Red Bull Motorsports
© Jaanus Ree/Red Bull Content Pool
Close finishes are rare in WRC but Sébastien Ogier has mastered them anyway
Seven-time world champion Sébastien Ogier claimed a narrow Croatia Rally win at the expense of his team-mate Elfyn Evans, and it’s not the first time he’s won by less than a second.
It meant a 51st career win for Ogier. And the lead of the World Rally Championship.
It was close. But not quite close enough to bust the record for the WRC’s tightest-ever fight. Not that Ogier minds too much – he holds that record, too.
In 2011, the Frenchman edged the man who now runs the team he drives for, Jari-Matti Latvala, to a Rally Jordan win by 0.2s. That’s the closest ever.
Ogier’s performance in the Middle East a decade ago was every bit as brilliant as it was in Croatia last weekend. Running first on the road through the final day around the Dead Sea, Ogier was a sitting duck for Latvala, who ran behind him on a cleaner, grippier line. Even though he was half a minute up on his rival, the then Citroën star knew the Finn would be coming for him.
Sure enough, Latvala passed him to lead into the final stage by half a second. Over the final 10 kilometres, Ogier extracted everything the DS 3 WRC had to give and stopped the clocks seven-tenths faster than the Fiesta RS WRC to win by 0.2.
Another French Sébastien – Loeb – was on the wrong end of the second closest finish when Marcus Grönholm beat him by 0.3 seconds at the 2007 Rally New Zealand. The most amusing part of the North Island story is that Grönholm came out of the final forest stage seven-tenths up and started celebrating.
The two-time world champion recalled: “My co-driver said: 'Why are you celebrating? We still have one more stage to do…' Oh shit! I forgot this!”
Grönholm re-focused and emerged from the final superspecial stage to take the podium’s top step by three-tenths. A record margin which stood for four years.
How do they do that?
Close racing is commonplace on circuits. Less so in rallying, where the road and the conditions are constantly evolving. In rallying, competitors drive the same roads, but they do so at a timed interval – opening up the potential for all sorts of changes.
On a gravel rally the cars are split by three-minute gaps. If one car is four places further back, for example, that’s a 12-minute window for the weather to change significantly. And, with WRC rounds taking place in some of the most extreme parts of the world, that very often happens.
Fog or low cloud often drifts in across the higher sections of Argentinian stages and, of course, rain or snow can and will make or break a result on the tracks around Monte Carlo or Wales.
The key to a close finish is consistent conditions. In Croatia last weekend, the sun shone for three days straight. Had it turned wet, then another variable – the use of the wet-weather tyre – would have come into play. The more variables an event has, the less likely a super-close finish.
The biggest variable is the competition itself. So, the longer the rally, the less likely a tight fight – there’s less opportunity for stuff to happen. When Ogier won by two-tenths in Jordan, the event’s opening leg had been canned after the teams all suffered logistical problems getting their trucks to the Dead Sea service park in time. What should have been 333 kilometres became 259.
That rally was something of an odd one, given the half-minute gap between Ogier and Latvala, normally these events are closer for the duration. Last week, there was little to split Ogier and Evans.
Talking of odd ones, Croatia went against the accepted thinking that faster rallies tend to provide closer finishes. The theory’s simple: fewer corners and junctions mean less opportunities to make up or drop valuable tenths of seconds. This is why dropping 10 seconds at Rally Finland can spell the end of a driver’s hopes of victory. Losing the same amount of time on the rough Sardinian gravel should make little difference.
Last week was a complex conundrum of varying surfaces and grip levels, usually favouring the driver with the greatest confidence in the car-tyre package around him to build an advantage and keep it. That didn’t happen. That Ogier and Evans were in the same car and sharing the same set-up data makes a difference; it’s less of a surprise to see identical cars running neck and neck. As the gaps narrow, the intensity builds and that was certainly in evidence in Zagreb last week. With one day left, Ogier, Evans and Neuville were split by eight seconds. The usual banter and chit-chat between stages wasn’t much in evidence as they day progressed and they zoned into that final test.
A point worth making here is the 3.9-second lead Evans held going into that last 14-kilometer stage. Very few people expected Ogier to make the time up and it was only possible because he is Sébastien Ogier, a seven-time world champion.
How close will they get?
Is a dead-heat possible? Of course it is. The World Rally Championship changed its timing regulations in 1998. Prior to that, events had been timed to the second and the record for the closest ever finish had stood since Björn Waldegård beat Sandro Munari to a 1976 Sanremo rally win by four seconds.
If Ogier had been six-tenths slower on Sunday and the pair had tied, victory would have gone to Evans, courtesy of a faster time through the event’s opening stage.