2014 marked the return of the second oldest event in rallying, Rally Poland, which first sent car out in 1921 and last participated in the World Rally Championship in 2009. In fact, the rally has (only) seen WRC action once prior to the 2009 round, in 1973. But, in 2014, it was back. In all its poppy covered fields and dramatic sunsets glory, adding a four-stage, one-time zone excursion to Lithuania. Due to its absence from the WRC calendar, the event would be a mystery rally, a wild card, evening the playing field across experience levels. And, how the return to the WRC would play out left few expectations in disappointment. Though heavy rain would threaten to derail the full experience of rallying action at its highest level, the clouds would clear, giving way to the gravel rejuvenating sun, and accelerating the speed of life in the WRC. Though there were many things about the 71st Rally Poland to celebrate, from the high points to the low points, the funny to the serious, and everything in-between, here are a few moments that we (simply) could not get out of our heads…
/// LITHUANIA MODELS STAGES TO REPLICATE THE FEELING OF BEING A NORDIC DRIVER ///
The Lithuanian stages were (without a doubt) a much anticipated addition to the 2014 WRC calendar. It would not (only) mark a rare (though not unheard of, think Rallies Sweden and Monte-Carlo) joint cooperation between two nations to make a rally happen, nor would it toss an even rarer dual timezone day into the mix, it would be the first time Lithuania would be a part of the WRC. Unfortunately, the whole event collapsed when rain fell on the overambitious parade. What appeared to be stages (very cleverly) designed to replicate the feeling of being a Nordic driver turned into a terrifying trip into the deep, dark depths of the psychology behind the inspiration. After hard pre-event rains waterlogged the routes, a combination of looming dark clouds and densely forested roads prevented the saturated gravel from drying out in time for the Friday passes. And, while cars were able to forge their way through the first passes, by the time the lengthy list of entrants had made it through, ruts had turned to trenches, proving difficult for even the most reliable of four-wheel-drive factory-backed WRC-class cars to maneuver. With a majority of the roster at risk of sinking so deeply into these ruts that emerging without help was all but inevitable, organizers were left with one option: cancel the second loop of both stages. And, call in Volkswagen Motorsport sports psychologist Christoph Treier.
Sadly, Treier is not a magician. Turn-arounds such as this are a process and maintenance will be ongoing. Time (simply) ran out before stability could be reached, the mission was aborted as teams embarked upon a lengthy road trip (back) their Polish homes, brutal games of “Polo punch” being played while social media illuminated with speculation and snark.
Unfortunately, what could have been was never realized. Fortunately, what could be remains. As if an exciting return to the WRC was not incentive enough to bring Rally Poland back, the lingering mystery of what these Lithuanian stages can be when at their best should provide an extra incentive for what could be a triumphant return.
/// HIRVONEN KEEPS AN EYE ON EVANS’ DRAGON ///
After watching his Ford Fiesta RS WRC (mysteriously) go up in flames while traveling at road limits between stages, one cannot blame Mikko Hirvonen (FIN) for keeping a close eye on the Welsh dragon atop the car of M-Sport teammate Elfyn Evans (GBR). There were (only) two primary fire-breathing culprits in proximity to the #4 Fiesta at Rally Italia Sardegna 2014: the time and spirit crushing Gogiera (aka Sébastien “French Toast” Ogier, FRA, Volkswagen Motorsport) and Evans. With Evans being closer, logic would have it that it is better to be safe than sorry. And, it may have just paid off, with Hirvonen (and co-driver Jarmo Lehtinen, FIN) bouncing back from his Italian roast, like a phoenix, rising from the ashes and jumping on a pogo stick on the hot pavement of Arizona, to score a hard-earned fourth in the carnage-filled Polish round (tying his second-best result of his tricky return home to M-Sport).
/// LATVALA TALKS HIS COLLAPSING CAR THROUGH ITS ISSUES ///
Well, if you thought that the Lithuanian stages were the only inanimate elements of Rally Poland to suffer deterioration and breakdown, you (clearly) were not paying enough attention. Or, attaching enough human psychological attributes to inanimate objects. Shame on you.
