WRC 2018 – Monte Carlo (Round 1)

The 2018 cars lined up in front of the iconic Monte Carlo Casino ahead of the first stages of the season (Photo Credit: fia.com)

It seems like we’ve been asking the same question for ages (which, in truth, we have)…how do you solve a problem like Sebastien? Now, for those of you who are perhaps new to the World Rally Championship, that might not mean an awful lot to you yet, but bear with me – while it’s hard enough to win one title at this level, it’s even more difficult to try and retain it, and it’s virtually unheard of to enjoy such consistent success year in, year out. I mean, I thought that, when the great Sebastien Loeb finally hung up his helmet after securing NINE straight drivers’ titles, there wasn’t going to be another period of domination quite like that from one driver for years – maybe even decades – but clearly, the Frenchman passed on a thing or two before he retired, because his protégé has picked up the mantle, and, well…the statistics more than tell the story, don’t they?

LAST TIME OUT…
Ever since he announced his arrival in the WRC by leading on his debut in Wales way back in 2008, there was always a sense that Frenchman Sebastien Ogier had the potential to reach the very top of the sport, but, when he became team-mates with mentor Loeb at Citroen just a couple of seasons later, a clash of personalities between the pair led to the young pretender’s departure at the end of the 2011 season. His subsequent switch to the then-unproven Volkswagen Motorsport operation looked to be something of a risk, but, after a development year in 2012, the new Polo R turned out to be the class of the field almost from the moment it made its debut at the start of the following season, and it wasn’t long before Ogier had cemented his reputation as one of the sport’s all-time greats as he took the drivers’ title in each of the next four years.
However, there was then an unexpected sting in the tail to come, as, having swept the board in terms of championship silverware since their arrival, the German team were effectively forced to quit the sport at the end of the 2016 campaign in the aftermath of the ‘Dieselgate’ emissions scandal, with VW management stating it was impossible to keep funding an international motorsport programme while paying out billions of pounds in damages. This left both the reigning champion and his team-mates scratching around for a drive, and for a while, it genuinely looked like he was going to leave the WRC as well, but these things have a habit of sorting themselves out sometimes…and that’s exactly what happened.

As I mentioned in my season preview post, I’ve never really been a huge fan of Ogier, but it would have been a real shame if he hadn’t had the opportunity to defend his title, particularly with the introduction of the stunning new 2017-spec cars, and, despite rumours of a potential return to Citroen, an 11th hour deal to pilot one of Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport prepared Ford Fiestas looked – on paper at least – to have the makings of another formidable combination. Although they were behind in their preparations, victory at the opening round in Monte Carlo showed the Frenchman (ably supported by co-driver Julien Ingrassia) had lost none of his touch behind the wheel, and, despite only taking one further victory, the champion was the definition of consistency all year as he successfully secured a fifth straight drivers’ crown at the penultimate event in Wales, becoming only the third in WRC history to win the title with different manufacturers (VW and Ford) in the process.
It wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds, though, because, after years of Citroen and then Volkswagen domination, the 2017 season was one of the most open for a long time, with seven different crews standing on the top step of the podium, meaning Ogier never really had it all his own way. In fact, Belgian Thierry Neuville won more times than anyone else for Hyundai to become his most credible challenger (and, to be honest, I think he could have probably beaten him were it not for a couple of silly mistakes early in the year), but ultimately finished some 24 points adrift as runner-up; there were wins, too, for WRC returnees Toyota (courtesy of experienced Finn Jari-Matti Latvala) and Citroen (with Northern Irishman Kris Meeke), while M-Sport duo Ott Tanak – the Estonian winning twice on his way to third in the overall standings – and Welshman Elfyn Evans, as well as flying Finnish youngster Esapekka Lappi for Toyota, all broke their duck in terms of victories over the course of the year.

THE RALLY
With all the wild rumours and speculation that dominated the off-season put to bed, it was time to get the season started in one of the most familiar settings in any form of motorsport, with the opening round of 2018 taking the championship to icy mountains above Monte Carlo in the south of France. Having first been held way back in 1911, the principality event hosted the first-ever round in the modern era of the WRC in 1973, and, aside from a couple of years in the late 2000s when it was replaceed as part of the short-lived rally ‘rotation’ policy – which was designed to give potential new events a chance to appear on the calendar, but the fact that so many traditional rallies were dropped in their place meant it never really caught on – has been a fixture as the championship’s curtain-raiser ever since.
Given just how long it’s been a part of the WRC, as far as I’m concerned, it wouldn’t be right if the Monte wasn’t the setting for the season opener – whether it’s the scenery, the stages, the status that comes with victory or the history and prestige, there’s really nothing else on the calendar like it, and, as the biggest jewel in the championship’s crown, it’s the one all the drivers want to get their hands on at some point in their careers. Having said that, though, the Monte is one of the toughest rallies to claim victory on, mainly because of the amount of different conditions the crews can be faced with over the course of the weekend – although it’s classed as a tarmac event, the mountain stages can often contain a lot of ice and snow as well, meaning teams often have to compromise on their tyre choices to cater for the variety of conditions (which can differ massively between and even within stages) and minimise the amount of time they lose.

