Sébastien Ogier is fast bearing down on a fourth straight world title after an emphatic win at the Tour de Corse, his first ever triumph on the Mediterranean island. Leading the way from start to finish, this was a masterclass in asphalt rallying from the triple world champion, who looked head and shoulders above the rest throughout. Thierry Neuville, 46.4 secs further back in second, was Ogier’s nominal closest challenger for much of the rally and despite showing a good turn of pace in the new generation Hyundai i20, the Belgian was never able to draw within range of the imperious Frenchman. Completing the podium was Andreas Mikkelsen who held off fellow VW pilot and 2015 Tour de Corse victor Jari-Matti Latvala in the fight for third.
Last year, after a seven-season hiatus, Rallye de France returned to its spiritual home on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. The wild and sometimes desolate landscape here is a natural haven for rallying and unsurprisingly the Tour de Corse became a mainstay on the WRC calendar for some 35 years. Many fans mourned its passing when, in 2010, it was confirmed that Rallye de France would be upping sticks and heading on to the mainland for the first time in its history. However, the event they call ‘the rally of 10,000 turns’ has now reclaimed its place as a permanent fixture on the WRC calendar. Last year’s winner here Jari-Matti Latvala certainly benefited from being one of the few of the current WRC crop to have prior experience of tackling Corsica’s snaking asphalt roads and narrow village lanes, especially when torrential rain and gale force winds rendered many of the stages barely drivable. For 2016, almost three quarters of the competitive distance has changed from that which was desolated by inclement weather last time out and the route now encompasses much of the mountainous east coast region from Bastia in the north to Porto Vecchio in the south.
Any suggestions that Ogier would take a tactically conservative approach to the rally given his ample championship lead were decisively dispelled by a pulsating opening day performance from the Frenchman. The VW number one took no prisoners, making his intensions clear from the off and collecting a clean sweep of fastest times to end the day exactly 44 secs ahead of the chasing pack. Over the day’s four stages, run in tyre-punishingly high temperatures, Ogier laid down the gauntlet to his rivals in the mountains above Ajaccio – none were up to the challenge.
Only Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville could even get close to emulating the lead man. Three top four times for the Belgian put him in a strong, if not iron-clad second place by the end of day one. Handling problems in the morning initially made the going tough but some tinkering at midday service soon redressed the balance and the i20 star was able to stretch his legs in the afternoon session.
A sluggish start saw Jari-Matti Latvala as low as seventh at the midday interval. However, the Finn rediscover some of the vim that saw him lift this trophy last season in the afternoon leg and shot up to third with set-up changes paying dividends.
It proved a largely positive Friday all round for Volkswagen whose number three driver Andreas Mikkelsen sat just 1.3sec behind his fellow Scandinavian with four stages down.
Abu Dhabi WRT’s pair of Citroën DS3 pilots endured contrasting fortunes on day one. Kris Meeke, already a two-time rally winner this season, looked sharp once again early on. Even Ogier sat up and took note when the Ulsterman’s pace through the first two stages catapulted him up to second. However, any semblance of danger for the French star was soon snuffed out when Meeke’s DS3 picked up a costly puncture on the penultimate stage. Whilst he ended the day well down the order in eleventh, there was better news for his young Irish colleague Craig Breen whose first WRC outing on asphalt got off to a flying start as he ended day one fifth overall. Completing the top 10 were Eric Camilli, WRC2 leader Elfyn Evans, Dani Sordo and Mads Østberg. Of these, asphalt specialist Sordo seemed to carry the most threat early on. The Spaniard held third before a puncture on the day’s closing test cost him two minutes and scuppered his podium challenge.
So dominant on the opening day, Sébastien Ogier’s 100% record of stage wins was immediately blemished on Saturday morning when he conceded the opening test to Kris Meeke. This was of little real concern for the Gap native, however, as another top three time and, crucially, more seconds gained over Neuville left Ogier in virtual cruise control. A return to the top of the time sheets on stages 6 and 7 meant that, by the time conditions deteriorated on Saturday evening, there was no need to take undue risks in the wet. Ogier put much of his success down to an innovative but brilliant strategy of crossing his two softer wet weather tyres with the harder compound rubbers. Uneven lateral grip had the Polo R oversteering on one side and understeering on the other but such is the Frenchman’s supreme car control, this imbalance seemed to have little or no effect and the rally leader was able to profit from optimum traction and braking on the soaked roads.
By midday, a charging Andreas Mikkelsen had overhauled Latvala and found himself within 5.4sec of second place. However, unruffled, Neuville took time out to fine tune his car’s handling by adjusting the differential at service. The improvements reaped instant rewards. Mikkelsen’s challenge was soon rebuffed as Neuville piloted his modified i20 to victory in the treacherous evening test, the gap to third rising to 21.5secs.
Further back, Jari-Matti Latvala’s Polo R was blighted all day long by brake problems which ultimately led to him yielding third to teammate Mikkelsen. By the close of play on Saturday, he trailed by more half a minute but did at least hold a 20sec cushion over the impressive Craig Breen.
The second of the Hyundai i20s, with Hayden Paddon at the wheel, remained sixth overall. The Kiwi was none too pleased with his performance, a sure measure of just how far his standards have risen on a surface on which he possessed barely any experience just 18 months ago.
Hyundai team-mate Dani Sordo recovered to seventh after his earlier puncture whilst the three Fiesta pilots, Camilli, Østberg and WRC 2’s Elfyn Evans occupied the final points scoring places.
For Kris Meeke, Saturday brought a certain feeling of déjà-vu. Getting off to a flyer for the second day in succession, the Brit won stage 5 in style before wrapping his DS3 around a tree and retiring only 400 metres into the very next test.
Off the two solitary tests facing the drivers on Sunday, stage 9 was by far the most daunting. The longest of the event comprised of over 50km of narrow and winding village roads not driven competitively since the 1980s. Not that this unduly bothered Kris Meeke. The restarting Abu Dhabi WRT driver tore up the time sheets to clinch the stage win by a gargantuan 35.3 seconds. Behind the marauding Meeke, fourth quickest was more than enough for Thierry Neuville to consolidate second ahead of Mikkelsen. Two seconds conceded to the Norwegian on the brief concluding power stage mattered little and Hyundai’s Belgian charge comfortably secured the silver spot by 23.6 seconds – his fourth podium of the season.
Behind Mikkelsen, Latvala finally found the answer to those troublesome braking gremlins on Sunday afternoon. Although effective, the addition of new pads, anti-roll bars and suspension springs to his Polo R came too late in the day to elevate him above fourth in the final standings.
Craig Breen can be mightily pleased with his asphalt debut in WRC, guiding his Citroën DS3 to fifth overall. A somewhat disgruntled Hayden Paddon retained sixth, just ahead of Sordo who never really recovered from that costly puncture on Friday. A trio of Ford Fiesta’s completed the top ten, with Camilli, Østberg and DMACK’s Ott Tänak all struggling to make an impression in Corsica.
The WRC spotlight now shifts to the Costa Dorada for Rally de España. 2016 champion-elect Sébastien Ogier needs just 16 points to join rallying icons Juha Kankkunen, Tommi Mäkinen and compatriot Sébastien Loeb on four world titles.
Can Ogier get the job done with two rounds to spare? All will be revealed by the seaside in Salou from the 13 – 16 October.
Final results: Round 10 – Rallye de France
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