Refuel the tanks and fire up the engines, WRC 2016 is back from its spring break and ready to tear up some gravel at Rally Argentina!
Eighteen special stages covering a total distance of 364.68 kilometres await the WRC’s finest and changes abound for the 2016 instalment of South America’s sole top tier rally. Not a single special stage remains unchanged from last year with almost a quarter of the route to be held on completely new road sections whilst over half of the remaining tests will be tackled in the opposite direction to 2015.
As well as drawing up a set of brand new pace notes, the crews will have to contend with tricky conditions on the roads around Villa Carlos Paz. Thick fog is an occupational hazard in Argentina, especially on the early morning tests, and rain is by no means out of the equation. As far as the surface is concerned, the gravel in Argentina tends to be much softer and sandier than in Mexico, causing less wear on tyres but reducing grip in places.
Championship leaders Volkswagen are no strangers to the record books, but now the Wolfsburg-based team find themselves on the cusp of bettering their very own historic run of twelve consecutive rally wins from Australia 2013 to Finland 2014. Rally Argentina sees the triple world champions return to the very last place where they failed to take top honours. Avenge that defeat next week however, and Jost Capito’s outfit would realise the unique feat of going once around the world unbeaten.
For reigning world champions Sébastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia, victory at Rally Argentina would fill the final remaining gap in their gaping trophy cabinet. The French duo may lay claim to the considerable of honour of winning three consecutive WRC titles but success on South America’s premier rallying event has so far eluded them. On their way to the triple crown, Ogier and Ingrassia have won every other rally on the 2016 calendar at least once, barring China which returns to the schedule for the first time since 1999. It means championship leader Ogier has a particularly personal score to settle this time out in Argentina.
The challenge will be an especially tough one, even for the imperious Frenchman. Starting first on the road scuppered the VW number one’s efforts in the Mexican gravel, allowing his teammate to capitalise. Jari-Matti Latvala may have suffered a miserable start to the season, but his two non-finishes in Monte Carlo and Sweden did at least afford him the chance to run in the best possible conditions at the first gravel rally of 2016. It was an advantage that saw the Finn’s campaign finally explode into life. Victory last time out in Mexico, plus memories of his 2014 success in Argentina, will undoubtedly buoy Latvala with some much needed confidence. Throw in a highly favourable sixth place in the running order and Latvala should be fancied to make it two WRC wins on the bounce – providing the heavens don’t open and wash his advantage away.
Volkswagen number three Andreas Mikkelsen will not harbour happy memories of his previous outing to South America. Hampered by multiple punctures and a last gasp retirement on the power stage, the Norwegian failed to trouble the scorers in 2015. He will be hoping to put his retirement in Mexico behind him and rediscover the form that saw him grab third in Monte Carlo and fourth in Sweden early this year.
Of course, Mikkelsen is not the only Norwegian on the WRC block. If anyone is capable of spoiling the VW party in Argentina, it could well be returning M-Sport star Mads Østberg. Traditionally strong on gravel, Østberg bettered his fourth place at the season opener in Monte Carlo by scoring two consecutive podiums in Sweden and Mexico in vastly diverse conditions. His second stint at M-Sport has begun with such a sparkle that the Fiesta RS pilot currently sits second in the championship standings, splitting the two leading Polos. Can Mads climb the podium one step higher in Argentina or even score his second ever career win at the top table? In this form, he has to be considered a serious contender.
Watch out also for Hyundai trio Dani Sordo, Thierry Neuville and Hayden Paddon. The latter comes into Rally Argentina riding high after storming to victory on home turf at the Otago Rally. Paddon and co-driver John Kennard were in a class of their own at the New Zealand national championship event, taking the spoils by over nine minutes and leaving the rest of the field for dead. The pair also registered Hyundai’s best finish of the season so far with second at Rally Sweden, making them the most likely of the i20 triumvirate to go one better in Argentina.
WRC 2016 emerges from its spring break in a week’s time, when the resort of Villa Carlos Paz will once again resonate with the roar of world rally cars as Rally Argentina plays out from the 21-24 April.