Sébastien Ogier has reaffirmed his iron grip on the World Rally Championship with yet another domineering performance, this time in the sodden forests of Wales Rally GB. His ninth win of a phenomenal season and fourth in succession means that nobody will be in any doubt over who is the man to beat come the start of the 2014 campaign. Displaying a masterful and by now familiar combination of speed, caution and time management, the Frenchman took top spot by 21.8 seconds over Volkswagen teammate Jari-Matti Latvala.
After qualifying fastest, Ogier stamped his authority on the four day event by winning two of the opening three night stages. He then carried that momentum in to day two, clinching four fastest times out of a possible six to build a healthy 20.1 second advantage over Latvala by the evening. And despite not taking victory on any of Saturday’s seven tests, it is testament to his supreme skills of consistency and time management that he ended day three with an almost identical cushion of 20.3 seconds. Taking his eventual margin of victory in to account, the striking similarity between these times is no accident. On paper, the numbers may not point to a true thrashing of the completion but make no mistake; this was a man in total and utter control throughout.
Left to dine on the scraps was 2012 winner Jari-Matti Latvala, who was out with the double objective of defending his crown and stealing second place in the championship standings. However, the VW number two was hampered from the start by being first in the running order and despite some bright spots, including three back to back stage wins on Saturday afternoon, failed to find enough consistency and fell short of both targets.
The man he was looking to leapfrog in the championship was Belgium’s Thierry Neuville, racing in his last event for M-Sport before moving to WRC new boys Hyundai in 2014. His Fiesta was placed second after day one but was consistently outpaced by Latvala and Ogier thereafter and survived a brief attack from VW’s Andreas Mikkelsen on Saturday afternoon to come home in third overall. Three bonus points for victory on the power stage helped secure his championship runner-up spot, a fantastic achievement given his relative lack of experience and Ford’s withdrawal of factory support for the team last year. Neuville must go down as the surprise package of WRC 2013, and looks to have an even brighter future ahead of him as jumps aboard with the Korean manufacturer next year.
A man who showed similar promise at the end of 2012 was Mads Ostberg. However, the Norwegian seems to have taken half a step back this campaign, having been usurped as team leader by Neuville and suffering from a lack of pace all season. He managed fourth in Wales, emerging victorious from a thrilling three day duel with Mikkelsen and posting the fastest time on stage 18. His compatriot in the Polo was just behind in fifth. He scored two consecutive stage wins on Saturday as VW dominated but a double spin on day four cost him precious time and he crossed the finish line 15.2 seconds further back. Evgeny Novikov was also in the thick of the fight for fourth until stage 11 when he carried too much speed in to a tight corner and rolled his Fiesta out of contention. Despite the best efforts of nearby spectators, the car was too far off the road to continue.
The Russian wasn’t the only victim of the weekend, as the entire Citroën team succumbed to perhaps their most sobering disappointment of the year. Dani Sordo’s five minute penalty for changing chassis pre-event scuppered his chances of glory from the start; however his seventh place finish was the best any of the Citroën pilots could muster. Mikko Hirvonen suffered a huge accident on stage 6 when a mistake from co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen caused the Finn to roll his DS3 in to a bank, shattering the windscreen and flooding the cockpit with mud and stones. After assessing the damage, the team were left with no option but to retire the car. And there was yet more woe for Citroën’s great shining hope Robert Kubica. Promoted to WRC proper after his title winning WRC 2 campaign, the Pole’s debut could not have ended much worse, spectacularly rolling out not once but twice. His first retirement came as early as stage 4 when he crashed just a few miles in to Friday’s opener. Following some frantic overnight repair work, the DS3 was ready to restart on Saturday morning but by stage 11 it was left belly-up in a mangled wreck once more. As with Hirvonen before him, Kubica was the victim of a pace-note misunderstanding. With his new co-driver Michel Ferrara drafted in at short notice, Kubica had to make do with information fed to him in Italian rather than his native Polish. Though a fluent Italian speaker, evidently something was lost in translation, leading to the ex-F1 man’s ignominious exit.
Citroën’s calamitous weekend only serves as a microcosm of what has been a thoroughly miserable 2013 for the double chevrons. Bagging only three rally victories all season, two of which courtesy of the retiring Sébastien Loeb, they have been left floundering in both the drivers’ and manufactures standings. Fourth and fifth in the driver’s championship simply isn’t good enough for a team so accustomed to winning trophies. Right now, next year’s driver line-up appears to be even less clear than it was two months ago, with the current pairing struggling for the slightest hint of form and potential replacements in the mould of Kubica and Kris Meeke failing to impress in their auditions. Team principal Yves Matton will have much soul searching to do over the winter break as he continues the struggle to find a solution to Citroën’s post-Loeb apocalypse.
Across the paddock however, all is well. VW end 2013 top of the manufacture’s tree and with the new run-away world champion in their ranks. Not bad for a debut season. Ogier has proven himself a colossus behind the wheel of the Polo R, utterly unflappable and at times virtually untouchable, wrapping up the title with 113 points and three rallies to spare. Meanwhile, Latvala has played an important, if more subdued role in his team’s success. His one and only victory this term came all the way back on round 6 in Greece and the Finn will perhaps be disappointed not to have clinched second spot behind his teammate in the championship.
Finally, M-Sport will be reflecting on a very satisfactory season on the whole, although tinged with some uncertainty as they prepare for life without Neuville, the man who secured them an improbable second place in the championship. Whether the perceived underdogs can find a worthy replacement, or if either one of Novikov or Ostberg can fill the Belgian’s shoes, remains to be seen but replicating this year’s feats will possibly be team principle Malcolm Wilson’s biggest challenge yet.
As the curtains come down on another exciting year of WRC, the next few months will see the existing teams busily working to finalise their driver line-ups and rookies Hyundai concluding their testing program ready for when the cars gather on the start line in Monte Carlo on 15 January next year.