Sweden final: Ogier seals Volkswagen victory

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Sébastien Ogier withstood an early burst of pace on the final morning from nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb’s Citroën to claim the first victory for the new Volkswagen team and its Polo R WRC car on the Rally Sweden.

“This morning Sebastien was putting a lot of pressure on. He was flying into the stages. We tried to follow him without maximum risk but we had to push because he was so fast,” said a delighted Ogier. “To win like that is amazing.”

To keep things symmetrical, Mads Østberg held out to take third place in the M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC, putting the three main teams in the top three places. Which is nice. The young Norwegian kept the second Volkswagen of Jari-Matti Latvala off the podium.

Fifth to ninth places were all taken by M-Sport built Fiesta WRCs. Tenth overall and first in WRC2 was claimed by the M-Sport built Fiesta RRC of Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rajhi.

There was jubillation for Ogier at his eighth WRC win and for the  landmark first victory of the €100 million Volkswagen effort. At Citroën the disappointment of Loeb losing out from poor road position earlier in the rally was compounded by the complete absence of his team-mates from the action. With Loeb only taking part in four events, the pressure is on team leader Mikko Hirvonen and his team-mate Dani Sordo to take the fight to VW – and neither man shone in Sweden.

Sweden Part 1: Ogier in control

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Volkswagen Motorsport can breathe a sigh of relief as its star man Sébastien Ogier has won all but two of the eight stages so far on the Rally Sweden in his Polo R WRC. He stands just over half a minute ahead of the Citroën DS3 WRC of overnight leader and nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb, who in turn stated that the increasing gap to Ogier is down to the younger man’s pace.

Just 1.7 seconds behind Loeb at the end of Friday’s running is the second Volkswagen of Jari-Matti Latvala. Fourth place is held by the M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC of  Mads Østberg as the Norwegian recovers from a 20 second penalty to make his bid for the podium in one of his strongest events of the year.

Østberg is in good cheer. More so than Citroën team leader Mikko Hirvonen, who earned a full 50 seconds as his penalty applied to for arriving late at the third time control – caused by rolling his Fiesta at the start of the second stage. Hirvonen ended the day with a fastest stage time, but has an uphill struggle to reach the points.

Østberg leads a phalanx of Fiestas in which his team-mate in the Qatar-sponsored M-Sport squad, Evgeny Novikov, is holding off local hero Pontus Tidemand in his PDS-entered example. Behind the Swede is Finnish ace Juho Hänninen in another Qatar-funded entry from Thierry Neuville in the fourth of five cars under M-Sport’s banner. Two privately-entered Fiestas round out the top 10 with Henning Solberg keeping ahead of Martin Prokop.

A much larger entry for the main WRC class has ensured that plenty of runners are scratching their heads and trying to work out a way into the points. Former MINI WRC team leader Dani Sordo for one, in his Citroën, albeit considerably closer to the points than the Abu Dhabi team’s sponsor Khalid Al Qassimi in the fourth Citroën.

Matthew Wilson’s run in M-Sport’s entry for their Qatari sponsor Nasser Al-Attiyah is also going to require Lazarus-like qualities to get a sniff of the points. So too is the lone privateer MINI of Michal Koszciuszko.

At the sharp end of WRC2, meanwhile, Sweden is delivering an event that favours the grunty, stable and stolid production cars over the flighty S2000-based machines. Norway’s Anders Grǿndal has a 34 second advantage after eight stages, his Subaru Impreza holding sway over the Fiesta RRC of Saudi Arabian driver Yazeed Al Rajhi.

Monte Final: Loeb’s victory parade cut short

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A cathartic final day on the Monte Carlo Rally ended early but the result was entirely familiar, with Sébastien Loeb winning and a couple of damaged Ford Fiestas. Massive crowds caused the abandonment of the final two stages on the grounds of safety, allowing the celebrations to start early in the Citroën camp…

Two of three runs through the Col de Turini were completed and these ultimately defined the day: the legendary asphalt being a coated in a treacherous mixture of ice and slush. On the first run through it was 2011 Monte winner Bryan Bouffier who set the pace – such as it was, averaging just 37mph. That was a clear indication that this was not going to be a day for swashbuckling charges – and perhaps inevitably meant that Evgeny Novikov would be the first man to crash out.

M-Sport’s young Russian was the hero of the day yesterday, but ended up a forlorn figure on Turini standing beside his three-wheeled Fiesta after knocking the left rear off. Novikov had ridden his luck hard to get that far, but soon enough Jari-Matti Latvala also notched up his first retirement with Volkswagen, and then Juho Hänninen’s first run in an M-Sport Fiesta  came to a sudden halt as well.

