternoon. The characteristic quick but narrow roads lined with bushes, trees and rocks meant that danger lurked at every turn in this deceptively beautiful setting. The crews’ physical fitness also played a major role with temperatures of 36 degrees in the shade making it particularly hot work in the cockpit.
Friday morning saw the two Hyundai’s of Thierry Neuville and Juho Hänninen setting the early pace. Greatly aided by their road positions lower down the running order, they dominated the first three stages. However, as so often has been the case this season in the Hyundai camp, the success was short-lived. On stage 5, the Korean team was dealt a sucker punch when both men hit trouble. Neuville’s run was brought to an abrupt halt by front right suspension damage. Although the Belgian was able to patch up the i20 by the roadside, he lost 23 minutes in the process and with it any chances of challenging for the podium. Just minutes up the road, his teammate Hänninen also found himself out of the hunt, albeit in more spectacular style. The Finn flipped his i20 at high speed in to the undergrowth leaving the car terminally damaged. The crew were fortunate to walk away for the accident without injury.
One man wasted no time in taking advantage of Hyundai’s woes; Rally Argentina winner Latvala. He posted a lighting fast time on stage 5 to jump six places to first, benefitting from the cleaner roads on Friday’s afternoon loop. Ogier quickly followed suit by gaining five positions to end the day second, 22.4 seconds behind his teammate.
Citroën enjoyed mixed fortunes on day one. Mads Østberg was well placed for an assault on the leaders in third overnight, however teammate Kris Meeke saw any chance of back to back podiums dashed early on courtesy of a terminal loss of battery power which forced him to retire on stage 5.
The top six was completed by Andreas Mikkelsen, Robert Kubica and Elfin Evans but undoubtedly the defining image of the day, and perhaps the rally, was the sight of Mikko Hirvonen’s Ford Fiesta exploding in to a blazing inferno on a road section on Friday afternoon. Both driver and co-driver were quick to get clear of danger, however, the car was swallowed by flames and completely gutted, leaving only a metal shell to identify it. The fire was so intense that it spread to much of the surrounding scrubland, reducing nearby trees and bushes to ashes. Although the cause of the fire remains a mystery, what team boss Malcolm Wilson does know for certain is that his M-Sport team will be slapped with an eye watering £400,000 repair bill.
On day two, the intense inter-VW battle for supremacy hotted-up still further. With vital championship points at stake, neither Ogier nor Latvala were prepared to concede any time through Saturday’s monstrous stages. Initially, it was the Finn who looked the quickest of the pair, beating his French colleague by 6.3 seconds on the opening test. However, the world champion quickly found a rhythm and spent the rest of the day chipping into Latvala’s lead. This was a rallying master-class in how to out-psych your opponent. Ogier’s constant pressure had reduced Latvala’s lead to an increasingly slim-looking 12.3 seconds by Saturday’s final test and this fact must surly have been playing on the Finn’s mind when he slid off line and hit a rock on the second run through Monte Lerno. Latvala’s unscheduled stop to change a damaged wheel cost him almost two minutes and he eventually reached the stage finish 2mins 13secs down on his teammate.
Ogier was not the only man to leap ahead of the stranded Latvala by the end of day two. Mads Østberg also muscled his way through with a string of quick times and trailed the rally leader by 1min 40secs overnight. Latavala was, however, able to contain the challenge of VW youngster Andreas Mikkelsen who had been battling Østberg for much of the day but fell slightly off the pace with a broken damper on the final stage. The Norwegian was restricted to fourth, 36secs adrift of Latvala. Further back, Robert Kubica was back to his old error-prone self as he lost a wheel from his Fiesta on stage 12 to gift fifth place to the last surviving M-Sport driver Evans.
There were no further changes in the leader board on the final day as Ogier successfully brought home the silverware for VW by a margin of 1min 23secs over Østberg. Latvala beat the Citroën man on three of Sunday’s four stages but could not overhaul the 21.3sec gap and ended the event third by just 9.7secs. Mikkelsen’s points haul for finishing fourth and winning the event closing power stage was still not enough to prevent Østberg from regaining third in the championship standings. M-sport’s Evans enjoyed a happy return to the rally where he made his debut in a full WRC car last year. The Welshman was all smiles as he crossed the last time control fifth overall as the top placed Fiesta driver. Kubica was able to complete the rally but heavy penalties following Saturday’s accident saw him well down in eighth.
For Volkswagen, the unstoppable juggernaut just keeps on rolling, wiping out record after record as it goes. Ogier’s fourth win of the season was also his thirteenth in VW colours and extends his lead in the world championship to an imposing 33 points. For teammate Latvala meanwhile, third in Italy racked up his eleventh podium finish in 19 rallies with Volkswagen and was enough to consolidate second place in the drivers’ standings behind Ogier. On a team level, the numbers are even more awe-inspiring; starting at the end of the 2013 season, the last ten victories have gone to the Wolfsburg-based team. The Polo R WRC now has 16 wins and 28 podiums to its name from 19 outings in the World Championship. In that time, Volkswagen drivers have accounted for an incredible 226 of 343 stage wins. It is a winning formula based as much on bullet-proof reliability as outright speed; in the 19 rallies since the Polo R’s first appearance at Monte Carlo 2013, the team has not suffered a single mechanical-related retirement.
Round seven marks the halfway point of the 2014 season as the WRC arrives in Poland for the first time since 2009. Home favourite Robert Kubica will need no extra motivation to put his accident-strewn start to the season behind him and mount a concerted challenge for the podium. Nevertheless, at this point in the season, it’s very difficult to imagine any team other than VW troubling the trophy engravers. That winning streak looks set to run and run. Can Ogier and co make it eleven on the trot in Poland? All will be revealed when the Mikolajki-based event gets underway on 26th June.
Round 6- Rally Italia: Final Results
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