Going into the third and penultimate day of competition, Volkswagen Motorsport’s Jerry Matt Latvala (FIN) and (co-driver) Miikka Anttila (FIN) had sneaked their way up to fourth, despite a hesitant start, exercising borderline-excessive caution as the Finnish pilot exorcised demons of teary Rally Poland past. But, then, the WRC’s own Charlie Brown was treated to a tricky rock (in Stage 14), causing the front-left damper of his Polo R WRC to retreat from the road, the broken car left to collapse under the pressure as he plowed all the way through Stage 15 in a nasty battle of literal-meets-metaphorical. Though a bid for a race to the top step of the podium with VW teammates Ogier (co-driver Julien Ingrassia-FRA) and Andreas “Blue and White Steel” Mikkelsen (NOR, co-driver Ola Fløene-NOR) may have been lost in the dust, the bouncy-ball Finns returned to win two of the three final stages of the day and came back to dominate the final day, winning three of the four stages and taking fifth after putting heavy pressure on compatriots Hirvonen and Lehtinen all the way to the end. And, it was all thanks to a few mechanical miracles from the VW magicians and some sharing-is-caring exercises in lessons learned on the subject of positivity and going back to where it all began. Clearly.
/// NEUVILLE & GILSOUL’S MASTERY OF TIMING IS ON FIRE ///
After the road trip to Lithuania and back, Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville (BEL) and (co-driver) Nicolas Gilsoul (BEL) moseyed their i20 through the Stage 9 time control, jacked up the car to see what was, in fact, jacked up, and watched the rear-left of their Hyundai (promptly) burst into flame. The crew and marshals were unharmed, the fire contained, the rear brakes disabled, and the car ready to finish the lone remaining stage of the day, with mechanics able to repair the damage and fix the issues, sending the Belgians on their merry way to another podium result (their second third-place victory of Hyundai’s inaugural season). Which was very impressive, after that scare and the 15th-place run with a locked-up handbrake that led up to it. But, not nearly as impressive as the time management skills used to hold off a fire until immediately after crossing the finish line. In a sport so reliant upon fractions of seconds, this should be considered a threat. Amazing. Just amazing.
/// VW SLAPS ONE ANOTHER SILLY IN A MOST GERMANIC WAY ///
With World Cup fever comes World Cup aggression. This is just a fact of the sports spectator life and how patriotism rolls (if you happen to live in a country you give two hoots about and that gives two hoots about you, and other exceptions, of course). But, when Volkswagen Motorsport were seen running around with German flags on their faces, it was clear there was something more sinister was going on, masked by a veil of World Cup fever. Though nothing quite as sinister as, well, other, say historical, things that could be brought up as German flags overtake Poland, of course…not that anyone would ever think… Anyway, after Ogier and Mikkelsen had duked it out through the 24 stages of the rally, it was only natural that a little steam was set to be blown off. And, with no major bodies of water around to tackle each other into (as was the case as Rally Italy came to an end), there was only one, real option: slap one another senseless. Now, had any other team tried this, they may have come away with standard bruises. But, being Volkswagen, a most Germanic of German icons, the team came away, covered in German flags.
Tragically, what started as silly slaps took a dark turn and, after taking some smacks to the ear, Mikkelsen was left to message for help from a floor, his trophy and podium cap neatly scattered around him. But, have no fear, the alarmingly attractive Norwegian will (no doubt) bounce back in true Viking form. With a summer tan and perfectly golden summer sun highlights, one can only assume. (Okay, here are two pieces of photographic evidence to take in while we take a moment.)
/// TEAM PROKOP VISITS WOLF’S LAIR ///
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana
Cookies & Gold Stars prefers to keep things light, to seek out harmlessly naughty laughs, and to focus on the bright side, acting as a sort of Pollyanna of motorsport, always ready to make lemons into lemonade (or, limoncello). But, we feel it would be a great disservice to sweep the realities of Poland’s dark history under the gravel, when one of the amazing parts of the WRC is getting to see lands one might (otherwise) never experience and take in cultures so very foreign to us. It is an annual trip around the globe, filled with food, languages, architecture, art, history, and people, some of whom may look completely exotic to one’s own physical being, while others, so similar, they may ignite a desire to investigate one’s family tree a little more closely. Though many may choose to wait for crashes, focus on statistics, or use the action as a soapbox for their own agendas, the WRC remains an opportunity to (truly) explore the world, to become a better child of Planet Earth, whether virtually or in the flesh, and to think globally (the tour of this great, big world) while acting locally (the sports league we dedicate ourselves to). And, though we see photo after photo of beautiful scenery, quirky signs, unusual buildings, and alien menus, it is rare that an excursion as chillingly important to the modern world as the one Martin Prokop (CZE) and his team took while in Poland.
To Wolf’s Lair.
