The FIA World Rally Championship crosses the Atlantic for the second time this year, returning to the YPF Rally Argentina, a fixture of the championship for decades and the scene of of one of 2017’s most closely fought battles.
Elfyn Evans ultimately had to cede best to Thierry Neuville on the Power Stage, but not before putting on one of the performances of his career, a fitting precursor to his maiden victory at home mere months later.
It was a performance which summed up the event itself rather neatly, Argentina having long been regarded as a rally which both enthralls and punishes otherwise minor mistakes incredibly heavily, as Evans will no doubt testify.
Part of the WRC calendar since 1980, Rally Argentina has been based in the province of Cordoba since 1984, long enough to have cultivated an immensely passionate following. It’s one of those events that, bar shrinking in size at the behest of the FIA, has managed to retain much of its fundamental character, one that’s proved popular with both drivers and spectators. It’s an event which takes place in a variety of different landscapes, but one which will forever be defined by long-haul tests high up in the Traslasierra mountain, a lunar landscape dotted with crags of jutting bedrock, terraced house-sized boulders, mind-focussing drops and massed banks of passionate, meat-grilling spectators. And water splashes. Lots and lots of water splashes.
This year’s route is a tale of three halves, each leg fundamentally different in a character tolast,though all are based in the picturesque town of Villa Carlos Paz.Said town will also host a characterful spectator stage on Thursday night, before the event proper commences first thing on Friday morning. Friday totals a full 154.2km of competitive stage mileage centred within the sandy Calamuchita Valley, beginning with the 16.6km of Las Bajadas-Villa del Dique, then the 33.5km of Amboy-Yacanto, followed by the 23.8km test that is Santa Rose-San Agustin. All 3 stages are repeated in the afternoon, but not before the crews head to a late morning super special in Carlos Paz’s theme park.
Leg two totals a whisper under 150km of competitive stage mileage in the Punilla Valley region, Tanti-Mataderos (13.9km) kicking things off, followed by Los Gigantes-Cuchilla Nevada (16.9km) and Cuchilla Nevada-Rio Pinitos (41.4km). There’s then another trip to the Carlos Paz theme park for a further spectator stage before the morning loop of stages is repeated in the afternoon.
Sunday sees the rally going back to its routes in the Traslasierras, its pair of stages both classics and most certainly not to be underestimated. Copina-El Condor begins the day (16.4km), twisting its way high into the mountains and offering stunning views of the lunar landscape. It’s swiftly followed by Giulio Cesare-Mina Clavero (22.4km), before the re-run of El Condor, the Power Stage, concludes the rally.
Argentine stages are as rough and unforgiving as you’ll find in the modern WRC, with tight and technical sections bordered by massive boulders. Tricky enough on the first pass, many a WRC driver has found his progress further impeded on the second run through, the stages having a pronounced tendency to degrade markedly as cars pass. This degradation normally manifests itself as deep, often jagged ruts, littered with equally sharp rocks pulled out by aggressive cuts and off-line excursions. Factor in the changing nature of the locale outlined above, and it’s no wonder that you can expect all the WRC cars to sport towering ride heights with maximum suspension travel, plus a mix of soft and hard compound rubber depending on the character of the specific stages they’re due to face.
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team
Sébastien Ogier’s performance in Corsica last time out will have made ominous watching for all his competitors, as, to put it bluntly, the Frenchman barely appeared to exert himself in his drive to victory. The nature of the Argentine roads mean that he’ll likely have to work harder to repeat the trick this time out though, and that’s before we even touch upon his hugely disadvantageous road position, right out in front at the head of the field. A Friday spent road sweeping therefore awaits the reigning champion, though it’s worth remembering that no other driver has as much experience of negating the damage caused by such a poor road position (a legacy of his VW days), and it would take a brave individual to bet against him coming away with at least a handy haul of points.
Elfyn Evans came agonisingly close to scoring his maiden win in Argentina this time last year, and probably would have had he not clipped a bridge midway through the Power Stage. Still, it’s a far more mature and focussed Welshman that returns in 2018, no doubt more confident in his ability to manage and maintain a lead off the back of his stunning performance on Rally GB. He’ll be hoping for a repeat of last year (though without the advantage of DMACK tyres) of course, largely as he’s yet to really make an impact in 2018 after a rash of shockingly poor luck and the odd off-stage mistake. He will at least be reunited with Dan Barritt, the Englishman now fully recovered from the Mexican roll that forced him to miss the Corsican round.
The third M-Sport Fiesta has been allocated to Teemu Suninen, the rapidly improving Finn also seeking to stake a claim on a full time works seat in 2019. Suninen’s proved his raw pace already, now he needs to polish it and work on his consistency, all while getting to grips with an unfamiliar rally.
Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team
Hyundai’s de-facto team leader was the man who benefitted most from Elfyn Evans’ misfortunes here last year, Thierry Neuville coming from behind the snatch a highly significant victory. The Belgian will be aiming to repeat the trick this time around, particularly after a deeply frustrating trip to Corsica, one where he struggled with the handling of his i20 WRC and had to drive at the very limit of his powers just to remain in touch with the top two. Still, he knows what it takes to win here and has all the motivation he could want, coming into the rally a mere 7 points behind Ogier in the title race, a position which will also saddle him with second place on the road on Friday.