So it was that Citroën was to see the greatest possible profit from this chaos, with works team leader Mikko Hirvonen finding himself promoted back to fourth and the works-supported entry of Bouffier getting a boost to fifth – positions they held until the premature finish.

Of the top five positions, four ultimately belonged to the French team. Only Sébastien Ogier’s Volkswagen, in second place, prevented a whitewash for Citroën on the world’s most famous rally, which it has long treated as a home event. M-Sport team leader Mads Østberg brought his Fiesta home in sixth, some way behind, with Martin Prokop’s DMACK-shod Fiesta entered by the Czech national team claiming seventh.

WRC2 winner Sepp Wiegand finished eighth overall in his Škoda Fabia S2000. WRC3 winner Sébastien Chardonnet – the last man standing among the 2WD contenders – claimed 13th overall in his Citroën.

So it is that Sébastien Loeb starts 2013 as he ended 2012 – at the top of the WRC points table. Citroën has also done better than it could have hoped in accumulating manufacturers’ points. Sébastien Ogier might not have had anything in his arsenal to contend with his nemesis in Monte Carlo, but can take solace in the points cushion he holds over Hirvonen and Østberg, his two most likely challengers over the full 13 rounds of the 2013 WRC season.

Monte Part 5: Three makes in the top three

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Sébastien Loeb stretched his lead a little on the third morning of the Monte Carlo Rally. The reigning champion was clearly enjoying himself and revelling in the crisp, clear conditions and deep snow on offer in the Alpes Maritimes, declaring that it was ‘like Sweden’.

Given that Loeb will also be driving in Sweden in three weeks’ time, this was probably not what his rivals wanted to hear – least of all Sébastien Ogier in second place. Having adopted the policy of putting his fingers in his ears and going ‘la-la-laaa’ whenever Loeb’s name is mentioned, however, Ogier seems to have rediscovered a bit of equilibrium and was pleased with his pace.

If anyone was more bullish than Ogier it was Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov, who remained right on the pace in the morning loop and, on the first stage of the afternoon, was able to capitalise on a half-spin by Dani Sordo to put his Fiesta up into third place. As is so often the way, Novikov’s progress has been heart-in-the-mouth stuff and he’s flirted with disaster several times. So far so good, however, and there is now the possibility of seeing three cars from three makes on the podium.

The rest of the field is largely static. Mads Østberg passed Bryan Bouffier for eighth on SS11 and backed this up with his first stage win on SS13. His consistent, measured approach is the antithesis of team-mate Novikov’s balls-out charging but M-Sport should at least feel fairly confident of getting his car back in one piece.

Østberg is still some way behind his M-Sport companion Juho Hänninen. A certain flamboyance to the Finn’s cornering style has been costing him time as he in turn pursues countrymen Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala, but he’s relishing this outing. Both Hirvonen and Latvala are also in better spirits than yesterday as they carry on a private battle in the middle of the WRC order.

Sébastien Chardonnay’s Citroën is now the only WRC3 contender left in the field. In WRC2, Sepp Wiegand’s Škoda has what looks to be an impregnable lead.

Monte Part 1: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back

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You might remember that, a couple of months back, Sébastien Loeb made an emotional farewell to the WRC at the end of his ninth straight title-winning campaign. If you hadn’t been paying much attention, therefore, one could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about when the new season starts and there’s a very familiar name at the top of the leaderboard.

Yes, you guessed it: Loeb leads the Monte Carlo Rally in the first of his four ‘farewell’ outings with Citroën this year.

The old master hasn’t had it all his own way, though. His former team-mate Sébastien Ogier set the pace to start with, showing that the new Volkswagen squad really did get its sums right and has started its debut WRC campaign as it means to go on. But then Loeb went fully 10 seconds faster through the next stage and now holds an advantage of almost seven seconds at the first halt.

With Ogier in second place, third spot is held by the second Citroën of Dani Sordo. The asphalt expert is more than half a minute in arrears of Ogier, however, and he in turn has the Ford Fiesta of M-Sport’s Juho Hänninen breathing down his neck. This is seriously good news for Hänninen, the 2010 Intercontinental Rally Challenge winner, who only has a deal to contest two events with M-Sport at present. Nevertheless it is the Finn who leads the four-car M-Sport entry from his team-mate, Thierry Neuville, holding fourth.

