Monte Part 6: Shiny, happy people…

Ostberg closed Day 3 with his first stage win

Ostberg closed Day 3 with his first stage win

Sisteron is an emblematic stage and it closed the third day’s action in the Alpes Maritimes. Despite extremely icy conditions, almost everyone came through with a smile on their face. All except Mikko Hirvonen…

Sébastien Loeb was happy to have nudged a second or two further away from anyone else. But with his Citroën more than 90 seconds ahead after 13 stages, it’s all fairly academic. In second place, Volkswagen’s star Sébastien Ogier is also a picture of contentment, choosing to ignore Loeb’s very existence and focus instead on his own 90-second advantage over Evgeny Novikov in third.

The young Russian charger has been spectacular throughout, and by putting his M-Sport Fiesta in contention for a podium he is doing all that Malcolm Wilson could ask. He gets the quote of the day award, too, for stating that it had been ‘a fine day’. Presumably he is honing his ENglish skills from watching 1950s war movies and will soon appear in the service park smoking a pipe and with a spaniel skipping along at his heels.

Novikov’s ascent was aided by Dani Sordo having a spin in his Citroën. Nevertheless, Novikov had been hauling him in at a furious pace, so the Spaniard was fairly sanguine about it all.

Joy was unbounded for fifth placed Jari-Matti Latvala, however, in the second Volkswagen. Although the Polo has escaped damage in what has been a remarkably hesitant first event for the former Ford team leader, Sisteron was the first time he looked competitive all weekend and by bagging the second fastest time through the stage he also swept past Citroën team leader Mikko Hirvonen.

Hirvo was the most glum of the front runners. on a particularly icy day which brought out the Finn’s cautious side. He explained that he had spent so much time on the brakes that they overheated, dropping still more time to let his countryman and former team-mate Latvala through into fifth place.

Juho Hänninen holds eighth in his M-Sport car, making his the second best Fiesta so far on the event – a good reason to be cheerful in his first event at the wheel of a contemporary WRC car. The Finn’s margin over his team leader Mads Østberg is nevertheless depleted after the young Norwegian bagged his first stage win with a fine drive through Sisteron. The top 10 is completed by the works-supported Citroën of Bryan Bouffier and the Czech-entered Fiesta of Martin Prokop.

Young German ace Sepp Wiegand continued on his way towards WRC2 victory in the Škoda Fabia S2000 despite an electrical gremlin. The sole surviving WRC3 entrant, Sébastien Chardonnet, was meanwhile having plenty of fun in his Citroën DS3 R3T after putting spikes on the front wheels and finding the handling so good that his time was good enough to beat most of the 4WD WRC2 cars!

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 2: Loeb redefines ‘country mile’

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Sébastien Loeb doesn’t have all that many records left to chase in the annals of the WRC – so why not have a crack at the biggest-ever margin of victory? So far so good.

After four stages on the opening day, his Citroën DS3 WRC holds an advantage of 1m 20s over the Volkswagen Polo R WRC of Sébastien Ogier. Or thereabouts… unfortunately the new timing company managed to get its knickers in a knot on SS3, resulting in teams having to mark their own cards temporarily until normal service was resumed.

When the official timing was restored for the fourth stage it showed that Loeb was fully 34 seconds faster than anyone else through the 30km Burzet test. Feel free to emit an appreciative whistle at this point!

A further boost to Citroën on this, its first day in action against the €100 million colossus from Germany, came in the form of its de facto team leader, Mikko Hirvonen – who climbed from seventh to third at the overnight halt. Behind him sits the third works Citroën of Dani Sordo, who has more than half a minute in hand over the second VW of Jari-Matti Latvala.

Fastest of the quartet of Qatar-backed M-Sport Ford Fiestas was Evgeny Novikov’s example, who has climbed to sixth place ahead of the works-supported Citroën of Bryan Bouffier. This battle for sixth is now a three-way affair with the second ‘works’ Fiesta of Juho Hänninen also in the hunt. The Finn was in particularly impressive form early in the day, but closed out the fourth stage by berating himself for opting to drive more conservatively through the afternoon and thereby losing ground.

The top 10 is completed by M-Sport’s 2013 team leader Mads Østberg in ninth and the Czech team Fiesta of Martin Prokop in tenth, almost two and a half minutes off Østberg’s pace. Meanwhile the first casualty among the 13 WRC starters came in the form of the final ‘works’ Fiesta of Thierry Neuville, who went off on the final stage of the day.

Further back, WRC2 is headed by the Škoda Fabia S2000 of Sepp Wiegand and the 2WD classes of WRC3 by the Citroën DS3 R3T of Renaud Poutot.

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.

Fantastic start to FIA ERC

Kopecky in Janner action

Kopecky in Janner action

This weekend saw top-flight rallying get back under way in 2013 with the opening round of the new Eurosport-officiated FIA European Rally Championship. The snow/ice/slush/asphalt of Austria played host to the Jänner Rallye and drew a reasonable entry headed by the works Škoda Fabia S2000 of Czech asphalt ace Jan Kopeçky – who triumphed by just half a second.

A trouble-free run on the opening day, which saw the surface conditions changing from one stage to the next, saw Kopeçky at the front of the field by more than 20 seconds after opting to run on studded wet weather tyres, ahead of the Peugeot 207 S2000 of Bryan Bouffier and the Red Bull-backed Škoda of Raimund Baumschlager, who struggled initially on full snow tyres.

A puncture on the second afternoon, however, saw Kopeçky fall back and he entered the last stage 10.6 seconds behind Bouffier. In a drive that is sure to become a Youtube classic, the Czech star threw caution to the wind and beat Bouffier through by 11.1 seconds, making the margin for victory one of the closest on record.

Baumschlager claimed third, Czech regular Vaclav Pech was fourth in his MINI S2000 and Beppo Harrach finished fifth and first Production Cup runner in his Mitsubishi. The event also saw a return to action for two of the most enduring names in the sport, with François Delecour finishing seventh in his Peugeot 207 S2000 and Stig Blomqvist with a spring in his step aged 66, finishing 12th overall and fourth in Production Cup at the wheel of a Mitsubishi.