It was perhaps inevitable that the 2018 Corsica Linea Tour de Corse failed to deliver upon the immense, almost cartoonish levels of expectation built up in the weeks leading up to the event, but then it was hard not to get a tad overexcited in the run-up to the first full, dry tarmac event of this year’s FIA World Rally Championship. The two most successful drivers of their respective eras, fighting on an even footing on their preferred surface, and in front of an adoring, unapologetically partisan home crowd? You couldn’t fail to be excited at the prospect.
That prospect initially appeared to have come to pass, and the rallying community settled back for what we could have been the ultimate Sebastien Loeb Vs Sebastien Ogier Battle Royale, a fully paid up ‘slugging match.’ La Porta, the opening test of the event, was claimed by Ogier by a whisper under 10 seconds, Loeb proving that years away from the top flight have done little to dull his ability on the black stuff. It was a time which provoked much service park speculation, both amongst the spectators and those paid to be there.
The watching world was on the edge of its Recaro seats, eager for the two finest French tarmac rally drivers of world rallying to go head-to-head, and yet it all came to nowt on the very next stage, Piedigriggio – Pont de Castirla. Loeb, still struggling to adapt to cold tyres at the very start of the stage, carried too much speed into an innocent looking corner and under-steered into the undergrowth, narrowly avoiding a family of picnicking spectators. He was out of the day’s running and out of contention for the win on the spot (despite a smattering of fastest stage times, now merely evidence of the battle which might have been), and the rallying world stifled a collective groan.
Loeb’s off rather set the tone for what was a deeply frustrating weekend for Citroen, and it must now be getting to the point where Pierre Budar and the rest of the team are wondering what on earth they did wrong in a previous life to deserve such poor luck!
Kris Meeke was the next driver to feel the wrath of Corsica’s fickle nature, though it initially appeared to be going to plan; Meeke and Paul Nagle had rediscovered the form which had looked set to take them to victory here last year, fighting with Thierry Neuville for second place and generally looking to have the measure of the event. All that changed on Saturday afternoon, when Nagle miss-called a pacenote midway through the daunting Novella 2 stage, the kind which might well have been recoverable on any event other than the Tour de Corse. What was called as a 5-Left was actually a far more acute 3-Left, leaving the Northern Irishman repeatedly crying out the incorrect note with a mix of annoyance and incredulity.
The results were disastrous for the pair’s chances of challenging for overall victory, yet could have been so much worse. Aerial footage of the incident revealed a largely intact C3 WRC stranded a long way from the stage, evidence of the speed of the off and how little time Meeke had to react. His response was both classy and mature (“we win together, we lose together”), but these are the precisely the kind of errors which have the potential to de-rail the pair’s title ambitions before they’ve even begun. A ninth-place finish was a poor reward then, despite snagging joint third place on the Power Stage.
There were no such dramas for M-Sport, the British concern instead able to focus its time and energy on ensuring the continued health of the lead Fiesta. In truth Ogier never looked likely to be beaten on the Tour de Corse from the moment of Loeb’s exit, and from midway through Friday it was effectively an exercise in risk management for the reigning champion. The gap between Ogier and his nearest challenger ebbed and flowed as the event progressed, but as has so often been the case in recent years, ‘Seb 2’ soaked up the pressure with disconcerting ease to emerge victorious at the end of Sunday. Predictable? Perhaps, but you can’t deny that performances like this mark Ogier out as one of the WRC’s all-time greats.
The other M-Sport Fiesta endured a less serene few days in the Med, Elfyn Evans and Phil Mills (the Welshman acting as ‘Super Sub,’ drafted in at the last minute to replace Daniel Barrit) battling tooth and nail to retain key positions in the midfield. That they brought the car home in a solid fifth place overall, just 3.5 seconds behind the Hyundai i20 WRC of Dani Sordo, speaks volumes about Evans’ ability to adapt to last minute co-driver upheavals, not to mention Mills’ pace note prowess.
The third Fiesta RS WRC of Bryan Bouffier endured an ignoble exit from what had been a fairly anonymous tenth place, the Frenchman forced to retire midway through Saturday afternoon thanks to an engine issue.
Ott Tanak’s ability to beat the best of the best on the tarmac was initially demonstrated in Germany last year, but Corsica provided further evidence of the Estonian’s ever-growing confidence on tar, and also his newfound position as the effective figurehead of the Toyota Gazoo team.
Tanak benefitted from the misfortune of Loeb to move up the order as the rally progressed but his pace was clear and evident from the start, and he’d driven himself into a handy fourth by the penultimate stage of Saturday, Désert des Agriates 2. He then put in a brutally fast drive to take joint honours with teammate Esapekka Lappi on La Novella, catapulting his way past Neuville and the stranded Meeke to end the day in second place. A smart, considered run through Sunday’s pair of stages duly followed, giving Tanak an excellent haul of points and consolidating his grip on third in the title race.
