OK, so it was a little while in coming, but when it did, well…they didn’t exactly make life easy for themselves, did they? I mean, when you think about it, there’s been numerous famous examples in motorsport over the years of strong connections between certain manufacturers and championships – some more iconic than others – and, while it’s not unusual for some teams to want to try their hand elsewhere every now and again, there’s almost an expectation that the more successful names would be able to pick up where they left off when it comes to bringing in the silverware, but, more often than not, it’s not as simple as that, and this is a classic case in point. Sure, they were never exactly likely to lose that winning habit overnight, but things have a habit of changing surprisingly quickly in this game, and, even with the dominant force of recent times now out of the picture, it was always going to take a little while for them to readjust, but, now that they’re off the mark, it’s hard not to think that this could lead to a major upturn in fortunes. Even at this early stage, the battle for the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship title is looking closer than it’s been for a very, VERY long time…and it’s going to be some time before it’s resolved.
Having masterminded one of the most successful partnerships in motorsport history to take the great Sebastien Loeb to no fewer than nine successive drivers’ titles between 2003 and 2012, the legacy of the factory Citroen team was already secured well before they departed for pastures new in the World Touring Car Championship, but, after enjoying a further three seasons of near-total domination on the track, and, with the WRC introducing an all-new set of technical regulations as a means of improving the spectacle even more, it was only ever a matter of time before they made their full-time return to the stages. For once, though, the French manufacturer was forced to play second fiddle once the action got underway, with reigning four-time world champion Sebastien Ogier – once a Citroen works driver in his younger days – kicking off his title defence by taking victory on the Monte Carlo mountains on what was his first appearance in an M-Sport run Ford Fiesta, before the new Toyota team stunned the paddock in the snowy forests of Sweden as flying Finn Jari-Matti Latvala kept out of trouble to score a maiden win for the all-new Yaris WRC and the first victory for the Japanese marque in 18 years.
However, after enduring a nightmare first couple of events with the brand-new C3 WRC, the Citroens finally got their act together as the championship ventured across to Central America for the first gravel round of 2017 in Mexico, with Northern Irishman Kris Meeke – who, despite being tipped as a potential championship challenger prior to the start of the season, was already playing catch-up having crashed out of contention in both Monte Carlo and Sweden – quickly assuming control on his way to establishing a margin of almost 40 seconds by the end of the second day, but they do say it ain’t over ’till it’s over…and nobody could have predicted just how dramatic the conclusion was going to be. With a comfortable advantage and only the concluding Power Stage separating him from victory, a mistake from Meeke with only a few hundred metres to go saw him slide off the road into a spectators’ car park, but, after a few heart-stopping moments of impromptu drifting between the cars and frantic guidance from co-driver Paul Nagle, the Citroen driver somehow picked his way back onto the road to secure his first win of the season by just over 13s ahead of Ogier’s Ford in second, with Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville – who had been the quickest man on the opening two events before crashing out within sight of victory in both – completing the podium in third.
A third successive rostrum finish for the reigning champion, however, was enough to restore Ogier to the head of the early championship standings by 8 points after previous leader Latvala endured a difficult event that saw him finish only sixth after struggling with brake and engine problems on his Toyota, with Estonian Ott Tanak maintaining his consistent start to the campaign by taking a third top four finish of the season to sit a further 10 points back in third. Behind, Spaniard Dani Sordo – who survived a mid-event penalty for interrupting the order of a stage – continued to lead the charge for Hyundai in fourth ahead of team-mate Neuville as the Belgian’s podium saw him move into the top five, while eventual victor Meeke also kick-started his championship efforts by shooting up to sixth at the expense of team-mate Craig Breen as the Irishman was forced to sit the event out as part of his early-season rotation of the second C3 with young Frenchman Stephane Lefebvre.
