FIA World Rally Championship

2017 Rally Poland: Analysis – Advantage Hyundai, Citroën Crossroads

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Credit: Hyundai Motorsport

Downpours, thunder and lightning turned the usually hard, sandy roads of the Masurian Lake District into a slippery rutted mess, a rollercoaster ride which certain drivers couldn’t wait to disembark from.

Sébastien Ogier could be forgiven if he had the urge to reach for the sick bag every five minutes, suffering one of his messiest rallies in years thanks to a series of punctures and prangs that sent him down to sixth at one point. The recovery drive to third was not masterful in the traditional sense, simply a hard slog back to the podium, taking advantage of Dani Sordo‘s own misfortunes, who seemed most like the person with his eyes clenched shut praying for the ride to be over.

Crucially though, without Jari-Matti Latvala‘s Toyota crawling to a standstill and his team-mate Ott Tänak throwing the sister Focus into a tree, the points gap between the two title contenders would be into singe digits at this point. Only luck helped him stay marginally ahead of Neuville.

It became clear from this result – following on from 5th for the Frenchman at Sardinia – that this will form Thierry Neuville‘s primary path to the championship. He took advantage of road-order related woes for Ogier, even if they didn’t come in quite the form he would have expected from Poland. He dug as deep as the ruts permeating the stages, and unlike at the beginning of the year, let someone else do the crashing and hand him the victory.

With six podiums in a row, he has now found the balance between speed and consistency he needs to aim for a first world championship. The key difference between himself and Tänak was being able to drive at the limit, but not above it, and have the self-assurance to know the result would come. This attribute appeared to be missing in the past, one that world champions possess. The pendulum has finally swung firmly towards the Belgian.

Paddon hits long awaited turning point

Neuville’s bid for a first world title was aided by a little help from his friends in the Hyundai camp. While Sordo sloshed around in the mud, complaining about how “stupid” it was to drive in such conditions, Hayden Paddon secured his first podium since the same event last year, wedging himself between Neuville and Ogier in the process.

The secondary Hyundai and M-Sport drivers will be featured players in the championship fight, both sides having drivers with the ability to take points off the title contender of the rival manufacturer. While Paddon’s steady drive to the second step of the podium helped Neuville in his quest for glory, the person it helped most was Paddon himself.

The Kiwi was left searching for answers after crashing out of the lead at Rally Italia, with only a single Top 5 to his name this season before last weekend.

“Our season from the outside looks very bad and many have commented about our mistakes,” he said before the rally. “We have made 3 mistakes this year and when the competition is so close and cut throat, it is expected moments will happen. We have just not been fortunate enough to get away with any of them.”

“The tide will turn.”

The heavy rain washed away his troubles, and for once Paddon was the beneficiary of problems and mistakes for others rather than the victim. Having finally rediscovered his mojo, Paddon will now have a part to play in the destination of both drivers and manufacturers titles.

Not only can he intervene in taking points away from the likes of Ogier, Latvala and Tänak, but his contribution to Hyundai’s quest for a first manufacturer’s title will make all the difference against current leaders M-Sport. Despite having less points that Sordo, his average finishing position (excluding retirements) is higher, at 5.2 to the Spaniard’s 5.75. Sordo has matched Kexpectations for the year, while Paddon was under pressure for failing to hit his marks.

If Hyundai do the double, they will have an on-song Paddon to thank for it.

Citroën indecision leaves everyone on edge

Credit: Citroën / @World

Short-termism is keeping Citroën at the bottom of the competitive order. The unexpected announcement of Stéphane Lefebvre being benched for the next two events – only minutes after the Frenchman finished 5th in Poland – is the latest in a line of knee-jerk changes which has left onlookers scratching their heads.

Missing Finland is not a huge surprise, given his seat will be taken by Khalid Al Qassimi, a major financial backer of the Citroën team through their Abu Dhabi sponsorship deal. However, he will make way for Andreas Mikkelsen for a second time in Germany, having done so previously at Rally Italia.

What is interesting with the Mikkelsen deal is the Norwegian having completed a two day test before heading to Poland, to identify urgently required refinements for the C3 WRC, despite being signed exclusively on single rally deals for each of his appearances. Essentially, Citroën have taken the unusual step of building the car’s future technical direction around a driver who has no permanent contract with the team.

“The priority now is to prepare for 2018,” explained Yves Matton, Citroën’s team principal. “Some of the upgrades will need several months of development work and they won’t be ready to be introduced until the start of next season.”

One may link Mikkelsen’s increasing profile with the French marque as a sign the clock is ticking for Kris Meeke, whose seat he ‘borrowed’ for Poland after a string of accidents earlier in the season. Meeke’s trials and tribulations are well documented, but it’s hard to blame a driver for trying to guide a critically unstable car to positions where it does not belong. This was demonstrated all too well by Craig Breen this weekend, who was left frightened by the unpredictability of his C3.

This constant reshuffling does not appear to have a positive outcome for any driver currently entangled in the Citroën web. Meeke, Breen and Lefebvre all have valid contracts for next year, leaving question marks as to how Mikkelsen could possibly figure in the team’s lineup for 2018.

Breen and Lefebvre are in their first full seasons as factory WRC drivers, a situation which requires a team to be fully supportive and invested in their careers for either driver to flourish. The constant fear of being dropped at a moment’s notice adds unnecessary pressure. Lefebvre turned in what is the best performance of his career by his own admission, and has been rewarded by being pushed aside from two events.

How Mikkelsen fits into this jigsaw puzzle in the long term needs an answer sooner rather than later. The madness has to end.

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Alasdair Lindsay is a Regular Contributor to TCF and can be found on twitter at @AlasdairLindsay
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