Hyundai has opted to bench Hayden Paddon for Rally Argentina (a tough pill for the Kiwi to swallow bearing in mind he won here in 2016), instead giving Dani Sordo use of the third i20 WRC. The Spaniard impressed on the broadly similar stages of Mexico last month so will no doubt seek to rebuild his competitive pace. He’ll lineup alongside the identical car of Andreas Mikkelsen, the Norwegian still struggling to get to grips with what has been a frustratingly anonymous 2018 thus far.
Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team
The Toyota trio managed to salvage decent points in Corsica, Ott Tanak’s fighting drive to second place the obvious highlight. We know that Tanak’s powers are every bit as potent on the rough as they are tarmac though, and he’ll no doubt be unsatisfied with anything less than an outright victory. He remains well within reach of both Ogier and Neuville in the title race, but a maiden win in Toyota overalls would narrow the gap considerably, as well as further bolstering his confidence in still new surroundings.
Esapekka Lappi actually sits one place ahead of Jari-Matt Latvala in the championship reckoning, a legacy of the youngster’s impressive consistency so far in 2018. A minor error and resulting puncture served to rob Lappi of valuable points last time out in Corsica and the Finn will be out to make amends, back on gravel and seeking to re-ignite his own title ambitions.
Jari-Matti Latvala must feel a bit like a cuckoo midway through being unceremoniously dumped from its nest! The Finn was the first top-tier WRC driver to nail his colours to Toyota’s mast at the end of 2016, and while last year brought good results and even a vague title push (one ultimately stymied by rotten reliability), 2018 has yielded little but frustration. A win here for VW four years ago proves that Latvala knows what it takes to do well in Argentina though, and this year he’ll be aided by a favourable position on the road, kicking off Friday down in in seventh place.
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team
Kris Meeke’s pacenote related ‘off’ last time out in Corsica was shorthand for a season that’s brought more than its fair share of pain for the men in red, and little in the way of tangible reward. Still, at least the C3 has been shown to be both a simpler beast to drive and with the pace to stay with the best of the rest, meaning the likes of Meeke, Loeb and Breen haven’t had to throw caution to the wind in order to remain in touch with the Ogiers, Neuvilles and Tanaks of this world.
Argentina sees the return to the works Citroen fold of Craig Breen, the Irishman back where he belongs for the first time since Sweden. You could argue until the cows come home, fall asleep, then go back out again as to the wisdom behind Citroen’s decision to bench Breen in favour of Loeb for both Mexico and France (hint – it was a mistake), but the fact is that he’s back, and with a point to prove. He’ll start from an advantageous position and therefore should be well placed to fight for solid points positions, perhaps even a podium if things go his way and he gels with both car and rally.
Meeke knows that he really needs a victory, perhaps more so than at any time in his career. The lackluster performances of last year could legitimately be blamed on the evil handling traits of the new C3 WRC, but there’s ample evidence to suggest that it has now matured into a far more capable beast. It hasn’t been for lack of trying, mind; Meeke and Nagle have certainly had the pace to fight for wins, but a mix of poor fortune and costly errors have served to blunt their title ambitions. Still, at least the Northern Irishman knows exactly what it takes to win in Argentina, this the scene of his maiden victory back in 2015, a showing he’ll doubtless look to replicate this weekend.
Argentina marks the first outing this year for Citroen’s wealthy benefactor and sometime driver, Khalid Al-Qassimi. Expect steady progress from the UAE royal and former Middle East Rally Champion.
Attracting a bumper haul of WRC2 entrants has long posed a challenge for those events based outside rallying’s traditional European stomping ground, so it’s a refreshing change to see Argentina has been able to draw a moderately sized crop of crews for the 2018 event. The Skoda Fabias of Pontus Tidemand, Christian Ole Veiby and Kalle Rovenpera are doubtless the favourites for class honors, the Swede seeking to close the gap to championship leader Jan Kopecky in the Czech’s absence. Skoda’s honor will also be upheld by Gustavo Saba and Tiago Weiler, both from Paraguay, both in identical Fabia R5s.
There’s a notable lack of representation for Ford in Argentina this year, largely thanks to the absence of Tomi Mäkinen’s pair of up-and-coming Japanese youngsters, though the Fiestas of Gus Greensmith, Pedro Heller and Nil Solans are all likely to feature in the upper half of the time sheets.
1 – Sébastien Ogier – Ford Fiesta WRC
2 – Elfyn Evans – Ford Fiesta WRC
3 – Teemu Suninen- Ford Fiesta WRC
4 – Andreas Mikkelsen – Hyundai i20 WRC
5 – Thierry Neuville – Hyundai i20 WRC
6 – Dani Sordo – Hyundai i20 WRC
7 – Jari-Matti Latvala – Toyota Yaris WRC
8 – Ott Tanak – Toyota Yaris WRC
9 – Esapekka Lappi – Toyota Yaris WRC
10 – Kris Meeke – Citroen C3 WRC
11 – Craig Breen – Citroen C3 WRC
12– Khalid Al Qassimi– Citroen C3 WRC
1 – Pontus Tidemand – Skoda Fabia R5
2 – Christian Ole Veiby – Skoda Fabia R5
3 – Kalle Rovenpera – Skoda Fabia R5
4 – Gus Greensmith – Ford Fiesta R5
5 – Pedro Heller – Ford Fiesta R5
6 – Marco Wilkinson Bulacia – Ford Fiesta R5
7 – Nil Solans – Ford Fiesta R5
8 – Gustavo Saba – Skoda Fabia R5
9 – Diego Sr. Dominguez – Hyundai i20 R5
10 – Tiago Weiler – Skoda Fabia R5