The FIA World Rally Championship arrived in South West Germany, returning to the tarmac in the picturesque Saarland region for round 10. The rally, which was first held in 1982, joined the WRC in 2002 and four of the current crop of drivers competing this season have won the event in recent years. Championship leader heading into the rally, Ott Tank, who had won the past two in 2017 & 2018, would be looking to make it a hat trick of German wins this year.
19 Stages featured on the route this year totalling 344km; where each day is like a different rally in itself. Friday was unchanged from last year, visiting the vine yards around the Mosel River, whereas Saturday had received a fresh re-vamp. With morning stages around Saarland, before heading into the legendary Baumholder military ranges to tackle a mammoth 41km stage on the abrasive hinkelstein lined Panzerplatte stage. Here in this iconic world rallying venue, the fight for the rally win would end for two of our championship contenders. Sunday returned to the grapevines for the final battle of the rally where the 37th Rallye Deutschland winners were crowned.
Frenchman Sébastien Ogier topped the timings on Thursday mornings shakedown in his Citroën C3, beating the Estonian Ott Tanak in the Toyota Yaris by just a tenth of a second on the short 5km St Wendeler Land test stage.
The same test would open up the rally in the evening for the first stage of the rally proper where Ott Tanak would lead from the off, beating returning Spanish tarmac specialist to the Hyundai squad, Danni Sordo.
The first full day of the event featured 100km of familiar stages, three stages to be repeated in the afternoon. Two narrow stages in amongst the vine yards with plenty of hairpin bends thrown in, together with a “Circuit Like” Wander-Weiskirchen stage offered up the perfect challenge for the first full day’s action.
Thierry Neuville had an ideal start in his Hyundai i20 winning the first stage of the morning (SS2 Stein und Wein) getting the better of the “Ice Man” in the Yaris, Ott Tanak by just 1.7 seconds. However, Tanak clearly hadn’t warmed up yet and in amongst the vineyards above the river Mosel in the second stage of the morning he turned it up a level and beat Neuville to regain the rally lead.
The final stage of the mornings loop was vastly different to the first two stages of the day, Wander-Weiskirchen was a more open stage on a smoother surface with two loops of the almost race circuit like stage. This is where Ott Tanak rounded off his mornings efforts with his third stage win of the rally to extend his lead over Neuville before heading into the mid-day service.
The morning was the start of another rally to forget for M-Sport, still without their main man Elfyn Evans who was recovering from his Rally Estonia injury. Number two driver, Teemu Suninen’s Fiesta packed up after only 9km into the first stage of the day leaving stand-in Brit, Gus Greensmith their only hope to score points on only his 3rd rally on the World scene.
Meanwhile former M-Sport driver, Sébastien Ogier was equally having a frustrating start to the rally fighting with under-steer on the Citroën C3 all morning and although he was in third overall he was clearly not happy. This frustration was echoed by his team-mate Esapekka Lappi who was also moaning about the C3’s performance.
“I have some ideas of what the problem is, I don’t have any ideas of what it is we need to do.”
Back out after service and Neuville was back fighting with Tanak, repeating his mornings stage win on the second running of the Stein Und Wien stage, here he beat Kris Meeke by 1.5 seconds. Mirroring the mornings loop, Tanak won the following two stages of the afternoon to end the opening leg of the rally 2.8 seconds ahead of Neuville.
“I guess there is nothing comfortable when the fight is like it is. That’s exactly as we expected – fast stages and small gaps.”
In the WRC2 Pro battle Skoda’s Kalle Rovanperӓ continued on where he left off from Rally Finland by winning the first three stages of the rally in his Fabia R5 EVO. This time here in Germany there would be slightly more competition for him, joined by team-mate Jan Kopecký who was fresh from an ERC (European Rally Championship) win back home in the Czech Republic.
Also along for the WRC2 Pro battle was Eric Camilli in the M-Sport R5 Fiesta and a returning Mads Ostberg in the Citroën C3 R5; who had one hell of a scare on Stage 5 of the event when a spectator fell from a bank right into his racing line. It was only by luck and perhaps a huge amount of skill in his driving that he narrowly avoided running the spectator over.
