BARELY six months ago, Sébastien Ogier, Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak landed at Kennards Hire Rally Australia for one of the closest battles in the history of the FIA World Rally Championship. Ogier eventually scooped his sixth-straight drivers’ title, but the result seems barely to have mattered as the championship’s three greatest rivals start Xion Rally Argentina today with just five points separating their quest for the new season’s crown.
PHOTO: Can Sébastien Ogier hold his WRC lead at Rally Argentina? (Citroën photo)
After winning in Corsica last month Hyundai driver Neuville leads by two points over Ogier, who topped the podiums in Monte-Carlo and Mexico. Tänak, winner in Sweden, is three points further back.
Rally Argentina starts on Thursday night local time in Villa Carloz Paz, around 700 kms west of Buenos Aires. It is one of the toughest tests of the WRC season, which will end again on the NSW Coffs Coast on 14-17 November.
Neuville, Ogier, Tänak and the rest of the WRC’s elite crews representing Hyundai, M-Sport Ford, Toyota and Citroën, face a make-or-break fight over almost 350kms of fast, rocky and often fog-shrouded gravel roads. Up to a million of the WRC’s most passionate spectators are expected to pack the stages to watch the action.
As championship leader, under WRC rules Neuville will have to start Friday’s special stages first and sweep the loose surface for his rivals. The Belgian is aware Argentina’s roads demand clever thinking as well as outright pace.
“As one of the roughest rallies of the season, it requires a careful approach. On the one hand, we need to look after the car, but on the other there are some sections where you can really attack. It’s a balancing act,” he said.
Remarkably, Ogier has never won in Argentina. The Frenchman admits it’s a statistic he wants to erase.
“I would even go as far as to say I feel slightly more motivated by the prospect of winning this rally for the first time. The type of roads used varies a lot, but what really stands out is how rough the gravel can be in places,” he said.
Tänak dominated 12 months ago, recovering from an early spin to claim his first victory for Toyota Gazoo Racing. The Yaris World Rally Car driver is clear about his expectations.
“We’re expecting nothing less this year. I believe we should be able to perform well again here. The fast roads and the kind of surface we have in Argentina should really suit our car quite well,” said the Estonian.
While the focus is on the three closest rivals, every one of the manufacturer-team drivers is primed to smash the challenge of Rally Argentina.
M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans lost in Corsica only after a last-stage puncture and missed in Argentina in 2017 by an incredible 0.7 sec. Teammate Teemu Suninen, though less experienced, has shown strong early form this season.
At Toyota, fan favourite Jari-Matti Latvala is hoping his record 200thWRC start will bring his first win since Rally Australia last November.
Heavy rain has soaked the rally region of Cordoba in recent days and with more scheduled ahead of the start, the roads are likely to be soft with plenty of water filling the famous river crossings.
Xion Rally Argentina is the first of a South American double-header, which continues when the inaugural Copec Rally Chile makes its WRC bow on the western side of the Andes Mountains on 9-12 May. Teams and cars will remain in South America between events to complete their preparation.