Of this year’s 17 stage route, around half of the 394 competitive kilometres – making it slightly longer than the 2017 edition – were new compared to last year, but it was one of the oldest stages that saw perhaps the biggest change, with the infamous 36.5km test between Sisteron and Thoard, as well as taking pride of place as the first stage of the season, being run in the opposite direction for the first time ever on Thursday evening. After returning to the service park – based in Ogier’s home town of Gap – it was an early start on the first full day of action on Friday, with the two identical loops of three stages to the south containing some of the longer stages of the event, including the 33.6km between Roussieux and Eygalayes (one of the brand-new tests) and the equally lengthy 26.7km of Vitrolles to Oze.
Saturday was made up of five stages that were heavily revised compared to last year, with the relatively familiar St Leger-La Batie Neuve stage and the longest test of the day – the 29.1km between Agnieres en Devoluy and Corps – being run twice before a second run between Bayons and Breziers (the 25.4km route having also been run in darkness as the second stage on Thursday) concluded the second full day of action. However, it was all change on Sunday as the teams left Gap and headed down to the Monaco harbour front ahead of the final four stages, which included two runs through a slightly shortened version of the La Bollene Vesubie stage, containing the iconic Col de Turini – one of the favoured viewing points for spectators as the cars snake their way through – before the new 13.5km La Cabanette test brought the action to a close as the rally-ending ‘Power Stage’, with bonus points being awarded to the five fastest drivers through it.

HERE LAST YEAR…
The corresponding event 12 months ago was meant to signal a new era as the WRC’s crop of spectacular looking 2017-spec machinery made their competitive debut, but it ended up as something of a false start, with the first stage having to be cancelled after an accident involving the Hyundai of Hayden Paddon – the Kiwi absent from the entry list this time around – saw a spectator sustain injuries from which he sadly later died. However, initially at least, it wasn’t all bad news for the Korean manufacturer as the rapid Neuville capitalising on his rivals’ problems to open up a commanding early lead, but, just when it looked like he had victory in the bag, the Belgian promptly crashed out on the final stage of Saturday’s action.
This handed the advantage over to a slightly surprised Ogier – the reigning champion having battled back after an early encounter with a snowbank dropped him down the order – and, sure enough, the Frenchman didn’t make the same mistake twice as he picked off the remaining stages to take a fourth consecutive Monte victory by more than 2 minutes ahead of former VW team-mate Latvala, who marked Toyota’s full-time return with a solid run to second. Behind, Tanak produced a brilliant run despite mechanical problems on the final morning to secure the final spot on the podium in third, with Spanish veteran Dani Sordo the best of the Hyundais in fourth and young Irishman Craig Breen an impressive fifth for Citroen behind the wheel of a 2016-spec DS3.

So, having won the last four season-openers, would it be business as usual for Ogier and M-Sport as they looked to kick-start their title defences; after throwing away certain victory 12 months ago, could Neuville and Hyundai – who I’ve tipped to win the championship this time around – learn from their mistakes to right the wrongs of last year, or would one of the other numerous contenders break from the chasing pack and start their campaign in the best possible fashion?
Well, it’s about time to find out – this is the story of the first round of the 2018 FIA World Rally Championship, the 2018 Rally Monte Carlo…

DAYS 1 AND 2 (SS1-SS8):
DAY 1 (THURSDAY):
After the glamour of the ceremonial start in the iconic Casino Square, the crews headed off for the two night stages on Thursday evening that got the action underway, and, with the icy stages nothing short of treacherous on dry weather tyres, it could hardly have been a tougher start to the campaign for most of the leading contenders. Running first on the road as defending champion, Ogier only narrowly got away with a half-spin midway through SS1, but it was even worse for his nearest rival from last year as Neuville clumsily slid off on a patch of ice in his Hyundai and ended up in a ditch, and, although spectators managed to get him back onto the road, a loss of more than 4 minutes meant the Belgian’s challenge was almost over before it began.

