The Forests are alive with the sound of…. No not Music, engines. That’s right, engines! Every October the Welsh landscape and forests come alive to the thrills, spills and noise of the WRC – The World Rally Championship. The penultimate round of the 2017 season was the 73rd running of Dayinsure Rally GB and would potentially see the conclusion of an immense title challenge, headlined by reining multiple champion Sebastien Ogier, in his first season with M-Sport Ford and Belgian rival Thierry Neuville, who was seeking his first WRC title in the Hyundai i20. After dominating the WRC in recent years with Volkswagen, taking four titles in the Polo R, Ogier was on course for title number five and moving ever closer to the record of nine held by fellow countryman Sebastien Loeb. Throughout 2017 Ogier and M-Sport had secured four rally victories, two apiece between Ogier and Ott Tanak and led the driver’s championship on 198 points (Ogier) and teams’ championship on 358 points with two rallies remaining. In previous seasons Volkswagen were rarely challenged for wins and therefore the introduction of the brand-new WRC machinery has created a lot of unpredictably. Toyota, Citroen, Ford and Hyundai have all recorded wins and if it wasn’t for some misfortune, the title race would probably have been wide open. With twenty-five points for a rally win and bonus points available in the Power stage, Ogier came into Rally GB with an advantage of thirty-seven points over team mate Ott Tanak and a further one point over Neuville, however over the season the Hyundai driver has mainly be in control, with the i20 being the quicker of the four cars and Neuville securing the most wins in the season of three (France, Argentina and Poland). A run of DNFs hindered Neuville’s chances of the WRC title and therefore the potential threat from M-Sport’s Ott Tanak sees the team holding a 1-2 in the standings. The Estonian was now Ogier’s closest challenger for the title in what would be his last season for M-Sport after announcing a move to Toyota for 2018. The only other driver to mention who could affect the top three was Ogier’s former VW team mate, Jari-Matti Latvala, who had stepped into the brand-new Toyota Yaris following VW’s withdrawal and took victory early in the season in Sweden. Sitting on 123 points after a retirement in Spain means the overall title may have been out of the question, but a top three finish was capable, if he could overhaul thirty-seven points to catch Neville. The Toyota in recent events had let Latvala down, but throughout the year had shown promise. The season was coming to a close for the WRC drivers and teams and one team that will look back on the year concerned were going to be Citroen. 2017 had seen plenty of up and downs for the French team and in the brand new C3, Kris Meeke would only secure a few wins for the team. Alongside Craig Been and Stéphane Lefebvre victories only came at Rally Mexico and Rally Spain, but guest appearances by Andreas Mikkelsen did earn Citroen a second-place finish in Germany. Mikkelsen since departed the team joining rivals Hyundai to contest the final three rounds (Spain, GB and Australia). To help try and improve the C3 in the final rounds, nine times champion Sebastien Loeb stepped back into a WRC car to test. Rumours are growing that Loeb may return to the WRC in 2018 alongside Meeke and another driver. Coming into Rally GB and the home round for Meeke and Breen, Craig Breen was the highest placed Citroen driver on sixty-four points in eighth, only four points ahead of team mate Kris Meeke. Even though results have been hard to take for Citroen in 2017, there was however some momentum as Kris Meeke and co-driver Paul Nagle overcame the tough roads of Rally Spain to record win number two of the season. In the championship standings heading to Rally GB, Hyundai held fifth spot with Dani Sordo on ninety-four points, only one ahead of M-Sport/DMACK driver Elfyn Evans in sixth. Climbing to seventh in the table was the second Toyota Yaris of Juho Hanninen, who took fourth at Rally Spain to move onto seventy-one points and have a margin of seven over the Citroens.
