The FIA World Rally Championship’s first ever mainland Rallye de France was one of the most testing rounds of the series for a very long time, with the wet conditions turning the Alsace region’s roads into a real challenge for the five Pirelli Star Drivers.
Moving from the island of Corsica to a base in Strasbourg in the north-east of France brought a very different event; gone were the narrow, twisty, technical roads, and they were replaced with a variety of tests, including some exceptionally quick stages in the Vosges mountains. The switch from Corsica to Alsace didn’t have any effect on the five Pirelli Star Drivers, with none of them having ever contested the Ajaccio-based event. What did affect them was the autumnal rain in the area and the continual corner-cutting from the drivers ahead, the combination of which made for one of the muddiest asphalt rallies on record.
For the second event of the season, Estonian driver Ott Tänak was the first of the Pirelli Star Drivers home. On just his second ever asphalt rally, Tänak set fastest times in the Production Car World Rally Championship (PWRC) category and rarely put a wheel wrong on his way to second in class.
The early pace-setter in the PWRC field was New Zealander Hayden Paddon. Like Tänak, Paddon is short on experience of driving on sealed surfaces, but the Kiwi belied that lack of experience to demonstrate exceptional pace, particularly on the opening loop. Fastest on the first three stages, Paddon had built a lead of 11.4 seconds going into the Grand Ballon test. Unfortunately for him, his hopes of winning an asphalt round of the PWRC were set back when he collected a front-left puncture aboard his Ralliart Italia-run Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. Forced to drive the last five kilometres of the stage with the deflated tyre, Paddon and co-driver John Kennard dropped 40 seconds and slipped out of the lead. Worse was to come for the pair when they hit electrical trouble ahead of the final stage of the day, forcing them into retirement. And just when they thought their rally couldn’t get any worse, it did on Saturday. Returning under SupeRally regulations, Paddon was hoping to pick up valuable PWRC points with a resurgent drive through day two. However, not far into the stage, he spun the Lancer into the vineyards, squashing the exhaust and knocking a rear wheel out of line. Paddon’s second day was done when he slid into a ditch on the second run at the event’s longest stage. With two punctures and only one spare wheel, he was going no further. Again, he returned under SupeRally and eventually brought the car to the finish seventh in PWRC after a trying event.
Compared with Paddon’s rally, Tänak enjoyed a relatively straightforward event. Unable to match the pace of Paddon and reigning PWRC Champion Armindo Araújo, Tänak took his time to play himself into the event. As the conditions got increasingly slippery, so his times improved as his gravel-driving technique came into play. He posted his first fastest time on the Saturday morning opener and gradually began to level his steep learning curve as the event progressed. By the end of the event, Tänak was not in a position to trouble the leader Araújo, but equally he was enjoying a big advantage over his nearest rival.
San Marino’s Alex Raschi was another of the Pirelli Star Drivers to be slightly bemused by the conditions. Having grown up on the classic Italian asphalt stages, Raschi arrived in France hoping for a strong performance before the young driver programme returns to gravel for the final round in Wales next month. Like Tänak, Raschi came to terms with the precise requirements of the roads around Strasbourg and brought his car home in fourth place, his best result of the season so far – one place ahead of where he had finished on the previous round in Germany.
Nick Georgiou was the fourth of the Mitsubishis at the finish, but unfortunately the Lebanese driver missed a large part of the opening day after gearbox failure stuck his Lancer Evolution X on the second stage. The Middle East driver returned on day two and made good progress through the weekend to gain valuable experience of asphalt quite different to that on his home stages in Lebanon, ending the rally just outside the PWRC points in ninth. Another driver keen to garner more asphalt knowledge was African driver Peter Horsey. An accident on the fourth stage ruled the Kenyan out of any further part of the event. While his Mitsubishi was not badly damaged in the accident, the roll cage in the Lancer was marked, meaning a weekend of spectating for the enormously disappointed driver.