Kopecký managed to grab the final stage win of the mornings loop before service but an exact repeat of the stages in the second loop once again delivered the same stage winners second time around. Clearly the Wander-Weiskirchen stage suited Kopecký more than Rovanperӓ, who ended the day more than 19 seconds ahead of his Skoda team mate Kopecký.
“I am really happy with the day, we haven’t taken any stupid risks but still we are doing really well”
The second full day of the rally was not only the longest in stage millage but also the longest day for the crews. The 158km day, which had received a bit of a rethink this year by the organisers, started off with a couple of stages in the countryside of Saarland, which were repeated before heading off to the infamous military ranges of the Baumholder region.
The opening days test was won by tarmac ace Danni Sordo in the Hyundai i20, beating M-Sports Teemu Suninen who was now back out on the stages following his technical failure on Friday. This was Sordo’s only stage win of the event, which is surprising considering his many years experience competing in Germany.
It maybe just me but has a pattern started to emerge with Ott Tanak? It seems to be that it takes him until the second stage of the day to get up to speed on most if not all rally’s? Tanak won SS9 Römerstraße, which then also seemed to inject a bit of life into Thierry Neuville who then won the following stage, the second run through Friesen.
Neuville now spurred on and with a little bit of fire in him set about mounting a challenge to Tanak. Posting another fastest stage win just before the first service halt of the day, he reduced the gap to Tanak to 5 seconds before heading over to the ranges.
And so the crews embarked on four tough and challenging stages on the very mixed surfaces of the Baumholder ranges, where danger lurked at the side of the roads. If the tank busting Hinkelsteins didn’t scare the world’s best, then there was always the constant threat of punctures and the dilemma of whether to cut or not.
A short 10k blast around the spectator friendly Arena Panzerplatte stage was won by Tanak in front of the mass of rally fans who were all basking in the bright sun; before heading into a mammoth 41km stage which required real concentration. Unfortunately for Neuville, his fight for the rally win with Tanak would end here as he was the unlucky one to pick up a puncture, having to stop in stage to change a wheel.
“We had a puncture on the rear-left. It’s a lottery and we were really unlucky. We were in the middle of the road so I don’t know where that came from but the rally is not over yet.”
Jari-Matti Latvala then popped up for his first stage win of the event as dusk fell on the second arena stage. Kris Meeke mastered the second run over the long Panzerplatte stage in the low light, for his only stage win of the event to end the day with a strong Toyota 1-2-3 lock-out at the top.
Neuville did enough to claw back two places climbing back up to 5th overall behind team-mate Sordo and crucially, he was still beating rival Sèbastian Ogier who was having a torrid time. With a stall in stage 14 and a puncture in the final stage to end the day all adding to his under-performing C3, it was obvious from his driving that he was angry.
“I think the whole rally has been disappointing and we didn’t need this bad luck on top of it.”
Young Finnish star Kalle Rovanperӓ threw away the WRC2 Pro win on the opening stage of the day. Heading into the second full day of the rally with a decent lead of more than 19 seconds over his team-mate, Jan Kopecký. A mistake on the first Freisen test saw him loose nearly four minutes with his off.
But Rovanperӓ wasn’t done yet, in the very next stage he did it again, another stupid mistake! I suppose it’s only natural for rising young rally drivers to sometimes go over the limit when learning their craft in the quest to rise up through the ranks
“I am doing stupid mistakes all of the time but I have to learn.”
This left his Skoda team-mate, Jan Kopecký to take up the lead ending the day with a 35 second lead over the Frenchman, Eric Camilli in the R5 Fiesta.
“I think Kalle was going over the limit. It is very close to make a mistake and he is very lucky that he could continue. It’s good for him because he can gain some experience.” “We have to be really focussed because the stages are very tricky; we try to go as fast as possible to enjoy the drive because that’s why we are here.”
