PHOTO: Thierry Neuville slides his Hyundai i20 to another podium place for his new team (Hyundai photo)
SEBASTIEN Ogier takes a massive 50-point lead into the second half of the FIA World Rally Championship season after a resounding win at Lotos 71st Rally Poland at the weekend.
The ultra-fast gravel event was largely an unknown quantity for the teams, having been missing from the WRC calendar for five years. But the reigning world champion didn’t let any hesitancy affect his performance in his Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC.
He was fastest on 10 of the 22 stages, including the rally-ending Power Stage where three bonus championship points were up for grabs.
His winning margin of 1m 07s was just reward for his dominant performance and he claimed the 21st victory of his career.
“I think it’s the perfect weekend for me,” said Ogier, who will return to the NSW Coffs Coast for the WRC 10th round at Coates Hire Rally Australia on 11-14 September.
“I have got a victory and a good step for the championship. I saw on the first full day I had a disadvantage by opening the road, but if I could maintain the same rhythm after that I knew I would be okay.”
Second place was filled by Ogier’s teammate Andreas Mikkelsen. The 25-year-old Norwegian was extremely fast during the opening exchanges but his challenge faltered on the second day when he spun and lost his brakes.
Mikkelsen soon realised there was no opportunity to safely challenge for the lead and he focused on holding station for the remaining stages.
Hyundai’s promising first season in the WRC returned another podium finish for the i20 WRC with Thierry Neuville behind the wheel and, for th first time, three cars in the top eight.
The Belgian’s only drama on his way to third place was when his car’s handbrake locked on in the ninth stage and he lost 32.2s.
The fight for the remaining places on the leaderboard was significantly affected by drama that unfolded on the 14th stage of the rally, the 35.17km run through ‘Goldap 1’.
M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans and Citroen’s Mads Ostberg both retired after clipping a big rock that was lurking in the Polish undergrowth. Evans damaged his Ford Fiesta’s left-front suspension, while Ostberg damaged the roll cage of his DS3 WRC when it rolled.
Volkswagen’s Jari-Matti Latvala hit the same rock and also sustained serious suspension damage, but he managed to continue at a reduced speed.
Others to suffer were Kris Meeke, Henning Solberg and local crowd favourite Robert Kubica, who all lost valuable time with punctures.
Once the dust settled, the leaderboard started to take a meaningful shape as the crews headed towards the finish.
M-Sport’s Mikko Hirvonen spent most of the time he wasn’t in his Ford Fiesta amending his pace notes to make them faster. The effort paild off with fourth place fourth, just 0.7s ahead of the recovering Latvala.
Sixth place went to Hyundai’s Juho Hanninen, who had a 1m 38s lead over Meeke’s Citroen at the finish line, while New Zealand’s Hayden Paddon capped another strong performance in his i20 WRC to claim eighth and secure Hyundai’s first three-car finish.
Privateers Henning Solberg and Martin Prokop rounded out the top 10 places but both drivers were some distance off Ogier’s winning pace, which equated to 304.21km of competitive driving at an average speed of 118.48kmh.
In the Junior WRC second round, Australian Molly Taylor suffered transmission problems in her Citroen DS3 and was classified eighth, 38m 10.3s behind winner Stephane Lefebvre of France.
Round eight of the WRC will be Neste Oil Rally Finland, starting on 31 July.
RESULTS, Lotos 71st Rally Poland (WRC Rd 7 of 13)
1. S. OGIER (Volkswagen) Total time 2h 34m 02.0s
2. A. MIKKELSEN (Volkswagen) gap to winner + 1m 7.7s
3. T. NEUVILLE (Hyundai) + 2:13.5
4. M. HIRVONEN (Ford) + 2:32.4
5. J. LATVALA (Volkswagen) +2:33.1
6. J. HANNINEN (Hyundai) + 2:49.9
7. K. MEEKE (Citroen) + 4:27.9
8. H. PADDON (Hyundai) + 4:32.1
9. M. PROKOP (Ford) + 4:59.0
10. H. SOLBERG (Ford) + 6:11.3
FIA Driver standings (after Rd 7)
1 S Ogier 166
2 J-M Latvala 116
3 A Mikkelsen 83
4 M Ostberg 66
5 M Hirvonen 52
6 T Neuville 46
7 K Meeke 38
8 E Evans 36
9 M Prokop 31
10 H Solberg 24
FIA Manufacturer standings (after Rd 7)
1 Volkswagen Motorsport 262
2 Citroen TOTAL Abu Dhabi WRT 115
3 M-Sport WRT 90
4 Volkswagen Motorsport II 82
5 Hyundai Shell Motorsport 80