A Night Stage to get things Underway
The 2017 Dayinsure Rally GB would get underway on Thursday 26th October with the opening stage taking place at Tir Prince Raceway. The short-sharp stage around the horse racing venue would challenge the drivers with the layout producing tight corners and fast sections, with the added element of taking place under the floodlights. With all eyes on the four times champion Sebastien Ogier and MSport with championships hanging in their favour, Ogier delivered on the opening stage, completing the 0.9-mile course around the horse racing track and car park in 1:09.7 seconds to lead Rally GB after SS1. Jari-Matti Latvala put the Toyota Yaris into second place, 0.4 seconds slower than his former team mate, whilst Ogier’s title rivals managed third and fourth, under a second slower than Ogier. The next two in the field were level through the opening stage as Andreas Mikkelsen (Hyundai) and Elfyn Evans were joint fifth, after Evans topped the morning shakedown and looked favourite to secure victory in his home town in the DMACK M-Sport Ford Fiesta. Times were also shared in seventh and ninth as Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi tied seventh with Dani Sordo (Hyundai) and the outgoing Juho Hanninen ninth with Craig Breen (Citroen). The opening stage did see disappointment for one of the predicted front runners as Britain’s Kris Meeke stalled whilst using the handbrake and would end SS1 within the WRC2 cars, 2.5 seconds down on Ogier.
- Sebastien Ogier/J.Ingrassia (No.1 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = 1:09.7s
- Jari-Matti Latvala/M.Anttila (No.10 – Toyota Gazoo Racing – Toyota Yaris) = +0.4s
- Thierry Neuville/N.Gilsoul (No.5 – Hyundai Motorsport – Hyundai I20) = +0.5s
Friday sees trip Into the Forest & the Famous Sweet Lamb Test
The Friday morning action got underway with traditional forest stages and a trip to the famous Sweet Lamb test, as drivers would tackle Myherin, Sweet Lamb and Hafren. Ogier was looking to cement his lead in the opening runs on Friday however it was his M-Sport team mate who went to the top of the times, as Elfyn Evans went from fifth overall to first, winning Myherin and Hafren. Quickest times on the longer stages gave Evans a lead of 6.7 seconds before the field would run the stages again in the afternoon. Evans broke a piece of history by taking the lead, as he became the first Brit since the late great Colin McRae back in 2001 to lead Rally GB. Running Evans close at the top after stages 2/3/4 was team mate Ott Tanak and in stage 3, the Estonian had taken time out of Evans advantage through Sweet Lamb. With one Brit climbing to the top of the times, another had flown on the opening stages, as Citroen’s Kris Meeke moved up the order from sixteenth to lie third, 9.3 seconds slower than Tanak but on a charge in the C3. Dropping from first to fourth was Sebastien Ogier after stages 2 to 4, after the M-Sport driver lost time through Hafren, going slower than Evans and Tanak by 14.2 seconds in what was a cagey stage for the Frenchmen. The conditions in Wales weren’t really what the drivers were used to and this affected Jari-Matti Latvala as the Toyota driver dropped to fifth complaining of understeer, just ahead of Hyundai’s front runner in Wales, Andreas Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen lead a train of I20s, who covered places six to nine with Thierry Neuville now seventh following a ten second penalty picked up overnight after the opening stage. The opening stages had caught out one driver in the WRC field as Citroen’s Craig Breen dropped way down the order on Hafren, as a slow puncture in the stage left him thirteenth ahead of the afternoon runs.
- Elfyn Evans/D.Barritt (No.3 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = 35:23.2s
- Ott Tanak/M.Jarveoja (No.2 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = +6.7s
- Kris Meeke/P.Nagle (No.9 – Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT – Citroen C3) = +16.0s
M-Sport in Control of Home Rally after Friday
The afternoon stages on Friday began with SS5 at Myherin and after leading the way in the morning, Elfyn Evans began where he left off, winning SS5 behind the wheel of his DMACK Ford Fiesta, 4.3 seconds faster than the field, but was reeled back at Sweet Lamb and Hafren. Recovering from the ten second penalty issued on Thursday, Thierry Neuville was now finding his comfort zone in Wales and took his Hyundai I20 to the top of times, along with a more aggressive performance from Sebastien Ogier. The third Ford of Ott Tanak held onto second place after stages 5 to 7 but would fall short on taking time away from Evans and was 24.6 seconds back heading into Saturday. Ogier on the other hand now moved closer to his championship rival and team mate and victory on the second run of Sweet Lamb gave Ogier third overall and M-Sport held a 1-2-3 at home. Going into Saturday, the three title contenders were close as Thierry Neuville was fourth and beginning to snap at the heels of the M-Sport Fords. After sitting in the top three early on, Jari-Matti Latvala fell to fifth in the Toyota, whilst Kris Meeke ended Friday sixth. With Meeke on the up in terms of his pace in the Citroen C3, disaster struck for the second C3 of Craig Breen as he suffered a 50-minute delay after falling in a ditch during the second run of Hafren and entered Rally 2 regulations. Hyundai held positions seven down to nine in the order of Mikkelsen, Sordo and Paddon, ahead of the two Toyotas of Hanninen and Lappi tenth and eleventh.
