WRC’s leading man Sébastien Ogier once again proved to be a cut above the opposition with another imperious performance to take victory at Rally Poland, the 21st of his WRC career. Ogier went fastest on 10 of the 22 stages run and his final winning margin of 1min 7secs put him well out of reach of his young Volkswagen teammate and nearest rival Andreas Mikkelsen. In truth, VW faced little in the way of resistance from its rivals in the paddock, as all but four of those stage wins went the way of the German outfit.
However, it was not to be a VW lock-out on the podium, as a much improved performance from Hyundai saw them land third place courtesy of Thierry Neuville who picked up his second top three finish of the season.
Rally Poland is one of the world’s oldest rallies, first run in 1921. Naturally, much has changed since then but 2014 is the first time that the event features on the WRC calendar since Mikko Hirvonen took the spoils here in 2009. As such, the gravel-based event was largely an unknown quantity for many of the teams and drivers. What greeted them was a selection of ultra-fast and slick gravel stages, with cars hurtling flat out and bouncing of the limiter at 125mph on the long, straight sprints. Though not regarded quite as technical as those in Finland, traditionally the fastest rally on the calendar, Poland’s lighting-paced stages still presented considerable danger to the competitors. Damp weather conditions before the rally, causing the gravel roads to cut-up badly during the recce, only accentuated the hazards.
Sure enough, the deteriorating road surface had a major part to play on Friday. Those running lower down the field, usually the beneficiaries of freshly swept roads on the dry events, instead found themselves confronted by badly rutted tracks by the time they reached the first time control. Amongst those to struggle, were Citroën’s Kris Meeke who lost two places during the day to end up in fifth. The Northern Irishman, running eighth on the road, encountered ruts of up to a foot deep in places, making the going understandably tough. His teammate Mads Østberg benefitted from a higher road position and was therefore able to keep pace with the VW’s in third by the end of the day. Jari-Matti Latvala also posted a string of brisk times on Friday which eleveated him to fourth but it was his two VW teammates who really excelled. Mikkelsen and Ogier traded the lead for much of the day until the latter pulled ahead by a whisker on the final Mikolajki super special stage to lead the Norwegian youngster by 0.9 seconds overnight.
The second full day of competition began inconspicuously, however any trace of calm was about to be comprehensively blown out of the water as the drivers took to stage 14. The chaos started when Mads Østberg’s DS3 ploughed in to a boulder obscured by thick undergrowth on the inside of a corner, causing him to retire from third. The very same concealed rock then put pay not only to Elfyn Evans’ rally by obliterating his Fiesta’s front-left suspension but also came within a whisker of claiming the scalp of Latvala too. The Finn was incredibly lucky to limp on when a suspension strut was sheared off in the impact with that notorious boulder. However, he suffered the consequences in a big way on the following stage. With no service stop to patch up the damage, the VW number two was forced to nurse his stricken Polo R through stage 15 for the loss of 1min 37secs. He plummeted down to seventh overall. Yet another man to find himself in difficulties on stage 14 was Meeke, who dropped from fifth to eleventh after stopping 3 mins to change a tyre.
Of those who survived that brutal test unscathed, it was the Hyundai duo of Juho Hänninen and Thierry Neuville who made the most progress. Finland’s Hänninen inherited third after Østberg and Latvala fell by the wayside but was later passed by his quicker teammate Neuville as well as Mikko Hirvonen, despite the Fiesta pilot continually having to adjust his pre-event pace notes to suit the faster roads.
Out in front, Mikkelsen’s pursuit of Ogier was short lived. Catching the magnificent Frenchman in full flow was never going to be an easy task but the VW youngster’s cause was not helped when a faulty pace note led to a spin at a junction on stage 12. The 12.8 seconds he lost awarded Ogier some precious breathing space and the world champion found himself in complete command by the end of the day when, on the penultimate test, Mikkelsen’s Polo R suffered a brake failure. By Saturday night, Ogier’s lead stood at a rock solid 61 secs.
Sunday’s short loop of four stages meant that, barring a monumental error, Ogier would cruise to victory number five of 2014. As he has shown on countless occasions, the defending world champion is not in the business of making errors, not even of the smaller variety. And so the VW number one ended Rally Poland with yet more silverware to add to his increasing crowded mantelpiece. Mikkelsen safely negotiated the last few miles to secure second and along the way demonstrated that he is more than comfortable when racing at break-neck speeds. Thierry Neuville’s third place was greatly received by Hyundai who registered their first ever three car finish in WRC with Hänninen claiming sixth and New Zealand youngster Hayden Paddon coming home seventh in the number three car. Hirvonen slotted in behind Neuville in fourth but was barely able to hold off the recovering Latvala who came within 0.7secs of catching his compatriot. Local hero Robert Kubica enjoyed no home comforts in Poland as he was hampered by punctures throughout and could do no better than 20th overall.
As the string of consecutive victories hits eleven and counting, the latest VW stat-attack shows that the Polo R has now scored 30 podium positions in the 20 rallies it has contested, including 17 outright wins. Considering that two of those three defeats came at the hands of Citroën’s Sébastien Loeb, a virtual wildcard, and that on both occasions Ogier took second spot, VW have effectively only lost one rally to a full-time championship rival.
However, the number that really counts after Rally Poland is 50; the margin of points by which Sébastien Ogier now leads Jari-Matti Latvala in the championship standings. His points haul was boosted by victory on the power stage, as was Mikkelsen’s, who regains third spot from Østberg in the drivers’ standings, largely thanks to the Citroën pilot’s DNF.
At the half way point of the 2014 WRC season there is no doubt as to who holds the all the aces; he is French and he drives a Volkswagen. The chase to catch Ogier resumes in Finland on 31 July where there will be no let-up in the blistering-pace of the stages at round 8 of the championship.
Round 7- Rally Poland: Final Results
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