The 85th running of the Monte Carlo certainly delivered a dramatic start for the 2017 WRC season, but not without an initial tragic turn of events.
After months of speculation the all new 2017 Spec world rally cars lined up outside Casino Square in Monaco on Thursday night, light pods at the ready, rearing to tackle the blinding darkness of SS1 and 2. Everything seemed in order, as the crews were waved over the ceremonial start ramp with suspense and anticipation almost at breaking point.
The stage was set for a night of classic Monte action after Theirry Neuville astoundingly beat Ogier on the pitch black winding roads of Etrevaux Ubraye in SS1 by over 4 seconds. However, the excitement was then extinguished when news broke that Hayden Paddon had left the road, hitting a spectator in the process resulting in the stage being red flagged. In the early hours of Friday morning a statement from the Automobile Club De Monaco confirmed the worst possible news that the spectator had sadly passed away after the accident.
As a mark of respect Hyundai withdrew the #4 car of Hayden Paddon and John Kennard, leaving rally leaders Thierry Neuville and teammate Danni Sordo to lead the way for the Hyundai outfit. However, unfortunately from now on the 2017 spec WRC cars will be burdened with the unchangeable fact that on the very first stage a fatality was recorded; not a good press release for a new set of radical regulations.
There was some more positive news on the following night stage, SS2 Bayon breziers. Juho Hannien blasted through the stage in the new Toyota Yaris WRC to set the third quickest time, and head into Fridays tests 3rd in the overall standings. Neuville continued to set the pace out front, outwitting the world champion by 8.8 seconds through the stage. Dungannon’s finest Kris Meeke had a reserved but promising start to the rally, lining up 4th in his C3 WRC heading into Friday mornings stages.
Friday got off to a dramatic start after Ogier slid his fiesta into a ditch after a particularly icy hairpin, loosing 40s to stage winner Ott Tanak and overall leader Neuville. Welsh Dmack driver Elfyn Evans suffered a similar fate to his M Sport counterpart as he too lost a chunk of time in the same ditch as Ogier. It was another flawless performance from Neuville on stages SS4 and SS5, outpacing Ogier on both counts and in doing so building a commanding lead of over a minute from the 4 time world champion.
There was no lack of drama either, as Meeke managed to successfully rip the rear suspension strut clean off the C3 after hammering into a bank on SS4. Juho Hannien’s impressive start to the rally also came to an abrupt end after a slow speed impact into a tree on SS5, different object, same result for Hannien with broken suspension.
After midday service Monte spectators were treated to a Yaris pirouette, courtesy of Yari Matti Latvala on SS6; Yari had a total of 3 spins on the hairpins of the 24.6 km test of Le Motty 2. His fourth place remained safe though. Ogier then managed to claw back time of SS7, beating Neuville and again piping the Belgium (after Neuville stalled on ‘Hannien’s tree hairpin) to another stage win on SS8. It was clear Ogier was still going to be a fighting force heading into the longer stages on Saturday.
Saturday brought in the revised road order rules for 2017. With crews running in reverse order a day earlier than 2016. SS9 was another win for Neuville, before a rejuvenated Elfyn Evans went on to smash the timing screens in SS10, 12 and 13, winning all three stages. Clearly the Dmacks preferred the more predicable dry asphalt at lower altitude. But then the biggest shock to the standings unfolded in SS12, as dominant rally leader Thierry Neuville touched a kerb after sliding wide on a loose, gravel covered corner. The result was a puncture and sheared rear tack control arm loosing the flying Belgium over 30 minutes in stage to fix. Frustration was clear on Neuville’s face at the Stop Control after it became apparent that particularly tricky corner had been highlighted in Thierry’s gravel notes by Mikko Hirvonen.
As the rally rolled in to the Final day, M sport were within touching distance of a first win since Wales back in 2012, and a first podium 1-2, which was last achieved in Finland 2007. However, there was still a formidable challenge to conquer; a double pass over the infamous Col De Turini. But even before the start, M sport’s second placed driver Ott Tanak was in deep trouble. His Fiesta WRC had developed a misfire from a broken engine management sensor resulting in only 2 cylinders powering the car. Ott could only hope to nurse the car home and pray fate was kind on the Estonian. But fate proved to be not on Ott Tanak’s side as Sordo won SS14 to close right up on M sports number two. By this point Tanak had already lost his 2nd place to Latvala.
There was uplifting news for young Frenchman Stephane Lefebvre, taking the C3 WRC to its maiden stage win in SS15 in the first pass over the mighty col. Tanak was spared an almost certain podium losing battle from Sordo in SS16, as the stage was cancelled due to safety issues, which left only the final pass over the Col De Turini to navigate. Thierry Neuville was the first driver to tackle the col in the increasingly difficult conditions, setting the pace which would ultimately lead him to take the maximum 5 ‘Power Stage’ bonus points on offer. Then came the final battle to watch, with both Tanak and Sordo in the stage. Tanak had lost a massive 42 seconds by the summit of the pass, enough to hand his 3rd place to Sordo. But an awe inspiring drive down the col on the snow covered road allowed Ott to hang on to his podium position, losing only 8.7 seconds to the Spaniard. Then all eyes turned to Sebastian Ogier, who was on the blink of taking a 4th consecutive victory at Monte Carlo. Ogier skilfully tamed the rapidly deteriorating conditions and took yet another victory in his usual impressively controlled style, and in doing so ended the 5 year winless drought at M sport.
It was smiles all round at the M sport service park HQ in Gap. Team Boss Malcolm Wilson was clearly happy to see the back of all those winless years. There was much to celebrate in the Toyota camp, with Latvala finishing 2nd and Hannien showing promising pace. The new Yaris, despite the infamous ‘Ogier test’ which hinted the Yaris was far from competitive, seems instead to have masses of potential. So with the round one of the WRC calendar crossed off the list, one thing can be taken for certain, no driver will hopefully run away with an easy driver’s title victory. Ogier had pace, but Hyundai were strong leading most of the event and Toyota proved they may well be strong enough to challenge for victories too. Let’s hope for a safe, yet invigorating year of WRC action.
image source: Google/ WRC.com