- Elfyn Evans/D.Barritt (No.3 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = 1hr09:20.9s
- Ott Tanak/M.Jarveoja (No.2 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = +24.6s
- Sebastien Ogier/J.Ingrassia (No.1 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = +26.8s
Wonders from the Welshmen on Home Turf
Saturday would be the longest day for the crews with runs through the forest starting out at Dyfnant, with the second run of Dyfnant being in the dark and the day including the RallyFest over at Cholmondeley Castle in Chester for SS14. Evans was the driver with the target on his back in the DMACK Fiesta but he got the day off to the perfect start, securing victories over four stages and led by 49.3 seconds. Whilst Evans controlled things in one Ford, the other two were losing ground to Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville, as the Belgian overhauled Ogier and Tanak after the Dyfi stage and before regroup, dropped Tanak and Ogier to third and fourth by a combined total of 8.7 seconds. Behind the title contenders, Kris Meek and Jari-Matti Latvala continued to battle over fifth place and after the first run of Aberhirnant were joined by the Hyundai of Andreas Mikkelsen, as the Norwegian took Meeke for sixth and Latvala for fifth before re-group and the second run of stages.
In the second run of the stages and the inclusion of the RallyFest, Evans was able to establish his lead further ahead of the night stages and would hold a lead of 51.6 seconds ahead of Thierry Neuville. Neuville had cut Evans’ time on the first stage of the afternoon but Evans held on to maintain a decent advantage, whilst his team mates continued to struggle to catch the Hyundai and fell further from second place, as Tanak held third ahead of Ogier. The rest of the field remained as it was even though Kris Meeke destroyed the rear wing on his C3 during the run of Gartheiniog and surprisingly didn’t lose speed and Hayden Paddon lost time due to hydraulic problems in the Hyundai I20.
Out at Cholmondeley Castle a shower before SS14 was due to start affected conditions, making the castle traffic roads slippery in comparison to the gravel paths of the forest. As a majority of the field got through the small stage trouble free, Juho Hanninen became the Rally’s biggest retirement after losing the Toyota Yaris under braking, striking a hay bail and shed before crashing out in the trees. The wrecked Toyota would not be repaired by the team and therefore Hanninen’s competitive career with Toyota was over in embarrassing fashion, as the team had already announced that at the season finale in Australia only Latvala and Lappi would contest the Rally and Tanak would replace Hanninen for the 2018 season.
For the evening stages on Saturday night, heavy fog affected runs through Dyfnant and Aberhirnant, making conditions tricky for the leading pack. As a few of the front runners were cautious out in the dark, Sebastien Ogier gained, jumping up to second after a lucky escape, where the Frenchman lost one of his four brakes after an incident resulted in a puncture and brake damage. For Rally leader, Elfyn Evans could only manage seventh quickest in the dark and his lead dropped to 53.1 seconds going into Sunday’s five stages. With Ogier taking second, Thierry Neuville lied third but the championship contenders had lost Tanak, as the Estonian dropped to sixth overall and out of contention for a podium. Jumping into fourth was Jari-Matti Latvala as the Toyota driver secured stage win at Aberhirnant and then went quicker than Andreas Mikkelsen around Dyfnant to cement fourth going into Sunday. Behind Tanak in seventh after struggling with conditions was Kris Meeke, 21.5 seconds down on the M-Sport fourth and ahead of the remaining Hyundais and Toyota.