Meanwhile M-Sport’s leading drivers for this year have yet to find their feet in the Alpes Maritimes. Team leader Mads Østberg is seventh, just 0.4 seconds ahead of Evgeny Novikov in the sister car. Between them and the faster Fiestas of Hänninen and Neuville are Citroën’s season-long team leader Mikko Hirvonen, who is running in close company with the works-supported Citroën of 2011 Monte winner, Bryan Bouffier as they hold sixth and seventh respectively.

Jari-Matti Latvala has meanwhile been struggling in the second Volkswagen Polo. The Finn incurred a time penalty for being late arriving at SS2 and has not yet found great pace. He holds ninth ahead of the Czech National Team Fiesta WRC of Martin Prokop.

Elsewhere, the WRC2 is led by Olivier Burri’s Peugeot 207 S2000 from the Škoda Fabia S2000 of Sepp Wiegand. Most of the retirements so far have hit in this class, including that of Italy’s Luca Betti in his Peugeot.

Abu Dhabi Racing shows its colours

Gold! (As Spandau Ballet once said)

Gold! (as Spandau Ballet once said)

The new Red Bull-free livery for the DS3 WRCs of the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team and its sister Abu Dhabi Citroën Total World Rally Team has been revealed in this rather tasteful mock-up revealed today. All the interested parties said some very fine words about it, and we at WRF think it looks very smart.

Quite why they didn’t photoshop the graffiti out of the background, and maybe put some cheering fans in the shot, is a moot point.

The question of whether Red Bull, as the WRC’s new promoter, will apply its branding to any of the other entries remains unanswered. The energy drink has long-standing ties with Volkswagen and has previously applied its blue and silver colours to a variety of the German group’s competition cars. Given that the point of all Red Bull’s sporting programmes is to sell the brand to sports fans, it would be unusual to say the least if it had chosen to invest in the WRC without any overt branding on the cars… although this might become a bone of contention for any other manufacturers and sponsors in the series.

Meanwhile Nasser Al-Attiyah’s Dakar buggies are well and truly Red Bull branded – unlike his Qatar-backed Fiesta WRC squad.

Nasser's monster buggy

Nasser’s monster buggy

40th WRC Season Review Pt.2 – The Teams

The bald facts are that the 2012 season gave Citroën Racing the chance to continue a 100% record in the drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles in this, the 1.6-litre era of the WRC. Through the course of the season it seized that chance with both hands.

The DS3 WRC is a fine little car, one blessed with chuckable handling which Loeb professes to enjoy far more than the bigger C4s and Xsaras of his early years of dominance. In 2012 nothing really failed to perform to title-winning standards, with two notable exceptions.

The team messed up sufficiently to get Hirvonen excluded from victory in Portugal, which was a blip. Secondly,and of longer-term concern, is that Hirvonen himself has not yet shown that he can pick up where Loeb leaves off. Nevertheless, in 2012, Hirvonen’s consistency was a blessing for the team – particularly in ensuring that fabulous string of consecutive 1-2 results at the mid-point of the year, which smothered any hopes that those in the Ford camp may have harboured.

The Citroën squad was further bolstered by a Junior Team entry for Belgian driver Thierry Neuville and by the Qatar World Rally Team entry of Nasser Al-Attiyah. This was intended to be a precursor to deeper ties between Citroën and Qatar in 2013, but instead the French marque has allied itself with Abu Dhabi, causing Nasser to abandon his campaign early.

Of course the might of the French squad’s claim to both drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles was greatly assisted by the number of times that Ford drivers dropped the ball, lost the ball or left the ball on the dressing table at home when rushing to get to the airport. For the Ford World Rally Team, 2012 would prove to be its last – and despite the firm’s financial troubles, the responsibility for losing the iconic Blue Oval from the WRC must be shouldered by the men of the M-Sport team.

Bringing Petter Solberg in to partner Jari-Matti Latvala in the works squad looked like a good move. Solberg was the only other world champion still active in the sport, the fans love him and he signed on in the knowledge that his primary role was in giving support to the younger man. The early season problem was that, all too often, the younger man had already gone out on the first day, making the supporting role redundant. Later on in the season, the pair seemed to be in competition for the most retirements.

Ford boys got themselves in a knot throughout 2012

With Loeb leading from the front all season long, neither of the Ford drivers made a convincing case that they were competing to win a single round of the 2012 WRC. In truth they only ever looked likely to get an each-way result – and even that was on the proviso that they could refrain from going off the road, which they very often did.

