At the end of the final competitive stage of Rally Italia Sardegna, the Citroën C3 of Craig Breen came sliding to a halt amongst the thick sandy gravel of the Sardinian seaside. His immediate reaction to the slippery conditions was describing the stage as being “bucket and spade” conditions.
While lacking the windswept quality of the Olbia-Tempio coastline, the terrain will still feel like a seamless transition from the dunes of Olbia-Tempio coastline to the Masurian Lake District in the north of Poland, a holiday destination with plenty of sandy gravel covering the 327 kilometers of competitive stages the drivers face this weekend.
The stage conditions mean current championship leader Sébastien Ogier may once again need to break out the dustpan and broom, for he will once again be faced with the unenviable task of road sweeping. While this is part and parcel of the championship in most gravel events, at few rallies is the problem exacerbated as much as Poland.
“I have good memories from Poland having won there twice before, but last year it was probably the worst event for me in terms of road cleaning,” he explained. Despite piloting the dominant Volkswagen Polo R at the time, he struggled to compete at the sharp end of the field, failing to trouble the podium places and settling for sixth in last season’s event.
Now with no car advantage to fall back on, Ogier is once more worried about the impact road position will have on his chances, especially given his tribulations in Sardinia, his fifth-placed finish at the previous round being his worst of the season so far.
“Leading the championship is exactly where we wanted to be at this point in the season, but if it’s dry that will provide something of a disadvantage on Friday and we’ll need to work hard to limit the time loss. It’s so hard to claw back time here, but let’s see what we can do.”
Ogier though has an uncanny knack for making the stars align. The forecast from start to finish is rain. With his disadvantage neutralised and maximum points back on the table, suddenly the dark horses in the title race – Ott Tänak and Jari-Matti Latvala, have lost the upper hand for Friday’s stages. Of these two, Tänak is the one to watch, Poland suiting his flat-out style and giving him a 100% podium rate in the WRC’s top category on the roads surrounding Mikołajki. Latvala has yet to finish better than 5th here, perhaps with the ghost of 2009 – where he crashed out of second in the rally-closing superspecial – still looming large.
Matton is taking the Mikk
The most obvious difference from three and a half weeks ago is the disappearance of Kris Meeke from the entry list. The Irishman was hired to be team leader at Citroën this year, but after seven events faces the ignominy of being benched in favour of a mid-season replacement.
That replacement comes in the form of Andreas Mikkelsen, who made his Citroën last time out in Sardinia, deposing Stéphane Lefebvre on that occasion. With two from three original drivers in the French marque’s line-up already sent to the bench, and a four-day test being held immediately after the last round especially to give Mikkelsen more seat time, it appears both the short and long-term future is being geared around the Norwegian. Team principal Yves Matton has placed all his chips on red, and he hopes the payout will come in krone.
“We needed to take a step back to note that some of the risks we had taken during development of the C3 WRC were not paying off,” explained Matton. “Our car is unquestionably fast, but the window in which it works efficiently was proving too narrow.
“We have therefore begun making some major changes to our organisation, our methods and our principles. The first of these was the arrival of Andreas Mikkelsen, who encouraged us to explore some new ideas. After his first proper test session in the C3 WRC, we have introduced some upgrades that supplement the work done over the last few months.”
Those upgrades refer mainly to the homologation of a new rear differential rail, coupled with an adjustment to the torque split between the front and rear of the car. The only driver to benefit from these changes in Poland will be Mikkelsen, whilst team regulars Breen and Lefebvre have not been afforded such luxuries.
Regardless of now having a team of haves and have-nots, Matton was focused on the positives of the situation.
“With a more versatile car, our drivers will be able to aim for the kind of results that match Citroën’s high expectations.”
Citroën’s high expectations no longer appear to be aligned with the continued involvement of Meeke, whose name was conspicuous in its absence from the team’s pre-event press. Meeke has been confirmed for Rally Finland, and no more. When Rally Germany comes, he may well find the locks have been changed on his C3.
Sun shines brightly for Teemu
M-Sport have followed in the footsteps of Toyota by trusting a new mid-season factory entry to a rookie graduate from the WRC2 class. While the Japanese manufacturer made the first move with Esapekka Lappi, who achieved 4th place in Sardinia, the Cumbrian outfit will give Lappi’s former championship rival Teemu Suninen his full WRC debut in Poland.
The 23 year old is rated highly by M-Sport team principal Malcolm Wilson, who believes this is just the first step to bigger things in the sport.
“I’m delighted to see Teemu behind the wheel of the Ford Fiesta WRC,” he enthused. “He is an exceptional young talent with an incredibly bright future ahead of him. I’m sure that his level of commitment and determination will hold him in good stead – both for the immediate future and beyond.”
Poland is not the only outing in a 2017 specification WRC car the Finn can expect, with another appearance in the same car at his home event already set in stone at the end of next month.
“I’ve been watching his development for a number of years now, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do at the next level – both in Poland and on home soil in Finland.”
Suninen himself suggested his focus was more in the short term. With only two days of testing in the drastically different terrain of the English countryside, he is simply looking to learn his new equipment ahead of his assault on Rally Finland.
“I’ve not had the chance to test in Poland so I’ll need to take all of my high-speed kilometres from the rally itself,” he explained. “Shakedown will give us our first experience of these fast stages, and then the plan will be to drive smoothly to the finish – gaining maximum experience before my next outing on home soil.”
Ciamin can’t compete with Solans superiority
Nil Solans has taken two wins from two in the JWRC category thus far, and his primary championship rival Nicolas Ciamin – who finished runner-up to Solans in both Corsica and Sardinia – has already conceded he may not be able to usurp the Spaniard on the fast gravel roads of Poland either.
“I was really pleased with Sardinia, I didn’t expect to set fastest times on gravel yet but we scored four – that was very encouraging.”
“We’ve been second twice now, while it would be nice to think we could aim for first, I still think that’s a little optimistic,” he conceded. “Poland is difficult because it is so fast and you must think that every corner is faster than it should be on another event.”
A notable addition to the JWRC field in Poland is a second generation WRC competitor, Emil Lindholm. The surname will be familar to most in Scandinavian rallying, and many around the world as well, being the son of eight-time Finnish Rally Champion Sebastian Lindholm. Having won a funded drive at his home rally in Finland next month – thanks to being voted this year’s Future Rally Star of Finland – Lindholm is using Poland as preparation for next month’s big event.
“I’m hoping that this will be a good test experience for Rally Finland,” he said. “My aim for Rally Poland is to have a solid performance, avoid mistakes and try to set some times in the top-three. I expect the second pass will be rutted so one of the challenges will be to avoid problems and find a compromise between speed and caring for the car. The roads are very fast, we’ve tested already and will concentrate on making good pacenotes.”