Car 36: Nick Georgiou/Joseph Matar
Nick Georgiou said: “I have driven one day in the rain on asphalt in Lebanon. But that was absolutely nothing like this, there was nothing like the mud or the dirt around, I’ve never seen anything like it. Our first day of this event was somewhat shortened when the gearbox broke on the second stage. That was really frustrating: I was just changing down to second when it went. The team changed the transmission that night and we were back out the next day – which turned out to be the muddiest and dirtiest. That long stage the second time through was just incredible, you couldn’t take any speed into the corners. It was really difficult because our notes didn’t really tally with the road ahead; the drivers were taking such big cuts that the line was different from the one we had made in our notes. That was something else we had to experience for the first time. This has been a very good event for me from a learning perspective, I need to get out and do things like this, it’s so different from what I’m used to.”
Car 37: Peter Horsey/Calvin Cooledge
Peter Horsey said: “Rallying on Tarmac is so different from what I’m used to, there’s nothing like this at home in Kenya. We got some experience in Germany in August, but that was quite a tricky event – we were hoping for a cleaner run this time around in France. But it wasn’t to be. I didn’t hear the pace-note call perfectly and we slipped off the road on a very slow left-hand corner. The car slid down a bank and hit a tree on the a-pillar on Calvin’s side. The impact wasn’t high speed at all, but it damaged the roll cage on the a-pillar and that was it, we were out of the rally on stage four. I just couldn’t believe it had happened; we were out of the event almost before it had begun and the car was hardly damaged. That’s so frustrating. The cars ahead of us had cut the corner, we cut the corner as well, but not quite as much. There was a lot of mud and we slid off the road. We actually went off the road really slowly, but then the car accelerated down the steep bank and went into the tree. It was because of the steepness of the slope which meant we couldn’t get back on the road.”
Car 38: Hayden Paddon/John Kennard
Hayden Paddon said: “This event started really well for us, we were fastest and leading PWRC until the problem with the electrics. We got through the seventh stage, but we were on nine volts and the car felt like it had about 100bhp. We’d switched absolutely everything off in the car, including the trip meter – there was nothing electrical running, but the car just kept on losing power. We tried absolutely everything we could on the road section, but had to throw in the towel, there was nothing more we could do to try and get to the final stage on day one. That was gut-wrenching, to be honest. It wasn’t just because we had been going so well on the actual event, but it was also the Production Car World Rally Championship – not getting through that stage, I knew it was going to make it really difficult for us to continue our title challenge. We came back on the second day but knocked a rear wheel out of line on the first stage, the steering was then damaged on the first run through the long stage, so we had the [steering] wheel at 45 degrees for the rest of the stage. It was the re-run of the long one which caught us out, we slid off the road on a really muddy downhill left-hander. It seemed to happen in slow-motion. The car was fine, but we had two punctures, which meant we had to retire. I’m a little bit lost for words here. This event started so well for us, we were fast and leading and everything looked good, but then it just went downhill and pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong. Okay, we picked up some points, but not the 25 we’d been looking at on Friday morning. Now we have to put this behind us and move on to the next event.”
Car #39 Alex Raschi/Silvio Stefanelli
Alex Raschi said: “I like asphalt rallies, I drive a lot in Italy and I like to drive on the asphalt, but I didn’t see anything like this before. It was just incredible, so difficult and so different from what I had seen at home before. Some of the time you couldn’t even see the road beneath the dirt and the mud. With so much mud being pulled into the road by the cars ahead, it was impossible to find the good line in many of the corners. It’s nice to make the result which we made here, it’s my best yet, but it hasn’t been such an easy event. We’ve had some punctures and bent some wheel rims, but this is what’s going to happen on an event like this. We also slid wide and hit the left-rear corner of the car on SS14. The car was okay, but the bodywork needed some work when we got to service. I have learned a lot, though – that’s the good news from this rally. And our car was perfect, it ran without any problems at all.”
Car 40: Ott Tänak/Kuldar Sikk
Ott Tänak said: “This was not an easy rally, not at all. It was supposed to be a tarmac rally, but I really don’t know what it was – it didn’t feel so much like tarmac at times. In some of the stages, I think we would have been better to run gravel tyres rather than PZeros we had to use. I had never seen such muddy conditions. I never did the Monte Carlo Rally, but I think this would probably have been good preparation for that event – the grip was so unpredictable. I thought this event would be similar to the last World Rally Championship event we did in Germany, but in many ways Germany was actually easier; this event would have been much easier if it had been run in dry conditions. For a lot of the time on day two we were driving not to go off the road rather than pushing and trying to make the good time. I felt a little bit better on day two, though. I was beginning to understand a little bit better what was going on with the car.”