It was a return to vineyards overlooking the Mosel River on Sunday for the final four stages of the event. Ott Tanak set off from the service park with a 32 second lead over team-mate Kris Meeke with Jari-Matti Latvala also another rear gunner for him in third. With just 80km of stage millage to contend with on the final morning, orders were to stay put and deliver the team a 1-2-3, the first time for Toyota since the Safari Rally of 1993.
Thierry Neuville won the first stage (SS17 Dhrontal) of the morning ahead of his team-mate Dani Sordo. Neuville would be looking to claw back that 4th place from Sordo and if it couldn’t be done out on the stages, then Sordo would more than likely have to forfeit the place anyway before the final time control of the rally.
Jari-Matti Latvala won the high speed reccie of what would be the final power stage later on; but that was a closely fought stage with the Hyundai’s of Sordo and Neuville who were both within a second of him.
Heading into the penultimate stage of the rally (SS18 Gragschaft), Neuville was still more than a minute adrift of Sordo and even with another stage win under his belt he couldn’t over turn his team-mate who continued to put the pressure on both him and Latvala ahead.
The final morning in the WRC2 Pro class was a little un-eventful really, Rovanperӓ won two stages as did Mads Ostberg, but ultimately both of them were unlikely to catch second place Eric Camilli let alone Jan Kopecký who was clear out in front ahead.
Young Japanese driver Takamoto Katsuta immerged from the final power stage in the 4th Toyota Yaris to bring it home for his first ever WRC rally at the top level. Having never competed at this level in a top spec WRC car, to finish 10th overall and score points on a tarmac event which is somewhat all a bit new to Katsuta, it’s an impressive drive.
There is a chance that we might see him stepping up once again before the year end, perhaps Spain would be ideal as a mixed surface event? Rumour is that Toyota in Japan may even enter a satellite team next year with Katsuta and perhaps another young rallying ace… but who? … Rovanperӓ?
Finishing 9th OA and M-Sports top finisher, is stand-in driver Gus Greensmith. Tackling Germany was his third event in the top spec WRC Fiesta and second filling in for injured Elfyn Evans. Despite the odd little mistake, bringing it home in one piece was the target and a great experience on this tarmac event for the Brit.
Evans is expected to return to the hot seat in Turkey, leaving Greensmith back in the R5 for the remainder of the season we suspect. Team-mate Teemu Suninen finished way down the order in 29th overall, hurt hard by his faulty Fiesta on Friday there’s nothing more he could do except show some pace and get some practice in on the tarmac.
Esapekka Lappi had a very difficult weekend in the Citroën C3, ok so perhaps tarmac isn’t his favoured surface being a Finnish lad, but it was clear that the C3’s performance hurt him or at least that’s the impression he was giving.
At one point in the rally he commented “I could not drive as fast as I could last year“, when he was in the Toyota, this a subtle dig at his employer Citroën I’m sure didn’t go down to well with the boss Pierre Budar. 9th overall was the best that Lappi could do in Germany; he will look to improve on the return to gravel next time out.
In all fairness to Lappi thou, if his team-mate, the six times world champion Sébastien Ogier absolutely hated the car in Germany then there was really no defence for the Citroën team. All throughout the rally Ogier was very vocal about the performance of the C3 and at one point even said “I can do absolutely nothing. The stages are fine for me but I cannot drive this car.” a damming blow for Budar and Citroën.
Ogier appeared to give up the fight early on in the rally and just wanted to make it to the end, a final kick in the teeth came on the power stage where 5th fastest time was all that he could muster up to finish 8th overall.
“It was not the weekend we expected but no one can say we didn’t try”
Citroën have an amazing track record in Germany winning the event 11 times with Loeb and Sordo since it joined the WRC in 2002, clearly the car is a bad egg. Citroën have said they are committed to the WRC for at least next year and Ogier is contracted for one last season before retirement, only time will tell how the whole situation will play out. Ogier and Citroën now have only four rally’s to salvage the season. Unless something miraculous occurs, then I think it’s safe to say that Germany was the defining moment for Citroën & Ogier’s exit for the drivers title fight this year.
