Volkswagen WRC are now officially the most dominant team in WRC history, that thanks to Jari-Matti Latvala’s second victory of 2014 which stretched the German powerhouse’s winning run to nine rallies and counting. The Finn successfully fended off the challenge of VW teammate Sébastien Ogier who was forced to settle for second spot by a margin of 1 min 27 sec. The Frenchman does, however, retain his world championship lead. A distant third was Citroën’s Kris Meeke who secured his second podium of the season in the DS3, but the 5 min 55 sec gap to the top two was indicative of VW’s current supremacy in the championship.
Rally Argentina’s eclectic mix of challenges is known to test drivers to the limit of their powers and cars to the limit of their durability. Monstrous water splashes, impossibly narrow iron bridges and dense fog in the mountains provide several unique obstacles here, whilst road conditions vary greatly. The smooth gravel trails of the sweeping lowlands soon give way to the more treacherous mountain tracks which can become peppered with exposed rocks and cavernous ruts if the rainy season arrives early and washes away the soft, sandy surface.
And rain it did. Heavy downpours earlier in the year had taken their toll on the mountainous stages which in turn left the field decimated after day one. No less than 11 of the 29 starters were forced to retire, as big names such as Mikko Hirvonen, Mads Ostberg, Thierry Neuville, Dani Sordo and Andreas Mikkelsen were all reduced to spectators.
Hirvonen and Østberg were the first pair to fall, on the very first stage. The former blamed a pace note error for his unscheduled appointment with a stone wall 7km in, whilst the Norwegian was left with three wheels on his DS3 after falling foul of a large road-slide boulder. It was nearly a hat-trick of retirements on stage 1 as Hyundai’s Dani Sordo only just limped to the finish, dropping 3 minutes when a turbo pipe failed. It cost him a further 9 minutes on the following test and by the time he retired with turbo related engine problems on the day’s final stage he was already well out of the running. His team were faced with double calamity when lead driver Thierry Neuville was reduced to a crawl by identical mechanical issues on the last stage and chose to pull out rather than risk terminal engine damage. After showing gradual improvement on the last two rallies, Hyundai’s ropey reliably has come back to haunt them and they once again find themselves at rock bottom. An increasingly daunting ‘to do list’ faces team principle Michel Nandan and his staff if they are to salvage any positives from their debut season.
The VW team enjoyed a far more profitable day as Ogier and Latvala battled hard for the lead throughout the opening leg. Latvala pulled clear on the final stage by 17.7 sec to hold the overnight lead, with the only blot on the copybook Andreas Mikkelsen’s last minute retirement with an alternator problem. Meeke, Elfyn Evans and a newly cautious Robert Kubica were the other drivers who survived unscathed and occupied third, fourth and fifth respectively heading in to day 2.
A new day brought only the same old problems for Sordo. Hyundai mechanics toiled through the night to resolve Friday’s issues; however the i20’s turbo failed again on Saturday morning and after haemorrhaging a further 17 minutes, the Spaniard retired for the seconded consecutive day.
That stage was won by Mikkelsen who also bagged two other top three times. The VW number three wasted no time in charging back up the leader board and quickly overhauled the M-Sport duo of Kubica and Evans to leave himself fourth by the close of play, 1 min 56 sec adrift of Meeke. The Northern Irishman drove steadily again to remain third, despite narrowly surviving a high-speed brush with a bank in the morning.
However, it was stage 8 that proved to be the decisive test of the rally. Latvala looked to have gifted Ogier the advantage when the Finn spun and then stalled his Polo R but the world champion had dramas of his own, first spinning on the entrance to a water splash and subsequently shedding rubber from his front left tyre. The Frenchman looked to have dodged a bullet as the tyre remained inflated. However, the flailing rubber had badly damaged the car’s front wing and on stage 9 Ogier suffered the consequences when the entire front bumper and spoiler unit came detached. The Polo’s engine began to overheat due to lack of cooling and lost power. By the end of the test, he was a further six seconds down on his teammate and finished the day with a 31.2 second deficit.
As Sunday dawned in Argentina, the fog descended. The combination of slippery mud and dreadful visibility (as low as 70m at times) rendered any last minute assault foolhardy at best. Wisely, Ogier conceded victory to his teammate and the gap between the VW pair widened by almost a minute through the afternoon stages. Meeke put his crashes in Mexico and Portugal behind him with a well-deserved podium place but his was the only DS3 to finish as Mads Østberg, blighted by a painful hand injury all weekend sustained in his Friday crash, finally admitted defeat on stage 12. Mikkelsen was comfortable in fourth to cap a dream weekend for his VW team whilst Neuville recovered some pride for Hyundai by grabbing fifth. Below him, Kubica’s more tentative approach paid off as he ended his accident-strewn run of rallies to secure sixth, just ahead of fellow M-Sport rookie Evans.
The event-closing power stage was won by Ogier, handing him an extra three championship points. Hirvonen, who blitzed the time-sheets on day 3 with little to lose, secured two for second and Latvala grabbed the final point.
In the championship standings, the Frenchman has seen his overall lead clipped to 24 points by Latvala, nevertheless Mikkelsen’s ascension to third, level on points with Østberg, caps a rally to savour for VW fans. WRC 2014 resumes at Rally Italia Sardegna on 6 – 8 June where VW will be aiming to register victory number ten on the trot.
Round 5 – Rally Argentina: Final Results
Pos. Driver Team Time Diff 1st Points
1. J. LATVALA VW 4:41:24.8 – 25+1
2. S. OGIER VW 4:42:51.7 +1:26.9 18+3
3. K. MEEKE CIT 4:47:19.5 +5:54.7 15
4. A. MIKKELSEN VW 4:47:43.1 +6:18.3 12
5. T. NEUVILLE HYU 4:49:50.6 +8:25.8 10
6. R. KUBICA M-SP 4:51:32.8 +10:08.0 8
7. E. EVANS M-SP 4:51:57.0 +10:32.2 6
8. M. PROKOP CZE 4:53:28.7 +12:03.9 4
9. M. HIRVONEN M-SP 5:01:19.6 +19:54.8 2+2