Esapekka Lappi’s ability to master tarmac continues to impress, and the young Finn looked set for a handy fourth until the final morning, when a puncture on the longest stage of the rally, Vero – Sarrola-Carcopino, cost him several minutes and dropped the Yaris to seventh. As is so often the case with Corsica, a seemingly minor slide was heavily punished, the car clouting the kerb and bouncing back into the road, decimating the dry weather Michelin in the process. Lappi wasn’t to be outdone though and claimed victory on the very next test, the Power Stage, taking the maximum haul of 5 bonus points and leaping past Andreas Mikkelsen for sixth in the process.
Jari-Matti Latvala complained of a lack of confidence in what the rear of his Yaris was doing, robbing him of the ability, perhaps the inclination, to drive at the very edge. He therefore endured a quiet weekend, hovering around the lower reaches of the top ten until Saturday afternoon’s Cagano-Pino-Canari test, whereupon he slid wide and hit a tree sideways, and with some force.
The incident had disconcerting parallels with the crash that claimed the life of Michael ‘Beef’ Park at Rally GB some 13 years ago, so it was to the relief of all that the crew emerged unscathed. The protective, energy absorbing foam cladding the sills of the ‘new era’ WRC cars had done its job, and while a damaged roll cage prevented Latvala and Miikka Anttila from carrying on, they were at least unharmed.
‘Quiet’ is also a fitting way of describing the performance of the Hyundai drivers on the Tour de Corse, particularly given Thierry Neuville’s victory on the island last year. True, the Belgian spent much of the early running dicing for second place with Meeke and inherited the position after the Citroen man’s retirement, but his lack of confidence in the i20’s ability ensured he had no answer for Ogier’s pace. He was then robbed of second on the final stage of Saturday by a tiny 0.1 seconds, allowing Tanak into a position he was to hold to the end. A handy points haul right enough, but hardly the kind of stirring performance we’ve come to associate with Neuville.
Dani Sordo did what he often does so well, quietly carving out a decent position within the middle of the table. The Spaniard stayed out of trouble, kept the car on the road and benefited from the issues of his rivals, ending the rally in fourth, three places ahead of a struggling Mikkelsen. The Norwegian even suffered the ignominy of being relieved of sixth on the Power Stage!
WRC2 – Kopecky dominates as Lefebvre retires
Stephane Lefebvre’s debut run in the Citroen C3 R5 came to a premature end on SS5, the Frenchman going off the stage and blaming a faulty brake system, which in turn left the door wide open for his teammate and fellow countryman Yoann Bonato, who drove superbly to end the rally in second. Bonato’s debut in the box-fresh C3 was impressive, but not as impressive as that of Jan Kopecky, the Skoda veteran ultimately winning by nearly 2 minutes.
The Skoda Fabia R5s of Fabio Andolfi, Ole Christian Veiby and Lukasz Pieniazek came home in third, fourth and fifth, leaving the sole remaining Hyundai i20 R5 of Pierre-Louis Loubet to trail them into sixth. The other Hyundai of Nicolas Ciamin had already crashed out on SS11, leaving the door open for Nil Solans in seventh, the best placed Fiesta R5, and ahead of both Takamoto Katsuta and Hiroki Arai.
WRC3 – Junior WRC dominates class
Fords were anything but also-rans in WRC3, but then all but one of the cars taking part were Fiestas. Victory went to Jean-Baptiste Franceschi, half a minute ahead of Terry Folb. The bottom step of the podium was claimed by Emil Bergkvist, albeit a distant 2:54 seconds behind the French duo.
1 – Sébastien Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC
2 – Ott Tanak – Toyota Yaris WRC
3 – Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC
4 – Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 WRC
5 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC
6 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC
7 – Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 WRC
8 – Jan Kopecky – Skoda Fabia R5
9 – Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC
14 – Sébastien Loeb – Citroen C3 WRC
1 – Jan Kopecky – Skoda Fabia R5
2 – Yoann Bonato – Citroen C3 R5
3 – Fabio Andolfi – Skoda Fabia R5
4 – Ole Christian Veiby – Skoda Fabia R5
5 – Łukasz Pieniążek – Skoda Fabia R5
6 – Louis-Pierre Loubet – Hyundai i20 R5
7 – Nil Solans – Ford Fiesta R5
8 – Katsuta Takamoto – Ford Fiesta R5
9 – Hiroki Arai – Ford Fiesta R5
1 – Jean-Baptiste Franceschi – Ford Fiesta R2T
2 – Terry Folb – Ford Fiesta R2T
3 – Emil Bergkvist – Ford Fiesta R2T
4 – Denis Rådström – Ford Fiesta R2T
5 – Callum Devine – Ford Fiesta R2T
6 – Ken Torn – Ford Fiesta R2T
7 – Luca Bottarelli – Ford Fiesta R2T
8 – Banaz Bugra – Ford Fiesta R2T
9 – Julius Tannert – Ford Fiesta R2T
10 – Emilio Fernandez – Ford Fiesta R2T