If you are unfamiliar with Wolf’s Lair by its English moniker (or, Wolfsschanze, in German), it was one of Hitler’s bunkers (through World War II), made famous for Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s briefcase bomb assassination attempt (yes, the 20 July Plot, the true-story premise of movies such as 1990’s The Plot to Kill Hitler and 2008’s Valkyrie). The ruins remain, overgrown, but (essentially) untouched to this day, and accessible just a short drive north from the Rally Poland base of Mikołajki. Is it one of the most uplifting day trips one can take while in the area? No. Are the pictures Prokop’s photographer shared action-packed? No. But, they are critical to understanding not just Poland, a country which has survived to thrive, turning the bloodiest of battlegrounds to fields of poppies so vivid, one can smell them through their laptop screen, and taking everything learned from and yearned for through Eastern Bloc oppression and using it as an enviably solid foundation for success, but the world in which we all live in. A world which has come so far from those bunkers, yet exists in constant fear of obliteration on the whim of a political point. It is because of all these reasons that we felt it was important to set aside our usual ridiculousness for a moment to truly give credit where credit is due. To Team Prokop, for making the trip and to the WRC, for offering such an incredible platform for global exploration. We, the teams, media, and fans, are a genuinely global community. A celebration of silly accents, if you will. It is our job to remember this, to take advantage of it, and to apply it to our everyday lives. No hand-holding necessary.
We hope this photograph gives you chills or takes your breath away. Go ahead, feel something. It’s good for you. And, it makes the world a better place.
(Also, the site is believed to be haunted and you can climb on things.)
/// THE KUBICA EFFECT ///
Robert Kubica (POL) has had a wickedly rough season. A maiden WRC season made worse by misconceptions and expectations, lingering like storm clouds at every rally. Because Kubica has over a decade of professional racing under his belt and because he kicked off his professional rally career with a WRC2 Championship, there seems to be a mental block on learning curves, putting on blinders to the fact that the former Formula 1 podium collector is (still) quite new to rallying at this level. But, blinders or not, the reality is that Kubica is not only new to rally competition at this level and not only new to the power of a WRC-class car, he is learning to operate under the physical reminders of the accident which (nearly) took his life in 2011 and maneuver a car modified to work with those challenges. That is a steep hill to climb. Especially, when one is a naturally fierce competitor with a gifted athlete inside, prone to frustration when the hows and whys behind unsatisfactory performances remain as elusive as the wins they know they can rack up. Though Kubica has appeared calm and collected through his first half of retirements and restarts, it seems hard to believe that he has developed an immunity to the negativity surrounding his bad reputation for crashing. Which is exactly why Rally Poland came at such a perfect time.
Ultimately, Kubica did not perform so well, finishing 20th and adding not one, but two crashes to his record. But, as we always say, the only reason that numbers do not lie is because they never tell the whole story. If you are (at all) familiar with 24 Hours of LeMans, you will know about The Kristensen Effect. Audi driver Tom Kristensen is such a hero in his native Denmark, that fans flock to the French event in numbers so large, one wonders who is running the Scandinavian nation that weekend. When the WRC returned to Poland (this year), the landscape was a sea of poppies and an overwhelming number of Kubica signs. Not Championship leader Ogier. Not Citroën fan favorites Mads Østberg (NOR) and Kris Meeke (GBR). Not Mikkelsen, the one known as “The Handsome One” (though, boob-flashing remains accounted for). No. Kubica. The Krakow-born Formula 1 driver-turned WRC pilot. The man who took part in rallies as an F1 driver, out of a pure love for the sport. The guy who loved it so much, when unable to return to F1, it was his first thought, his choice for where he wanted to rebuild his racing career (and, given his respectable F1 career, it was not as if he was desperate for any questionable option he could scrounge up). In spite of nearly losing his life to it. He returned to rally wholeheartedly and without fear, picking himself up and dusting himself off after every misstep, ready to come back and try again. And, here he was, at his home event, surrounded by unconditional love, as eager to see him in action as he was to be in the action.
The publicity that Lotos-backed Kubica brought to Poland was (without a doubt) a driving force in bringing the WRC back to a nation that is (clearly) worthy. And, the love for Kubica, which was witnessed through this spectacular rally, is exactly what this powerhouse of a fighter needs and deserves more of. It was just very nice. In our humble opinion, of course. You are (always) free to start your own Kubica-slamming negativity-fest site. Or, just continue blasting him (and us, and everyone else, their mothers, and so on) through social media. But, just remember, behind every screen is a human being with feelings. And, one day, technology may allow for that human to punch you through that screen whenever they feel your thoughts could have been expressed in a more grammatically correct manner.
/// OH, AND THIS PHOTO… ///
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