HYUNDAI AND CITROEN HOPE TO KEEP VOLKSWAGEN FROM REPEAT DOMINATION OF WRC, WRITES COLIN SMITH
The Volkswagen onslaught arrived in the World Rally Championship in 2013.
That year Frenchman Sebastien Ogier won four of the first seven rallies of the season and the next two seasons he won five of the first seven events as the foundation for a hat-trick of WRC Driver’s crowns.
When Ogier’s 2016 campaign began with back-to-back wins in Monte Carlo and Sweden, the pattern looked ominously familiar.
But when the season began there was a glimmer of hope that Volkswagen might not dominate the sport again. Those hopes rested mainly on Hyundai making rapid progress with the new generation i20. The wins by Hayden Paddon in Argentina and Thierry Neuville in Sardinia have delivered on Hyundai’s promise.
And part-timers Citroen — preparing for a full-time return in 2017 — have also tasted success, with Kris Meeke victorious in Portugal.
So the WRC has changed in recent months. Ogier hasn’t added to those two early-season victories and the mid-season statistics show the last six rallies have produced six different winners.
To find years that come close to matching those stats you need to look to 2002 and 2003, when the mid-season point had produced five different rally winners.
While Ogier has earned his success in recent years, the sport is much better for the depth of competition and the unpredictability it has shown this year.
It’s been a long time since the competition has been this compelling — but before getting too carried away it must be remembered that Ogier leads the championship by a clear margin. Seven rallies marks the halfway point in this year’s 14-round championship. And halfway means a Northern Hemisphere summer break followed by Rally Finland — the most spectacular rally of the year on the fast, roller-coaster roads, which begins Friday morning (NZ time).
Norway's Andreas Mikkelsen (right) and co-driver Anders Jaeger.
Ogier won’t be a clear favourite in Finland. He’s won there in the past but on home soil it’s Jari-Matti Latvala who should lead the hopes of Volkswagen Motorsport. His team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway) comes to Finland after a victory in Poland last month.
Citroen has included Finland in its part-time 2016 programme and Kris Meeke can’t be counted out this weekend, having already claimed in win in Portugal.
A wildcard contender will be Estonian Ott Tanak — if the D-Mack tyres on his Ford Fiesta work as well as they did in Poland last month. A last-day puncture cost Tanak a remarkable win but if he can carry that pace to the Finnish roads he becomes the most likely candidate to make it seven winners from seven events.
Of course, the highlight for Kiwi rally fans in 2016 has been Paddon’s continued rise in the sport. His maiden WRC win in Argentina is the high point of three podiums so far this season and his recent third place in Poland turned the tide after two disappointing events in Portugal and Sardinia.
Paddon is third in the championship behind Ogier and Mikkelsen.
Currently third in the standings, the realistic aim for Paddon in Finland is a podium finish and another rally as Hyundai’s top driver. But given the unpredictability of the 2016 season and the speed he has shown on the Finnish stages in the past, a second victory isn’t beyond the realm of possibility for Paddon.
One front-running driver who doesn’t figure among the contenders to make it seven different winners in eight rallies is Hyundai’s Dani Sordo. The Spaniard sustained a fractured vertebrae in a recent testing accident and is resting ahead of an expected to return for Rally Germany in August. He’ll be replaced in Finland by Dutchman Kevin Abbring.
An estimated 43 per cent of the Rally Finland route has been changed this year in a significant revamp of the event. The action opens tomorrow evening with a super-special stage.
There are 11 stages scheduled on Friday, providing 146.70km of competition while on Saturday the eight-stage itinerary includes two runs through a revised version of the 33km high-speed Ouninpohja stage and 150.82km in total.
The Sunday sprint is just four stages, with 34.20km of competition. Following Rally Finland the second half of the WRC season heads to Germany followed by the new-for-2016 Chinese event, Corsica, Spain, Wales and the finale in Australia in November.