At this point in the season it is difficult to predict what lies ahead for Norwegian, Andreas Mikkelsen. So far this year he has had two retirements and two podiums in the Hyundai i20, which currently places him 5th in the drivers’ standings. Which on the face of it isn’t particularly that bad but one gets the impression that Hyundai were expecting more.
Finishing 6th overall on the tarmac of Germany with no dramas was perhaps the best result that he could have hoped for. Mikkelsen slotted in nicely behind his team-mate, Dani Sordo who drove well securing valuable team points to put towards the manufactures title in what would have been a 4th place finish overall.
Sordo pushed Jari-Matti Latvala all the way right up until the final power stage even though he knew that team-orders were waiting for him at the final time control, where he would gain a 30 second penalty to make way for his team-mate Thierry Neuville.
Neuville for the first time in a number of rallies once again looked to have had the hunger in him for the driver’s title. He was on the pace with the Toyotas and was fighting with Ott Tanak for much of the rally, up until his unfortunate puncture on the long Panzerplatte stage Saturday afternoon. But he will know that this is rallying and is the luck of the draw, he will at least be positive that he and the Hyundai’s had the speed and will carry this on in his mind to the next round.
Finishing off the event by winning the power stage, his 7th stage win of the event and gaining five extra bonus points aided him along with his now gifted 4th overall in keeping his fight for the drivers title alive. With Ogier having a dismal rally and him being best of the rest, Neuville now leap frogs Ogier in the standings and remains in possible reaching distance of Tanak.
“We were able to match the speed with Ott all weekend: we probably could have won but we got the puncture in Baumholder. Ott drove very well and he deserves the win – we are happy to be here.”
Jari-Matti Latvala drove well in Germany, he may have only had two stage wins but he kept the Hyundai’s at bay all weekend to secure the third spot on the podium, his second consecutive podium finish. A drive which along with his team-mate Kris Meek contributed to Toyota’s manufactures title hopes and delivering their best result to date.
After retiring last time out in Finland, Kris Meeke finally secured a podium for Toyota, his first this year since joining the team; what a relief that must have been for the Northern Irishman. Meeke is only on a one year deal with Tommi Makinen’s Finnish/Japanese outfit but he now lies 4th in the drivers standing, six points ahead of Latvala. With only four more rally’s left this season to impress, has he already done enough to secure the seat again next season?
Crossing the finish line with more than a minutes lead over Eric Camilli, Jan Kopecký delivered his first WRC2 Pro win of the year in only his second WRC event for Skoda this year. Perhaps it was Kalle Rovanperӓ’s rally to loose and if it wasn’t for his mistakes on Saturday then it perhaps would have been the championship pretty much over?
All that stood in the way of Ott Tanak and his third consecutive Rallye Deutschland win was 11.69km of the Power Stage, SS19 Dhrontall. However, brake issues started to affect his Yaris on the penultimate stage, oh no, please not another repeat of Sardinia! Luckily Tanak had plenty of time in hand and was able to manage the issue to cruise to victory, picking up not only his German Hat-Trick but his 5th win of the year and his 11th career win.
“It’s an amazing result for the team, we still have four more rounds to go and we need to stay focused and give our maximum. The championship is still tight, and we’ve seen this weekend that nothing is coming easy”.
Rallye Deutschland was a truly mega result for Tanak and the Toyota team as a whole. It really positions Tanak perfectly to be in with the best possible chance of securing his first world drivers title. Although Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT (281 pnts) are not currently leading the manufacturers, they are only 8 points behind Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT (289 pnts) so that battle is well and truly on.
Up next is one of the season toughest challenges, searing temperatures and rocky gravel roads in the mountains of Turkey await the World Rally Championship for a demanding event; which could well be a car breaker, it is sure to be a test of survival.
Words By Andy Cook – Xlerate
Photos By Jaanus Ree © Red Bull Content Pool