Despite his near-miss, however, Ogier was still able to put his local knowledge to good use and set the first fastest stage time of the season, and the Frenchman wasn’t done for the evening as he then went on to win SS2 as well to head back to Gap with an ominous looking lead of more than 17 seconds over former VW team-mate and new Hyundai man Andreas Mikkelsen – the Norwegian having benefitted from a later road position to take advantage of slightly clearer lines – in second, with the remaining i20 Coupe of Sordo a further 8 seconds back in third. It was a solid start, too, for the trio of factory Toyotas as they sat line astern to round out the top six overnight, with young charger Lappi putting in an impressive early showing in his Yaris to sit fourth ahead of team-mates Tanak and Latvala, while Breen was the quickest of the Citroen C3s in seventh, albeit already more than a minute off the pace.

DAY 2 (FRIDAY):
The start of the first full day of action on Friday saw no let-up in the amount of mechanical dramas, with Mikkelsen – who had already lost second place to Sordo on the first pass through Vitrolles on SS3 when he overshot a left-hander and ended up having to flick his car around in somebody’s front garden! – first to drop out of contention after his Hyundai ground to a halt with an alternator failure on the road section heading towards SS4, while, further down the leaderboard, Irishman Breen was also in the wars as a problem with one of his Citroen’s brake discs meant he was effectively left with only three brakes. However, while Ogier was able to extend his lead out to beyond half a minute by the end of the morning loop after taking a third stage win from four on the first run through Roussieux, the man on the charge was his former M-Sport team-mate Tanak, with the Estonian securing his first fastest time as a Toyota driver on SS3 before moving ahead of Sordo into second by the end of SS5.

Conditions then became even trickier heading into the afternoon loop as rain gradually began to fall, but it did little to quell Tanak’s pace as he started to trim the deficit to Ogier with another fastest time on SS6, and the Estonian’s task was made easier when the rally leader unexpectedly lost control out of a hairpin on the second pass through Roussieux and slid his Fiesta into a ditch, but the swift response of nearby spectators stopped the Frenchman from losing too much time and meant he was able to hang onto the lead by the time they returned to service, albeit with a much-reduced margin of just 14.9s over his former team-mate. Behind, the battle for the final podium spot was also starting to heat up, with Sordo ending the day just over 10s clear of the other two Toyotas – the impressive Lappi and an unusually quiet Latvala separated by a mere 0.2s in fourth and fifth respectively – while, after also struggling on the night stages, Meeke enjoyed a largely trouble-free day as he worked his way back up into the top six.

Ott Tanak/Martin Jarveoja (EST/EST) – #8 Toyota Yaris WRC (Photo Credit: wrc.com)

Leaderboard after Day 2:
1. Ogier/Ingrassia (M-Sport Ford)
2. Tanak/Jarveoja (Toyota) +14.9s
3. Sordo/Del Barrio (Hyundai) +59.7s
4. Lappi/Ferm (Toyota) +1:09.9s
5. Latvala/Anttila (Toyota) +1:10.1s
6. Meeke/Nagle (Citroen) +2:45.5s
7. Bouffier/Panseri (M-Sport Ford) +3:44.6s
8. Evans/Barritt (M-Sport Ford) +4:01.7s
9. Neuville/Gilsoul (Hyundai) +4:04.1s
10. Breen/Martin (Citroen) +5:06.6s

DAYS 3 AND 4 (SS9-SS17):
DAY 3 (SATURDAY):
Overnight snow presented a very different challenge for the crews as they headed into Saturday, and, with so little margin for error in the slushy conditions, it wasn’t long before some of the leading runners hit trouble, with third-placed Sordo first to suffer as his Hyundai slithered off the road midway through the opening test of the morning, dropping the Spaniard out of contention after what had been an impressive display. This allowed Latvala to move up into the podium places after the Finn producing a stunning time that was more than 40 seconds quicker than anyone else, but, with road positions reversed from the previous day, it was rally leader Ogier who made the most of a much cleaner line to find another 28 seconds on his former VW stable-mate and open up a crushing lead of over a minute as nearest rival Tanak was unable to produce the same turn of speed, but the Estonian wasn’t giving in without a fight, and responded straight away to cut the deficit by more than 15 seconds with another fastest time on SS10.

It wasn’t all such good news for the Toyotas, though, with Lappi dropping away from the fight for a podium on the second pass through Agnieres en Devoluy after picking up a puncture on his Yaris, with Meeke able to capitalise on the Finn’s delay to move into fourth despite a near-miss with a snowbank – the pair just 6.2s apart by the end of SS12 – but ahead, the battle for the lead was still on, with Tanak again on a mission in the afternoon stages as he netted a fourth fastest time of the event on SS11. The other man on a charge, though, was Neuville, with the Belgian (still recovering following his off on Thursday evening) grabbing his first stage win on the second run through St Leger before moving ahead of seventh-placed Bryan Bouffier – the Frenchman having been forced into a late co-driver change after Jerome Degout aggravated an existing injury in a crash on the pre-event shakedown, with Xavier Panseri getting the late call to step in – in the third M-Sport Fiesta after again setting the pace on SS13.

