BELGIAN Thierry Neuville has put himself right in the fight for the world championship after coming out on top at Rally Poland after a stunning battle with Ford’s Ott Tänak, who crashed out of a narrow lead three stages from the finish.
With five rounds remaining, the Hyundai i20 driver has cut Sébastien Ogier’s championship lead to 11 points.
The four-day rally provided drama upon drama with changeable weather contributing to the challenge. In torrential rain, driving winds and thick mud, the lead changed hands 10 times in 23 stages as title chasers Neuville and Tänak traded fractions of a second on Poland’s fast roads.
Neuville began Sunday’s final leg in front, but a stunning drive through the opening speed test elevated his Estonian rival to the lead.
Then at the very next stage, Tänak slammed his Ford Fiesta into a tree.
The pressure off, Neuville eased through the remaining kilometres to head team-mate Hayden Paddon by a comfortable 1min 23.9sec, with Ogier overcoming punctures to claim third, a further 56.9sec adrift.
Tänak was chasing his second straight win after claiming a maiden victory in Italy last month. It was the third year he has tasted disappointment in Poland after leading in 2015 and 2016 but failing to secure victory.
Neuville, who claimed his sixth consecutive podium to confirm his recent consistency, was generous in his praise for the Estonian.
“I was sorry for him and congratulate him on the job he did before he crashed,” Neville said. “He was amazing again and one guy who was hard to beat.”
Paddon’s second place ends a character-building 12 months since his last podium. The Kiwi could not match the pace of the early starters on Friday’s rain-soaked and sludgy tracks, but an error-free event combined with several stage wins as conditions improved brought its reward.
The WRC now moves to Rally Finland, the fastest round in the championship.
The Vettel-Hamilton controversy won’t go away
The flames continue to be stoked by protagonists and observers
The white-hot war of words following the contretemps between world Formula One title contenders Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is a gift from the gods for the new owner of Formula One.
With the controversy simply not going away thanks to the FIA announcing it has chosen to investigate whether further action should be taken over Vettel's collision with Hamilton.
The spicy rivalry has put a greater edge to the tight duel for the 2017 championship, and it looks like a brilliant box-office boost for Liberty Media.
Hamilton branded his German rival "a disgrace" for deliberately driving into him during a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix during which Vettel was handed a mild 10-second drive-through penalty for the incident.
Vettel’s swerve into the side of Hamilton’s Mercedes came immediately after the Briton, who was leading the field ahead of the Ferrari driver, eased off to let the safety car pull away. The German ran into his rear
“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” Vettel maintained. “It wasn’t the right thing what he did. It wasn’t right that I got a penalty and he didn’t. He brake-checked me as well.”
Hamilton had the officials on his side. "The stewards looked at my data and the reason I didn't get a penalty is because I clearly did not brake test him. It could not be clearer. Ultimately what happened was disrespectful."
A brace of former world champs immediately chimed in with their thoughts.
Said the always blunt Niki Lauda: "When you hit somebody up the arse, it is your fault. No question. But to drive next to him and hit him on purpose, I have never seen anything like this.
"That was a petulant move and something a four-time world champion should be able to control, commented Damon Hill, now a TV pontificator. “It was a rush of blood to the head."
Jacques Villeneuve, though, defended Vettel's heated swerve at Hamilton, saying the incident merely suggests F1 drivers have emotions.
A victim of a still-talked about collision with Michael Schumacher in the 1997 F1 title decider at Jerez, Villeneuve argued Vettel's actions were much less serious.
"They're going 10mph, who cares?” he told Autosport this week.
"Of course it was ugly, but ultimately Lewis brake-tested him.
"I'm a driver, I've been there. Whenever a driver did that to me, then I would do whatever Seb did.
"He got a penalty, the biggest he could get I guess according to the new rules."
Sir Jackie Stewart called Vettel’s antics in Baku “inappropriate behaviour”, but went on to suggest mitigating circumstances.
Stewart felt Vettel was incited by Hamilton actions in slowing down so quickly in a very unlikely place. “That was a shock to Sebastian, and that is why he came alongside Lewis to ask ‘what the hell are you doing?’.
Stewart did not approve of Vettel’s apparent retaliation but added: “It would be very simple to put the complete blame on one man, but what initiated the bad behaviour was what happened before.”
Hamilton also raged that Vettel’s dangerous driving was not behaviour becoming of a multiple world champion who should be setting standards. But Hamilton then appear to challenge Vettel to get physical. "For him to pretty much get away with driving into another driver is a disgrace. If he wants to prove he is a man we should do it out of the car, face-to-face.”
Vettel was given a 10-second stop-go penalty for dangerous driving in last Sunday’s race in Baku after what appeared to be retaliatory contact with Hamilton’s Mercedes.
The FIA reports that: "Following the recent incident at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in which Car 5 (Sebastian Vettel) was involved in a collision with Car 44 (Lewis Hamilton), on Monday July 3, the FIA will further examine the causes of the incident in order to evaluate whether further action is necessary.
"A statement regarding the outcome of this process will be made available before the upcoming Austrian Grand Prix (7 – 9 July)."
Next weekend’s Austrian GP should be fun.
Marquez show mastery of Sachsenring MotoGP
The German round marks the half-way point of the season. Still lots can happen.
Marc Marquez appears to have the Sachsenring totally worked out, winning for an eighth time in a row at the weekend. And earning him the lead in the world championship heading to the summer break
It was the second win of the year for the Honda star after he started from pole.
Yamaha privateer Jonas Folger continued his promising rookie year to finish second, ahead of Marquez’s team-mate Dani Pedrosa, with Maverick Vinales and Valentino Rossi fourth and fifth on their works Yamahas.
The technical Sachsenring is one of the shortest and slowest circuits on the calendar with numerous tight curves. A measure of how tight it is - - the powerful Ducatis reach only 298km/h.
Marquez and Pedrosa jumped away well from the front row at the start, to hit turn one in first and second.
On lap five, Folger moved past Pedrosa and then pounced on Marquez one lap later.
Marquez reclaimed the lead on lap 11 and was never headed in a race and went on to take his 31st MotoGP victory to equal Eddie Lawson. Australian Jack Miller was 15th on his Marc VDS Honda.
“I’m very, very happy. I knew before the weekend that this was an important moment in the championship and that the Sachsenring was an important circuit for us,” said Marquez.
“It was the place to take a risk if necessary and to try to win. So I’m happy we took these 25 points and the lead in the championship before the summer break.
“The race was very tight. Honestly, before the start I thought I would have to battle with Dani, but actually there was also another very fast opponent. I was very surprised at the beginning to see Jonas there, and I thought he might stay in between with the other riders, but he actually remained there! He was quite a tough opponent!
Heading into the summer break, the championship is very close with four riders within 10 points.