Phil Short, Pirelli Star Driver Supervisor
Phil Short said: “Hayden’s early pace on this event was fantastic. Again, like Germany, this was not a familiar environment and to take the fight to a driver like Armindo [Araújo], who is a fantastic tarmac driver, was little short of brilliant. I was also very impressed with the way Ott has come to terms with asphalt; he has said it’s not his favoured surface, but he realises that if he wants to be a top driver – which I’m sure he is – he needs to come to terms with all surfaces. And he’s done that under the most difficult of circumstances. Ott has shown a great deal of maturity on this rally. [His mentor] Markko Martin and I have been working quite hard with Ott to let him know that he doesn’t always have to be at full pace everywhere and you need to adjust the pace to the conditions, I think this is coming. Alex Raschi has always been a little bit behind the top two, but I’ve been pleased by his pace on this event. He has taken his time and learned the conditions and then his pace has gone up and is really not far off the top at all. Okay, there’s been a bit of bodywork to do on Alex’s car – and he’s broken a few rims and got some punctures – but he’s not alone in doing that on this rally. On the whole, I’m very pleased with what he has done. Nick’s gearbox problem on day one was unfortunate and cost him seat time for the rest of the event. I feel Peter was a little unlucky. The problem for him was that he wasn’t following the cut in the corner deeply enough and he went off the road, but he went off at a very low speed. Reading the cuts is a big part of an asphalt event: when the drivers went to the recce, they made their notes and knew what was coming, but when they got to the corners on the rally, the drivers ahead had changed the angle and aspect of the corner – in some cases significantly – forcing the guys into a decision. Did they stick with their notes and keep the car on the road or follow the cut and risk damaging tyres and rims? It was a tough lesson, but one that they have to learn at this level.”
Mario Isola, Pirelli Motorsport Manager
Mario Isola said: “The conditions were quite difficult, it was slippery for the cars further back in the field: they found a lot of mud on the roads. But they have learned a great deal on this event. The grip has been so variable; they have had to find out how to drive on the kind of stages they did not see before. I was impressed with the performance of Hayden Paddon. This was only the second event in his life on tarmac and he was very good. He was a little bit unlucky on the first day, he lost some time, but anyway the performance is unbelievable. Tänak and Raschi did a good job also, keeping the car on the road. A difficult event like this is not always going to be very popular, but it’s in the spirit of the rally. If you always have the same stages and the same rally, it’s not in the spirit – why not go to a circuit? Here they find very tricky conditions, but it’s what they have to learn to be fast; they have to find the right braking point, the right speed in the corner, all things like this. From this perspective, this has been a very good event for the drivers in the programme.”
19th Ott Tänak (EST)/Kuldar Sikk (EST) 3 hr 31 min 14.7sec (2nd in PWRC)
26th Alex Raschi (RSM)/Silvio Stefanelli (RSM) 3 hr 36 min 34.8sec (4th in PWRC)
35th Hayden Paddon (NZ)/John Kennard (NZ)* 3 hr 49 min 54.1sec (7th in PWRC)
48th Nick Georgiou (LBN)/Joseph Matar (LBN)* 4 hr 11 min 45.1sec (9th in PWRC)
Peter Horsey (KEN)/Calvin Cooledge (GBR) Retired, accident, SS4
* continued under SupeRally regulations
The next event
The final event in the 2010 Pirelli Star Driver programme is Wales Rally GB. The Cardiff-based event is traditionally one of the toughest rallies of the season – and this year’s event is set to be a classic with the introduction of asphalt sections of road into the traditionally gravel stages on the second day. The muddy conditions on this week’s Rallye de France are good preparation for the sixth and last rally in the programme. Running through the Welsh valleys and up into mid-Wales in the middle of November, rain is a near certainty. Wet or dry, however, stages such as Hafren and Resolfen are world-renowned for their changing grip levels and ever-tightening and tough-to-read corners. In places, the Welsh roads are as fast as Finland and as complex and technical as Portugal. The five drivers on this year’s Pirelli Star Driver scheme will certainly feel the sting in the tail of this year’s schedule.