DAY 4 (SUNDAY):
Heading into the final day, the fight for fourth was the one to watch early on, with Lappi – who had recovered from his puncture to repass Meeke on the final stage of Saturday – striking first blood as he stretched his narrow overnight margin on the first pass over the Col de Turini, but it looked to be all over at the front as, with Tanak stating he wasn’t prepared to take any risks, Ogier took the stage win on SS14 to increase his advantage over the leading Toyota to more than 45 seconds. Behind, Neuville continued to show impressive speed in the leading Hyundai as he closed on the second M-Sport Fiesta of Evans in sixth, and, after again setting the pace on the first run through the new La Cabanette test, the Belgian bullet survived a minor brush with a snowbank on the second icy trip over the Col – to close the gap to the Welshman to just 7.2s with yet another fastest time on the penultimate stage.

The biggest drama of the day, though, was saved up for the Power Stage, as, having consolidated fourth place over the previous two stages, Lappi then blotted his copybook when he slid off the road just a few kilometres from the finish, and, although he was able to get back onto the road, it cost the Finnish youngster dear as he slipped to seventh on the final leaderboard. However, there was nothing to worry about for Ogier as he cruised through the final stage to secure his fifth straight Monte victory by just shy of a minute, with Tanak producing a strong run to second on his debut for Toyota ahead of stable-mate Latvala in a distant third, while Meeke salvaged something from a tough weekend for Citroen as he came home in fourth, taking the maximum Power Stage bonus points in the process. Behind, Neuville managed to snatch fifth away from Evans on the final test, with the Welshman just a second adrift in sixth ahead of a disappointed Lappi and the third Fiesta of Bouffier in eighth, with Breen taking ninth in the second Citroen and WRC2 class winner Jan Kopecky rounding out the top 10 in his Skoda Fabia R5.

Power Stage – Top 5:
1. Meeke/Nagle (Citroen) 10:06.7s  (5pts)
2. Neuville/Gilsoul (Hyundai) +2.3s  (4pts)
3. Mikkelsen/Jaeger (Hyundai) +4.4s  (3pts)
4. Latvala/Anttila (Toyota) +6.9s  (2pts)
5. Ogier/Ingrassia (M-Sport Ford) +8.1s (1pts)

Sebastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (FRA/FRA) – #1 M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC (Photo Credit: wrc.com)

Final Results:
1. Ogier/Ingrassia (M-Sport Ford)
2. Tanak/Jarveoja (Toyota) +58.3s
3. Latvala/Anttila (Toyota) +1:52.0s
4. Meeke/Nagle (Citroen) +4:43.1s
5. Neuville/Gilsoul (Hyundai) +4:53.8s
6. Evans/Barritt (M-Sport Ford) +4:54.8s
7. Lappi/Ferm (Toyota) +4:57.5s
8. Bouffier/Panseri (M-Sport Ford) +7:39.5s
9. Breen/Martin (Citroen) +9:06.7s
10. Kopecky/Dresler (Skoda – 1st in WRC2) +16:43.0s

WRC2 – TOP 4:
1. [10] Jan Kopecky/Pavel Dresler (Skoda)
2. [14] Eddie Scissere/Flavio Zanella (Citroen) +22:47.7s
3. [18] Teemu Suninen/Mikko Markkula (Ford) +33:31.1s
4. [19] Guillaume de Mevius/Louis Louka (Peugeot) +33:46.1s

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Ogier/Ingrassia (M-Sport Ford) – 26pts
2. Tanak/Jarveoja (Toyota) – 18pts
3. Latvala/Anttila (Toyota) – 17pts
4. Meeke/Nagle (Citroen) – 17pts
5. Neuville/Gilsoul (Hyundai) – 14pts
6. Evans/Barritt (M-Sport Ford) – 8pts
7. Lappi/Ferm (Toyota) – 6pts
8. Bouffier/Panseri (M-Sport Ford) – 4pts
9. Mikkelsen/Jaeger (Hyundai) – 3pts
10. Breen/Martin (Citroen) – 2pts

Manufacturers:
1. M-Sport Ford – 33pts
2. Toyota – 33pts
3. Citroen – 18pts
4. Hyundai – 14pts

WRC2 Drivers – Top 4:
1. Kopecky/Dresler (Skoda) – 25pts
2. Scissere/Zanella (Citroen) – 18pts
3. Suninen/Markkula (Ford) – 15pts
4. De Mevius/Louka (Peugeot) – 12pts

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