DRIVERS face a significant turning point in their 2016 FIA World Rally Championship campaigns when ADAC Rallye Deutschland hosts the opening event of a three-round, all-asphalt “season” this weekend.
After a snow event and six successive gravel rallies, the WRC returns to tarmac for the first time since January’s Rallye Monte-Carlo. But winter roads and studded tyres in the French Alps are far removed from the challenge in Germany.
It’s likely no driver is looking forward to Germany more than world champion Sebastien Ogier.
The Frenchman has been accustomed to winning in his hugely successful career with Volkswagen since 2013. But this season’s sporting regulation that sends out the current points leader first to sweep the road on Fridays and Saturdays has disrupted his winning ways on the past six gravel rounds in Mexico, Argentina, Portugal, Italy, Poland and Finland.
On Germanys tarmac, first-out should be an advantage and Ogier will be driving flat out not only to win his team’s home event for a second year but also to rebuild his momentum for a fourth straight driver’s title.
“I always look forward to the Rally Germany, but slightly more than usual this time around. Finally, Julien (co-driver Juien Ingrassia) and I have a realistic chance of fighting for the win under our own steam again after the difficult gravel rallies,” Ogier said.
ADAC Rallye Deutschland is a supremely technical event. Three distinctly different types of roads span bumpy and narrow Mosel vineyards, smooth country tests in Saarland and the daunting multi-surfaced Baumholder military training tracks, which is littered with rusting tanks and massive concrete blocks called hinkelsteins. Hit one and you’re finished.
While the cars are fitted with wider asphalt tyres, bigger brakes and lower suspension height to provide better road holding, drivers must also change their approach.
A precise style is essential as they strive to save vital tenths of a second by taking the neatest racing line through corners. Braking is later than on the loose surfaces due to increased grip, which also imposes bigger physical forces on the crew.
Hyundai’s Dani Sordo, who scored his maiden WRC victory in Germany in 2013, summed up the challenge.
“It’s a very challenging rally, very fast with lots of different characteristics. It’s exciting to drive in the vineyards, fast but very narrow with lots of hairpins and corners,” Sordo said.
“The military ranges are very tricky, particularly in the wet, so it’s important not to make mistakes.”
Jari-Matti Latvala, who with Andreas Mikkelsen helped Volkswagen to a clean sweep of the podium last year, highlighted the demanding 40.90km Panzerplatte military test as the key to success.
“Panzerplatte is a real toughie,” he said. “There are seven different types of surface on that stage. From new concrete, through old, crumbly concrete, to very coarse concrete and even asphalt, it really does have everything.
“It is also important to have a good feel for the car when braking on the Panzerplatte stages, since there are many junctions.
“It is important to have a well-positioned car in the many fast passages. Only then do you feel confident and can really go on the attack.”
After starting on Thursday night with a customary ceremony in front of the historic Porta Nigra gate in Trier, the competitive action will get underway on Friday morning when the crews head into the vineyards of the Moselle region to run on the narrow, dusty and fast service roads that meander through the fruit.
A revised 22km version of the Mittelmosel stage kicks things off before a blast through the slightly longer Moselland test. Both stages are repeated in the afternoon before the day culminates with the new 8.21km circuit stage at Ollmuth.
Saturday’s leg takes the crews on to the high-speed country roads of the Saarland region.
The 14.7km Freisen-Westrich stage and the Bosenberg test get things underway before the route heads into the military proving grounds at Baumholder.
As in 2015, the iconic hinkelstein-littered Panzerplatte will be the scene of five stages: a 2.87km sprint, which will be run three times, and a 40.8km monster that will be tackled twice – once at the end of the first loop and once at the end of the day.
The third and final day features two stages that will be run twice. The 14.79km Dhrontal stage, famous for its long sequences of hairpin turns, gets things underway on Sunday morning, before the running of the 14.84km Sauertal test near the Luxembourg border.
The second pass of Sauertal will act as the rally-closing Power Stage in 2016, where the crews will be bidding to win extra championship points.