We said at the dawn of the season that 2017 would no doubt be a watershed year for the FIA World Rally Championship and a hugely significant one for Cumbria’s M-Sport outfit, but we doubt even Malcolm Wilson himself would’ve dared to dream that it could have gone as well as it has so far! Prior to the Monte Carlo back in January, you had to go right back to 2012 to find the last time an M-Sport Fiesta took a driver to the top of the WRC podium, now, halfway through the year, the Ford-backed yet still resolutely privateer outfit has 3 wins and stands atop both championships.
Rally Italia Sardegna saw the M-Sport team add to its haul of points in the best possible manner, with Ott Tänak finally breaking his duck to win his first ever WRC event. Everyone’s favourite young Estonian had been threatening to do just this for years of course, but it was a relief for him to finally join the select group of rally drivers that have succeeded at the very top of the sport.
As has so often been the case this year, Thursday and Friday’s opening stages gave little clue as to the eventual victor, with Citroen’s Kris Meeke setting the pace early on. It wasn’t to last though, and within hours the Northern Irishman had rolled his C3 and damaged his roll-cage, preventing any hope of re-joining the rally. He cut a despondent looking picture back in the service park, possibly thinking about how long ago his Mexican triumph now seems. He was subsequently benched in favour of Mikkelsen for Rally Portugal, a drastic move from a team evidently sick of spending their Mondays rebuilding cars, though one must surely also ask questions as to the nature and setup of the car’s rear suspension. Further proof of the C3’s somewhat tricky handling on the rough was provided by teammate Craig Breen, the Irishman also retiring, the damage to his gearbox sustained after hitting a rock after compression on a jump.
A decidedly turbulent Friday concluded with the Hyundai of Hayden Paddon out in front, the Kiwi professing to have finally banished his recent uncompetitive spell, something which he himself described as the low point of his career. He sat atop a close clump of drivers with the top 5 all covered by just 14.7 seconds after SS9 Tergu-Osilo, the final test of the day, teammate Thierry Neuville a mere 8.2 seconds behind. Both Hyundais sported battle damage though, Paddon with a blown damper and Neuville with a shredded tyre, allowing Ott Tanak to move into third position as the afternoon wore on. Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala was a scant 0.3 seconds back, the Finn just 4.9 seconds clear of Mads Ostberg. The championship leader? He was way down in seventh, the result of yet more road sweeping!
Saturday initially worked in Paddon’s favour, the Kiwi able to extend his lead over Ott Tanak to 9.2 seconds, something no doubt helped by the misfortunes of teammate Neuville, the Belgian dropping back down the order thanks to an almost total lack of brakes in Monte-Lerno! Tanak was being chased by Latvala, though the Finn’s progress was severely hampered through being forced to tail the limping Fiesta of Ostberg and its massive dust cloud!
Everything went wrong for Paddon on Saturday afternoon when he clipped a bank midway through SS13, Coiluna-Loelle. The impact triggered a dramatic fire and caused significant damage, and no one was at all surprised when he retired on the road section on the way to service. This left the door wide open for the hard-charging Tanak, and the Estonian wasted little time in consolidating his newfound position atop the running order with a string of fastest times. Latvala attempted to respond but reserved most of his energies for an ongoing battle with the event organisers, the Finn still lamenting the time he lost behind Ostberg’s Fiesta and lobbying to get it back.
As the dust settled (in a very literal fashion) on Saturday afternoon it was clear that things were going Tanak’s way. He ended the day 24.3 seconds ahead of Latvala, the Finn a further 37.9 seconds ahead of recent form man Neuville. Toyota’s charge was consolidated by Esapekka Lappi, the youngster in a solid fourth thanks to a trio of fastest stage times, one achieved with his Yaris sans second gear! Hanninen, his more experienced team mate, was 31.3 seconds further behind in fifth, leaving a subdued Sébastien Ogier in sixth.
Sunday couldn’t help but feel a tad low-key when compared to the sheer unpredictability of Friday and Saturday, and it was marked by Tanak’s tightening grip on the event. In this he was aided by Latvala, the Finn stalling midway through SS17 and falling away from the still hard-charging Estonian. Latvala’s mood received yet another blow on the power stage when he slid wide and lost time, allowing Tanak to scamper off into the distance and costing him any hope of bonus points.
Ott Tanak’s eventual winning margin was 12.3 seconds, a stat which does much to flatter the chasing Latvala. Yes, Tanak inherited the lead from Paddon, and yes he was lucky in that Neuville’s brake issues occurred when they did, but his drive was one of a man in total control of both his car and his emotions, and in truth he never looked likely to relinquish the lead once he seized it on Saturday. Neuville will likely rue the brake problems which deprived him of the chance to fight for his third win of the season, though his third spot (55.4 seconds behind Latvala’s Toyota) meant a handy haul of points for his title scrap with Ogier. Team Sordo was beset by turbo boost issues, and he finished down in twelfth as a result.
Tanak’s maiden win aside, Sardinia 2017 will probably be remembered for Esapekka Lappi’s drive to fourth spot in only his second event behind the wheel of a 2017 WRC car. He set 6 fastest stage times over the course of the weekend (including the Powerstage) and could well have wound up further up the order had his Yaris not been beset by transmission gremlins on Saturday. Still, the news that he’s been awarded a drive for the remainder of the season will no doubt make that result all the sweeter. We’ve not even begun to see what Lappi can do, so watch this space.
Ogier’s rally was largely spent shovelling large quantities of Sardinian gravel from one end of the stage to the other! Still, he moved up to fifth on the final day (at the expense of Hanninen) and banked a handy haul of point in the process – which is more than can be said for team mate Elfyn Evans. The Welshman carried too much speed into a corner on Friday morning and from then on was a mere passenger as his Fiesta side-swiped a tree, ripping off the front-right suspension. The other Fiesta of Ostberg fared better if less spectacularly, with the Norwegian bringing the issue-riddled car home in seventh.
This all left the sole remaining Citroen of Andreas Mikkelsen in eighth, not bad for a debut, true, but proof that the C3 is a tricky beast to master, particularly for a driver who prefers his rally cars nose-heavy and predisposed to understeer, much like his old Polo. Citroen’s subsequent decision to rest Meeke in place of Mikkelsen for Rally Poland has set tongues wagging throughout the rally world, with many feeling that the Irishman has been made the sacrificial lamb, a way of glossing over the C3’s apparent fundamental suspension issues. Still, it’s good news for the sole Polo driver left without a seat in the wake of VW’s shock decision to quit the WRC last year.
Rally Sardinia marked the halfway point of the 2017 season, and you can’t say it hasn’t been spectacular. The event itself brought the now customary mix of chaos, heartbreak and intrigue, though we suspect the M-Sport camp won’t mind. The Cumbrian underdogs go into the last half of the 2017 championship with lead driver Ogier atop the standings, his 141 points so far a measure of his ability to bank strong points everywhere and anywhere. Neuville is within striking distance with 123 points, while Tanak’s win puts him up to third in the title point with 108 points, one ahead of Latvala in fourth. M-Sport lead the Teams battle as well, Malcolm Wilson’s boys on 234 points, the might of Hyundai’s works effort in a comfortable second with 194 points.