Citroen’s second win – at Rally Finland no less - of the season with a limited WRC programme should make them feel hopeful about 2017.
The WRC’s new start order rules that have had three-timf1e defending champion Sebastien Ogier considering retirement tend to loom over any event held in rallying’s premier class these days. But with Ogier well out of the running in Rally Finland due to a crash, the attention was deservedly turned towards Chris Meeke and Citroen.
The French manufacturer, which has been running an extremely limited campaign this year – Finland was only Meeke’s fourth event out of the eight rallies held so far – and yet has two wins to its credit. The second of which came at the WRC’s most hallowed ground, Rally Finland. Meeke’s win and Craig Breen’s third place were a major boost to a manufacturer that lost its stride after Sebastien Loeb’s retirement.
Their truncated involvement this year has allowed them to switch most of their resourced towards preparing for the 2017 season when WRC cars become far more powerful and aggressive.
With the run of FIA World Rally Championship rounds without Ogier on the top step now stretching to six, Meeke took his second win of the season and the first for a British driver at Rally Finland. Breen overcame a stern challenge from Thierry Neuville for third place.
Volkswagen Motorsport got some representation on the podium as Jari-Matti Latvala finished just 29.1 seconds behind Meeke in the overall classification. Ogier, however, had a troubled event as the Frenchman crashed on Friday and then suffered brake problems a day later.
It was the first non-points scoring finish for the defending WRC champion this season but as his nearest challenger in the championship race – Andreas Mikkelsen – finished only seventh, Ogier still holds a 45 point lead in the drivers’ standings.
Hyundai’s Neuville and Haydon Paddon finished fourth and fifth to allow the Korean manufacturer to strengthen their second place in the consturctor’s championship.
Mads Ostberg finished ahead of Mikkelsen with WRC-2 winner and former teammate of Gaurav Gill in the FIA Asia-Pacific Rally Championship Esapekka Lappi. Kevin Arbring and Teemu Suninen rounded out the points scoring positions.
Neuville, Paddon, Latvala, Mikkelsen and Ogier posted the five fastest times in the Power Stage.
Meeke’s win was all the more impressive on account of denying Latvala his third straight Rally Finland win. Not to mention the fact that a non-Scandinavian driver won was a major statement in itself. Especially when you consider the fact the last two drivers to have broken the Scandinavian grip on the event have been a couple of ‘super Sebs’.
Finnish fans need not be too disappointed, however. In Lappi, they definitely have a star in the future to cheer for. While the former Finnish champion’s entry was in an extremely well-funded factory Skoda, it was still very much a step or two down from a full-blown WRC car.
To be able to mix it with the big boys in a WRC-2 car is no mean feat at all. And it is certainly food for thought for Indian rallying fans, given that Lappi was the man who Gill beat in a straight fight in equal machinery for the 2013 APRC title.
Gill will be 35 in December this year, and while he has managed to keep himself busy, and fit, there is clearly a shelf-life for participants at this level.
Until he actually gets a shot at WRC-2 at least we are just left to wonder and imagine what a return to rallying in Europe after a very brief spell in the Production WRC in 2008 and 2009 wil have in store for GIll. As is the case with which manufacturer will come out the most prepared to put their mark on the 2017 crown. Historically major rule changes have favoured those that have a lot of resources and good leadership.
And while Volkswagen certainly have that behind the wheel with Ogier, the fallout of Volkswagen’s ‘dieselgate’, which has led to global austerity measures and the departure of team boss Jost Capito are likely to have an effect on the German outfit that has comprehensively stamped its authority on the WRC since 2013.
Capito will, in fact, trade the wilds of WRC stages for the relative confines of racing circuits in his new role as the CEO of the McLaren F1 team and is expected to be present with the team once the F1 summer break ends with the running of the Belgian Grand Prix.