Following on from the dirt and gravel of Mexico, the fourth round of the season saw the championship return to Europe for the first true tarmac event of 2017, with the spectacular scenery of Corsica – situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, around 110 miles from the Cote d’Azur in southern France – disguising one of the toughest tests of the season. First held way back in 1956, the event was a fixture on the calendar from the inaugural WRC season in 1973 up until 2008 before relocating to the Alsace region of eastern France in 2010, but, after local authorities chose to withdrew their financial support in 2015, the iconic name of the Tour de Corse was revived in time to return the event to the schedule the same year. Despite the backdrop, though, the ‘Rally of 10,000 Corners’ – so-called because of its almost endless changes of direction – is equally challenging for the teams and crews, with the tyres taking a particular battering due to the rough and abrasive surface, while the tight, narrow nature of the roads means even the slightest misjudgement can prove extremely costly.
However, in a departure from the conventional structure of most rallies, the route – which still measures in at a sizeable 320 competitive kilometres, with the service park based in the island’s second city of Bastia in the north-east – has been condensed for the second year in succession to just 10 stages (although the average length more than makes up for it), meaning the crews have to maintain their already high levels of concentration for even longer in order to avoid making silly mistakes. Despite the relative lack of choice, though, there’s still a fair few signature stages to watch out for over the weekend, with the 31.20km of Pietrosella marginally the longer of the two stages scheduled to be run twice on Friday and the two runs through the 48.7km monster between La Porta and Valle di Rostino taking pride of place on Saturday’s itinerary (the middle day also being the longest at more than 130km of full-on action), but, in terms of the longest stage of the event, the giant 53.78km between Antisanti and Poggio di Nazza provides the remaining crews with a nasty sting in the tail on the final morning prior to the sprint through the concluding 10.42km ‘Power Stage’ of Porto Vecchio.
By the time the championship arrived on the island late last season (the event having been moved forward from September to April for 2017 to break up a run of what would otherwise have been seven consecutive loose surface rallies), the battle for the title was already pretty much over bar the shouting, with Ogier miles clear of his nearest competitors with four rounds to go, and, having powered his way into the lead on the opening day – albeit only after a spirited early challenge from Meeke fell by the wayside when the Northern Irishman picked up a puncture – the Frenchman produced one of his most commanding displays of the season to secure a first-ever victory on home turf and move to the brink of title number four. Behind, Neuville survived a major scare on Saturday afternoon as conditions began to take a turn for the worse to grab the advantage in his fight with the second works VW of Andreas Mikkelsen (the Norwegian still trying to negotiate a deal to return to the top class at some point this season) to finish runner-up in the championship as the pair finished second and third respectively, but Meeke’s renewed charge under the Rally2 regulations ended early on Saturday when an overly ambitious pace note saw the Citroen driver slide off the road and into a tree.
So, with all that in mind, and after a difficult start on their return to the WRC, could Citroen continue their winning form from Central America and (belatedly) start to put together a credible championship challenge in their own back yard; having already tasted success in their respective new surroundings despite the deals coming together relatively late, would former VW stable-mates Ogier and Latvala once more be the ones battling it out at the sharp end of the leaderboard, or would somebody else suddenly spring up out of the pack to give the familiar faces something to think about and continue the unpredictable pattern of the season so far as the new faster, angrier-looking cars hit the tarmac for the first time in anger? Well, I think it’s about time we found out – this is the story of the fourth event of the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship, the 2017 Tour De Corse (Rally of France to you and me…)
DAY 1 (SS1-SS4):
Following on from the ceremonial start in the island’s capital of Ajaccio, the rally got going in earnest on Friday morning with the first run through the 31km of Pietrosella, and, despite almost coming within a whisker of throwing away victory at the death last time out in Mexico, it was another flying start from the Citroens, with Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle laying down an immediate marker by posting the only sub-20 minute time on the opening test to grab the lead by almost 6 seconds over nearest rival Ogier, with Neuville starting well for Hyundai in third ahead of Tanak in the second M-Sport Fiesta and team-mate Sordo, with the pair posting exactly the same time to sit equal-fourth after SS1. Having been forced to sit out in Mexico due to Citroen’s early-season rotation of their second brand-new C3 WRC, Irish youngster Craig Breen continued to impress with the sixth fastest time ahead of the faster of the two Toyotas of Latvala in seventh, but it was bad news for the other Yaris as fellow Finn Juho Hanninen was first to drop out of contention when he clattered into a bridge on the first stage and was forced to retire for the day, while an early loss of hydraulic pressure in his DMACK-sponsored M-Sport Ford saw Welshman Elfyn Evans also drop further down the leaderboard.