Latvala crashed out of three from the first four rallies of the year, before missing the fifth with a broken collarbone. Solberg took a conservative route to third on the Monte, got told to speed up, and then he too started crashing and collecting damage more regularly.

Some have speculated that the Fiesta is a very, very hard car to drive on the limit and much less forgiving than the Citroën DS3. For his part, Latvala claimed with characteristic candour that he put himself under too much pressure to stay on Loeb’s pace when clearly he wasn’t up to it, and thus took himself out of contention by going past his own limits.

Either way, Ford was on a hiding to nothing with its works team – and so too were the majority of its privateers.

The fastest non-works car was almost always Mads Østberg’s Fiesta, tended by the Adapta squad. Mads was there to pick up the pieces when the works cars hit trouble, and when Hirvonen was penalised in Portugal he was handed victory on a plate. This M-Sport supported effort delivered the reliability it needed to and got its driver out of any mechanical issues with commendable skill. The point must soon come, however, when its star man will have to move on or go backwards.

Østberg was a solid performer and his victory was a Ford highlight

M-Sport had another busy year. The Ford ‘B-team’ took on a new look at the start of the season, with the arrival of Russian youngster Evgeny Novikov and the equally youthful Estonian driver Ott Tänak, after several seasons of fielding M-Sport team boss Malcolm Wilson’s son Matthew and Petter Solberg’s brother Henning.

At the start of the year it seemed as though Henning and Matthew would be competing all year in a Ford ‘C-team’ under the Go-Fast Energy Drink banner, but this fizzled out after Sweden. Instead, M-Sport gave Novikov a forum to show that his talent is beginning to draw level with his wallet, while on the other hand the much-touted Tänak appeared to suffer a crisis of confidence in the second M-Sport car.

Novikov took the lead within the M-Sport setup

 

A fourth Ford effort was pieced together by M-Sport under the Monster World Rally Team colours as a means of getting three more rallies out of the viral movie stunt driver, Ken Block. Quite why they bothered is a mystery, as Block once again showed that there is a world of difference between going sideways around an abandoned warehouse for an Internet film and successfully completing a WRC event. A second car was entered for Chris Atkinson in Mexico.

The other regular Ford runner was the Czech National Team, built around the hard-trying talents of Martin Prokop. It did a decent job, then lost its car in a fire on the Rallye Deutschland and was forced by fiscal prudence – there can be no other explanation – to switch to DMACK tyres. One suspects that, like Wyle E. Coyote, Prokop will keep coming back in the WRC, although success will continue to prove as elusive as pursuing a cartoon Roadrunner.

If Ford was everywhere and nowhere in 2012, BMW had confused everyone with its WRC programme for the MINI. It attempted to bail out of its deal with Prodrive at the start of the season, failed on legal grounds, and so took its works status and granted it to  the Motorsport Italia-run WRC MINI Team Portugal.

MINI will seemingly always be left in the Mini-Cooper’s shade

This fairly inexplicable move by BMW came across as some sort of Bavarian hissyfit – completely bonkers, given that Motorsport Italia was dependent upon Prodrive for development, parts and support. Whether due to the pressure of works status or simply the Mediterranean temperament, the team dropped its lead driver, former PWRC champion Armindo Araújo. It replaced him with Chris Atkinson, who managed to drive all three of the competing cars in one season thanks to stints with Monster (Ford), Qatar (Citroën) and MINI Team Portugal.

The Munich marque has now washed its hands of MINI rally cars and the WRC completely – which is a shame. Prodrive remains in an optimistic mood and is seeking to contest all of next year’s events – although without Dani Sordo, the performances of the succession of rent-a-drivers it placed in the car during 2012 don’t give cause for great optimism.

There ends the WRC team review, but if we’re talking teams and manufacturers then mention must be made of Volkswagen Motorsport.

Ogier flew high in the S2000 Fabia for his Volkswagen team

 

Entering a pair of Škoda Fabia S2000s in the SWRC, the team’s star driver, Sébastien Ogier, truly lived up to his billing. He was flat-out everywhere, refusing to concede ground to the turbocharged WRC cars and running happily in the top eight, often the top six, on virtually every round he entered.

Kevin Abbring made four appearances in the second Volkswagen car and Sepp Wiegand made a one-off run, but for the majority of the time Ogier was paired with Škoda’s double IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen, who earned a pass to the WRC squad for next year with an impressive season. The SWRC campaign was a signal of intent from the German giant – and a deeply impressive performance on its own merits.

Coming up in Pt.3 we have the story of the support classes: PWRC and SWRC.