Andreas Mikkelsen scored a poignant victory at the final round of the 2016 World Rally Championship as Volkswagen bids its final farewell to the series.
The team, which has dominated the sport since its arrival in 2013, shocked the WRC world just weeks ago when it revealed it would be pulling out of the championship with immediate affect at the end of the current campaign. Rally Australia 2016 thus represented VW’s final bow and the German outfit signed off in style by securing a one-two finish, with reigning champion Sébastien Ogier following the Norwegian onto the podium 14.9 seconds further back.
A third career win wasn’t enough for Mikkelsen to grab the runners up spot in the championship. That accolade was clinched by Hyundai star Thierry Neuville who’s third place in Australia kept him safely out of the clutches of the man who topped the podium here. The Polo pilot must settle for the bronze medal spot for the third year running, as Neuville matches the feat he achieved back in 2013 with M-Sport.
Shifted two months back on the WRC calendar for 2016, Rally Australia this year provides a fittingly dramatic setting in which to draw the curtain down on the 2016 season. Although better known for its vast expanses of sun-scorched outback plains, a fair portion of Rally Australia’s 1020km of stages wend their way through dense rainforest. The scenery, flora and fauna may be jaw-droppingly beautiful but low sun in the mornings and evenings can play havoc with a driver’s vision as it flashes through the dense foliage. Other stages are run over a mix of dusty shire roads, some of which are open to the public when the WRC boys aren’t in town. Traditionally a happy hunting ground for Finnish drivers, Juha Kankkunen, Marcus Grönholm and Mikko Hirvonen have each clocked up a hat-trick of victories in this part of the world. That domination hasn’t been quite so evident in recent years however, with Frenchman Sébastien Ogier locking out the top spot for the last three editions on his way to a hat-trick of world titles.
Mikkelsen’s expertly constructed victory Down Under can be traced back to his lightening start on Friday morning. Despite facing some of the worst of the conditions as the sandy gravel roads bogged down the early runners, the youngest of the VW trio set about his task at a frenetic pace, scooping no less than five fastest times on the opening half-dozen stages. No doubt wishing to banish the memory of a lacklustre showing in Great Britain earlier this month, the Norwegian pushed on in the afternoon loop, where the freshly swept repeated stages offered a slightly more forgiving surface for the first men out on the road. He consolidated his morning’s work to end the day 15.4 secs up on chief pursuer Ogier. Having fared worst of all early on given the state of the roads, Ogier’s trademark indefatigable resilience shone through as he fought back from eighth to second via four stage wins in the afternoon.
Unfortunately for the leader, the very man Mikkelsen didn’t want to see burning up the timesheets was very much in the podium mix after day one. Thierry Neuville leapt above Mikkelsen in the drivers’ championship standings after a strong performance in Wales and his excellent end of season form showned no signs of waning on the roads around Coffs Harbour. Victory on stage 7 combined with a string of top three times ensured the i20 pilot ended Friday 7.1 secs adrift of Ogier in third and very much on course to defend his championship position despite Mikkelsen’s best efforts.
Elsewhere, Hayden Paddon’s return to what is effectively his home rally began with a bang as the young Kiwi led the way after stage 2. However, his hard compound tyres wore badly on the baking afternoon gravel tracks, causing him to quite literally lose his grip on the lead as well as the roads. Fourth after day one was nevertheless a satisfactory reward for the New Zealander, who headed M-Sport duo Mads Østberg and Eric Camilli by a handful of seconds.
Another Hyundai driver who briefly flirted with the lead was Dani Sordo, having led the charge against Mikkelsen in the early stages. However, the Spaniard had the rug pulled from under his i20 WRC when he was slapped with a hefty 20sec penalty for starting a stage late after getting lost on the liaison section.
An even more bizarre turn of events ruined Ott Tänak’s day in the Aussie sun. Whilst a sticking throttle and inaccurate pace notes robbed the Estonian of a few valuable seconds in the morning, the day ended on a particularly sour note when he was stopped by local police and subsequently hit with a 40sec penalty for arriving late at the penultimate stage. Eighth was all the DMACK man had to show for his efforts on Friday, which was at least more than VW’s Jari Matti Latvala. The Finn followed up a disappointing performance in Great Britain with a calamitous start to the season finale, mollocating his Polo R’s rear suspension in a collision with a bridge on the very first stage. He shed an excruciating eight minutes over the next four tests before repairs could be made.