Up front, however, no one seemed capable of living with the pace of Meeke as the Northern Irishman extended his advantage a little further with another stage win on SS2 – the 29.1km of Plage du Liamone – and, after Ogier made immediate use of his fresher rubber after changing tyres in the remote midday service park to secure his first fastest time of the weekend on the second pass through Pietrosella, the Citroen man was quick to fight back, and duly made it three stage wins out of four to end the day and return to service with a margin of just over 10 seconds ahead of the defending champion, with Neuville just about still in touch in third despite being almost half a minute adrift by the end of the day. Behind, after Tanak’s challenge dropped away on SS3 when the M-Sport driver overcooked it on a right-hander and skated off into the trees, Breen ensured an exceptional opening day for Citroen by moving up to fourth – albeit with Sordo just 1.6s further back in fifth – while an increasingly frustrated Latvala kept himself in the hunt in sixth ahead of the third factory Hyundai of Kiwi Hayden Paddon and Lefebvre in the other Citroen, with WRC2 class leader Mikkelsen – the Norwegian back behind the wheel of a Skoda Fabia R5 for the second time in 2017 – able to capitalise on the problems for some of the other WRC runners to move up to ninth ahead of veteran privateer Stephane Sarrazin’s Skoda in tenth.
Sebastien Ogier (FRA) – #1 M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC
LEADERBOARD AFTER DAY 1:
1. Meeke (Citroen)
2. Ogier (Ford) +10.3s
3. Neuville (Hyundai) +25.8s
4. Breen (Citroen) +52.4s
5. Sordo (Hyundai) +53.8s
6. Latvala (Toyota) +1:00.2s
7. Paddon (Hyundai) +1:18.8s
8. Lefebvre (Citroen) +2:07.6s
9. Mikkelsen (Skoda – 1st in WRC2) +2.57.3s
10. Sarrazin (Skoda) +3:17.8s
DAYS 2 AND 3 (SS5-SS10):
However, after a relatively sedate opening leg, the longest day of action on Saturday – some 132km in the northern part of the island – began in dramatic fashion as Neuville clawed his way back into contention with a sensational turn of speed to take his first fastest time of the weekend on the first pass through 48km monster of La Porta and close to within 0.6s of Ogier as the Frenchman began to struggle with a car that was bottoming out on the rough, bumpy tarmac, but the major talking point was yet to come when Meeke – who had extended his lead gap to more than 16 seconds by the end of SS5 – suffered a major engine failure on the first pass through the 17km of Novella that saw oil pouring out of the Citroen, and, despite nursing the increasingly sick-sounding C3 through to the end of the stage, the Northern Irishman was forced to admit defeat and retire the car, bringing to an end his hopes of a second successive victory of 2017. This meant the charging Neuville – who had already taken second from Ogier on SS6 even before hearing of the leader’s dramas – emerged with a narrow advantage of just 7.2s by the end of the opening loop over the reigning champion, with Hyundai team-mate Sordo also staying out of trouble to move up to third.
The M-Sport man, though, wasn’t prepared to sit back and let the new leader have it all his own way, and duly began the afternoon loop by taking a second stage win of the weekend and, more importantly, 6 seconds out of the Belgian’s advantage on the second pass through La Porta to close to within just 2.2s of the leading i20, but the battle for the top spot proved to be a brief one as, on the final stage of the day, Ogier suffered the same problem as team-mate Evans had on Friday when his car lost hydraulic pressure and caused him to lose a huge chunk of time, meaning Neuville – who was able to compound the Frenchman’s misery by taking his third stage win of the day – entered the final two stages with an increased margin of nearly 40s, although the champion was able to maintain second despite losing time to the second Hyundai of Sordo on SS8. Behind, a resurgent Latvala found something on the afternoon loop to move the Toyota up to fourth ahead of Breen in the sole remaining Citroen – the Irishman suffering from a broken intercom system for the majority of the day that forced co-driver Scott Martin to resort to hand gestures to keep him on the road – with Paddon keeping out of trouble to make it three Hyundais in the top six.