- Elfyn Evans/D.Barritt (No.3 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = 2hr32:39.2s
- Sebastien Ogier/J.Ingrassia (No.1 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = +53.1s
- Thierry Neuville/N.Gilsoul (No.5 – Hyundai Motorsport – Hyundai I20) = +53.6s
History Made on Sunday thanks to M-Sport Dominance
Sunday was set to create history in the WRC as the field arrived to tackle Brenig, Alwen and Gwydir, as Elfyn Evans was on the brink of becoming the first Welshman to win Rally GB and First Brit since Richard Burns in 2000, whilst team mate Sebastien Ogier was ready to seal title number 5 and M-Sport the manufactures title = a triple crown. In the first three stages, Evans was a little cautious as his gap at the front dropped to 43.4 seconds as Thierry Neuville battled hard to wreck the party for M-Sport and at least take the drivers title fight to Australia. After dropping to third overnight, Neuville regained second from Ogier during the first run of Alwen and then went joint quickest on Gwydir to hold an advantage of 4.8 seconds over his rival. It was slightly evident that the leading contenders were cautious to a certain degree on the final day, as opening runs saw Jari-Matti Latvala, Andreas Mikkelsen and Ott Tanak top the stage times whilst in fourth, fifth and sixth. Outside the top six, Kris Meeke looked set to finish Rally GB in seventh if all went to plan whilst Esapekka Lappi had finally split the remaining Hyundais over the fight for positions eight, nine and ten.
With the final stages due to get underway, Evans and co-driver Dan Barritt had one hand on Rally GB victory and in terms of the title race, Neuville and Tanak needed to outscore Ogier by about eight points to force the title battle to Australia. The lower part of the field took to the powerstage first and with times coming through faster than the earlier Brenig run; eyes were mostly on Tanak, Neuville, Ogier and rally leader Evans. For Neuville, he mainly needed Ogier to lose out to the competitors behind to continue the championship fight and when Ogier came across the timing beam, the Frenchmen had done enough. A third-place finish and the bonus powerstage points was enough and Ogier and his co-driver Julien Ingrassia sealed a fifth consecutive championship a round early and his first after leaving VW at the end of 2016. The positions of Tanak and Ogier created even more celebration for M-Sport as Malcolm Wilson’s team clinched their first manufacturers’ championship as a private team and its first since winning with Ford back in 2007. For Elfyn Evans, the powerstage became a celebration run as it was impossible for the Welshmen to lose his maiden WRC victory and Elfyn crossed the line to win by 37.3 seconds and celebrated by climbing on the roof of the DMACK Ford to the delight of everyone surrounded.
- Elfyn Evans/D.Barritt (No.3 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = 2hr57:00.6s
- Thierry Neuville/N.Gilsoul (No.5 – Hyundai Motorsport – Hyundai I20) = +37.3s
- Sebastien Ogier/J.Ingrassia (No.1 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = +45.2s
- Andreas Mikkelsen/A.Jager (No.6 – Hyundai Motorsport – Hyundai I20) = +49.8s
- Jari-Matti Latvala/M.Anttila (No.10 – Toyota Gazoo Racing – Toyota Yaris) = +50.3s
FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) Drivers’ Standings:
- Sebastien Ogier/J.Ingrassia (No.1 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = 215 Pts.
- Thierry Neuville/N.Gilsoul (No.5 – Hyundai Motorsport – Hyundai I20) = 183 Pts.
- Ott Tanak/M.Jarveoja (No.2 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = 169 Pts.
- Jari-Matti Latvala/M.Anttila (No.10 – Toyota Gazoo Racing – Toyota Yaris) = 136 Pts.
- Elfyn Evans/D.Barritt (No.3 – M-Sport World Rally – Ford Fiesta) = 118 Pts.
To keep up to date with the WRC and to follow the final round of the 2017 season in Australia, please check out http://www.wrc.com
To see our collection of photos and videos from Rally GB, please visit our album here.
Written and Produced by Chris Collier and Cheryl Closs.