If day one was all about all-out attack for leader Mikkelsen, then day two saw the talented Norwegian forced into showcasing his defensive qualities. With the mercury rising into the high 30s, tyre ware suddenly became a major factor. Nowhere did this new hazard play a more pivotal role than on the mammoth 50km Nambucca stage, one of the longest of the 2016 season. One man who positively relishes the challenge of a Saturday afternoon blast through the Australian shires is local-ish lad Haydon Paddon. The Kiwi tamed the Nambucca beast by posting the fastest time on the first run through. This temporarily knocked teammate Neuville out of the podium places to fourth after the Belgian’s hard compound tyres left him spinning away time in the gravel on Saturday morning.
10secs in front of the resurgent Paddon, and gradually gaining seconds on the leader, Ogier shrugged off his road sweeping duties to hone in on Mikkelsen’s Polo R over the course of day two. Despite not actually winning a stage, barring victory on the evening’s brief super special, Ogier’s canny approach yielded a hatful of top three times. Nevertheless, Mikkelsen still held a manageable 12sec lead going in to the last country test, but that cushion was abruptly slashed to just 2secs after a freak incident. Whilst cutting a tight corner, a large rock struck the underside of Mikklesen’s Polo R, bending the clutch pedal over the brake. With his breaks jammed on, the VW star struggled through the remainder of the stage before bending the offending chunk of metal back into place with a ratchet strap.
Further down the order, Dani Sordo was the big mover, leap-frogging both Camilli and Østberg despite overshooting a junction. Meanwhile, overheating tyres slowed Ott Tänak’s DMACK Ford Fiesta RS but a revitalised Jari-Matti Latvala did make strides towards salvaging some points on his final drive in the Polo but snatching a brace of stage wins.
In the face of such severe pressure from the best rally driver around, it would have been easy for the relatively inexperienced Mikkelsen to let slip his chances of claiming a third career WRC win. On the contrary, the Norwegian flew through Sunday morning’s tests, bagging a hat-trick of fastest times. For once, Ogier was the first to lose his cool in the blazing New South wales heat. The four-times champion looked on course to snatch the lead midway through the Bucca stage before a brief spin lost him valuable seconds. It granted Mikkelsen all the breathing space he needed to be able to relax through the final few stages and enjoy his first victory in Australia.
A raft of mathematical permutations would have been swirling around Thierry Neuville’s head on Sunday afternoon. An increasingly likely Mikkelsen victory meant the Hyundai man would’ve needed to go chasing bonus points in the Weding Bells power stage to cement second place in the 2016 drivers’ standings. Instead, the equation was greatly simplified when a slip-up from third-placed Paddon gifted the Belgian a free passage on to the podium, handing him the 15 points required to fend off Mikkelsen definitively.
Paddon briefly threatened the lead VW’s but blew his chances of a podium finish by clattering a bank and wrenching the rear left tyre of off its rim on stage 19. That mistake dropped him straight in to a battle for fourth with Hyundai teammate Dani Sordo. The Spaniard initially had the upper hand but although Sordo is by far the most experienced of the i20 pairing, Paddon’s expert knowledge of these roads in particular told, and the New Zealander wrestled back fourth place in the afternoon loop.
Mads Østberg was the only M-Sport driver to complete the rally. He took sixth behind Sordo whilst young teammate Eric Camilli rolled out of seventh after mounting a bank late on. His place in the final standings was taken by Tänak who headed WRC2 champion Esapekka Lappi’s Skoda Fabia and the third Polo R of Jari-Matti Latvala
So, an emotional end to a roller-coaster ride of a season in the WRC; but a fitting one nonetheless. Mikkelsen’s elation on the occasion of his “best victory yet” was tinged with more than a little sadness as his beloved Volkswagen team, one of the most formidable in the sport’s history, bows out forever. Four manufacturers’ and four drivers’ titles in as many years tells you all you need to know about the calibre and professionalism of this squad; from the drivers and the garage crew to the 200-strong backroom team in Hannover and beyond.
They came, they saw, they conquered all before them. Despite the ultimately inauspicious circumstances surrounding the team’s withdrawal from the WRC, the boys and girls who make Volkswagen Motorsport tick should proudly look back at the whirlwind four years from 2013 to 2016 as the time when they ruled the rallying world.
Now to usher in the new era. The new-look, supercharged 2017 World Rally Championship begins in January in the classic setting of Monte Carlo. In the meantime, stay tuned to inside lane for the latest on what promises to be a fascinating couple of months of wheeling and dealing in the driver market.
Final Results: Round 14 – Rally Australia
|POS||#||DRIVER……………||TEAM||POINTS||TOTAL TIME………..||DIFF PREV……..||DIFF 1ST|
|8.||31||E. LAPPI||SKD (WRC2)||4||2:53:38.0||+4:28.0||+7:32.3|