With only two stages remaining on the final day, time was running out for anyone to try and gain positions on the final leaderboard, but, after his problems late on Saturday, Ogier was again in trouble when a glitch with the engine management system in his Fiesta saw the local favourite lose even more time, allowing Sordo to capitalise and move into second on the giant 53km test of Antisanti, but up front, no one could do anything about the pace of Neuville as, after picking up another fastest time on SS9, the Belgian cruised through the Power Stage to record his and Hyundai’s first victory of the season by just short of 55s over Ogier after the reigning champion somehow found enough speed to snatch back second by just 1.3s ahead of Sordo, although the Spaniard still took home his first podium of 2017 with third to continue his consistent start to the new season.
Behind, there was yet more late changes as, having been overhauled by a flying Breen on the first stage of the final morning, Latvala threw caution to the wind as he clinched the maximum bonus points on the Power Stage to grab fourth from under the nose of the Citroen man by a mere 0.1s, leaving the Irishman to settle for a third consecutive top-five finish of the season ahead of Paddon, who completed a superb weekend for Hyundai by taking sixth despite what turned out to be a relatively lonely rally that saw the Kiwi finish more than a minute adrift of the Citroen driver. Having established a commanding lead even before the end of the opening day, Mikkelsen was able to cruise through the remainder of the event to score his second successive WRC2 victory by more than a minute ahead of the Ford Fiesta R5 of Finnish youngster and M-Sport junior driver Teemu Suninen, with Sarrazin holding on to take ninth and emerging French youngster Yohan Rossel – who completed the WRC2 podium on his debut in the class – netting the final overall point in tenth in his Citroen DS3 R5.
Power Stage – Top 5:
1. Latvala (Toyota) 6:02.2s
2. Ogier (Ford) +0.8s
3. Breen (Citroen) +2.1s
4. Sordo (Hyundai) +4.6s
5. Neuville (Hyundai) +6.4s
Dani Sordo (SPA) – #6 Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC
1. Neuville (Hyundai)
2. Ogier (Ford) +54.7s
3. Sordo (Hyundai) +56.0s
4. Latvala (Toyota) +1:09.6s
5. Breen (Citroen) +1:09.7s
6. Paddon (Hyundai) +2:16.3s
7. Mikkelsen (Skoda – 1st in WRC2) +8:10.7s
8. Suninen (Ford – 2nd in WRC2) +9:17.0s
9. Sarrazin (Skoda) +9:23.6s
10. Rossel (Citroen – 3rd in WRC2) +12:57.1s
WRC2 – TOP 5:
1.  Andreas Mikkelsen (Skoda)
2.  Teemu Suninen (Ford) +1:06.3s
3.  Yoann Rossel (Citroen) +4:46.4s
4,  Simone Tempestini (Citroen) +8:02.9s
5.  Ole Christian Veiby (Skoda) +8:27.1s
WRC3 – TOP 5:
1.  Raphael Astier (Citroen)
2.  Nil Solans (Ford) +1:25.7s
3.  Nicolas Ciamin (Ford) +2:09.2s
4.  Terry Folb (Ford) +5:27.6s
5.  Julius Tannert (Ford) +11:19.8s
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Ogier (Ford) – 88pts (18+4 PS)
2. Latvala (Toyota) – 75pts (12+5 PS)
3. Neuville (Hyundai) – 54pts (25+1 PS)
4. Tanak (Ford) – 48pts (0)
5. Sordo (Hyundai) – 47pts (15+2 PS)
6. Breen (Citroen) – 33pts (10+3 PS)
7. Meeke (Citroen) – 27pts (0)
8. Paddon (Hyundai) – 25pts (8)
9. Evans (Ford) – 20pts (0)
10. Mikkelsen (Skoda) – 12pts (6)
Manufacturers – Top 4:
1. M-Sport World Rally Team – 129pts
2. Hyundai Motorsport – 105pts
3. Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT – 79pts
4. Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT – 71pts