Sunday 31 July 2016

Rally - Meeke in Finland

Earlier last week, Volkswagen boss Jost Capito was predicting that Kris Meeke would win Rally Finland easily. In fact it was his event to lose. That was down to the new style running order for the top seeds in this year's World Rally Championship.

Because Citroen is only contesting part of this year's world series, Meeke goes into Finland ninth in the standings. That means he will start eighth on the road (Dani Sordo is not out) which led Capito to believe that this will put Meeke in an unbeatable position on the WRC's fastest rally.

Although Sebastien Ogier still leads the championship, he has not won on gravel all season and Capito sees no sign of that changing given the current running order rules. As points leader Ogier will run first on the road in Finland, Capito observed: "If Kris does no major mistake, he wins Finland. It's not just difficult for Ogier to fight for the win, it's impossible now for Ogier to fight for the win."

Whether this was designed to unsettle the opposition or not or stoke up some controversy, Kris Meeke rose above it. After two days in Finland, Northern Ireland's finest extended his lead with one more day to run. Not only that, Craig Breen ended the day in third place.

The Abu Dhabi Total WRT team leader set the pace on the first stage of the day yesterday, the 33km which most drivers liken to riding a rollercoaster! This year, the stage was quite different as it was being run in the opposite direction to usual. The drivers therefore had to alter their markers and references during recce.

At the end of the test, Meeke and Paul Nagle had beaten Jari-Matti Latvala by a remarkable 13.4 seconds while Been and Scott Martin who started in fifth place prior to the stage start, emerged in fourth place!

The day ended with Meeke holding a 41s lead over second-placed Latvala and despite coming under pressure from M-Sport's Ott Tänak, Breen held onto third place overall.

At the overnight halt, Kris said: “Yesterday was my best day in a WRC. But that wasn’t the case for long, because today has surpassed it! This morning, I got up an hour early today to watch the video of my recce on Ouninpohja. I think it’s the greatest stage in the world, and the most iconic as well. So I was really determined to do something special on it! I knew Jari-Matti Latvala would try to close the gap so I had to push really hard… At the end, I felt that I couldn’t have done any more. But I was still surprised when I found out just how big the gap was! In the afternoon, the rain tended to improve the grip and I was able to go even quicker, but it wasn’t quite as exciting as the first pass. We’re now in a good position to see out the win. We’ll have to stay focused to manage our lead tomorrow and finish the job we have done over the last two days.”

Craig Breen added: “I never thought I’d be fighting for a podium place before the start of this rally! This morning, I learned a lot during the first run on Ouninpohja. I then didn’t complete SS14 because it was cancelled after Lorenzo Bertelli’s crash. We kept improving though and we had already moved up into third by the mid-leg point. I did feel a little bit of extra pressure for the second loop due to my position. As was to be expected, I lost a bit of time on the stage that I hadn’t contested this morning. But I was pleased to hit back at Ott Tänak on SS20. He knows that I will try to defend my position tomorrow, even though I won’t go over the limit to do so. Once again, I’m delighted with how things are going for me!”

Things weren't quite so good in the Volkswagen camp despite Latvala's second place. Sébastien Ogier was struggling with brake problems yesterday morning. Unfortunately, essential repairs took rather longer to rectify than the team would have liked and Ogier's Polo R WRC was late arriving for the start of the second stage of the day, which incurred a time penalty. This had a knock-on effect on Andreas Mikkelsen which meant he had to take on the dreaded role of 'road sweeper' from Ogier – a hindrance that banished any hopes of a top-three result.

Leaderboard after 20 (of 24) stages:
1. Kris Meeke / Paul Nagle (DS 3 WRC) 2:22:00.8
2. Latvala / Anttila (VW Polo R WRC) +41.0
3. Breen / Martin (DS 3 WRC) +1:45.4
4. Tänak / Molder (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +1:54.5
5. Neuville / Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) +2:00.9
6. Paddon / Kennard (Hyundai i20 WRC) +2:03.6
7. Østberg / Floene (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +2:06.0
8. Mikkelsen / Jaeger (VW Polo R WRC) +2:24.0
9. Lappi / Ferm (Skoda Fabia R5) +4:23.6
10. Suninen / Markkula (Skoda Fabia R5) +5:10.5

(Thanks to Citroen for the pics)

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