A truly astounding recovery drive from Thierry Neuville saw the Belgian take his maiden WRC victory on Rallye Deutschland 2014 and hand his Hyundai team an unlikely first win since their return to the WRC fold this season. The 26 year-old suddenly found himself at the head of the pack on the final leg after an unlikely string of dramatic accidents had left the field severely depleted of top drivers.
And there was yet more euphoria in the Hyundai camp as number two driver Dani Sordo followed his teammate home to deliver a fantastic one-two for the Korean team. The Spaniard won here in 2013 and continues to show his undoubted prowess on asphalt.
Rallye Deutschland was shaping up to be just the latest showcase of Volkswagen’s WRC dominance, with the Wolfsburg-based team aiming to register another routine victory and extend their incredible winning streak to thirteen rallies. However, for once things didn’t follow Jost Capito’s meticulously planned script as history repeated itself on the very same event where things went so disastrously wrong for his VW team last season. The only Polo to cross the finish line this time out was that of Andreas Mikkelsen, the Norwegian finishing a distant third behind the Hyundai duo.
Germany plays host to one of the most prestigious asphalt rallies on the calendar and until last year it was utterly dominated by one man, Sébastien Loeb, who held an incredible record of 9 wins from 9 outings from 2002-2012. In fact, Citroën are the only team ever to have occupied the top step of the podium here, with Dani Sordo claiming his maiden WRC victory on rally Germany 2013 in a DS3.
The stages in Germany range from the bumpy and narrow Mosel vineyard roads to the tracks of the Panzerplatte military testing ground and the smoother country tests in Saarland. But by far the most infamous features of rally Germany are the enormous car-breaking hinkelstein tank traps that line the roads of Panzerplatte. Many a car has been reduced to mangled metal by these deadly obstacles in the past.
Before the competitive action was even underway, Thierry Neuville already found himself in deep trouble. He span and rolled his i20 a spectacular six times through a dense vineyard during shakedown. The very fact that he even made it to the start line, let alone win the rally, was thanks in no small part to the heroic all-night shift put in by Hyundai’s mechanics.
By Friday morning, against all the odds, Neuville had a working car to play with, but the leader board had a familiar look to it as the VWs of Sébatien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala set the early pace. It was only after M-Sport’s Robert Kubica had entangled his Fiesta in the roadside grape vines on stage 3 that the real drama began. On the day’s final stage, leader Ogier overcooked a high speed corner and slipped backwards down a steeply sloped vineyard. His Polo emerged from the mass of grapes decidedly pinker but mercifully undamaged. However, the world champion found himself stranded on a service road with no route back to the stage. He was left with no choice but to reverse down the track and retire the car at service.
Ogier’s uncharacteristic miscalculation left teammate Latvala out in front, holding a 37 second lead over Citroën’s Kris Meeke. The Northern Irishman was the model of consistency, finishing third in each of the opening six stages.
Sordo was the best placed of the Hyundai’s after day one whilst teammate Neuville, still recovering from his big accident in shakedown, sat fifth. VW youngster Mikkelsen split the Hyundai duo but would have been higher were it not for a puncture picked up on the morning loop. Below them, the Fiesta’s of Hirvonen and Evans headed the struggling DS3 of Mads Østberg.
Ogier, now 9 minutes behind after his Friday retirement, restarted knowing he had to fire up the afterburners to get back in touch with the leaders. But the imperious Frenchmen was once again left reeling on only the second stage of the new day. After mistiming a breaking point on the landing to a heavy jump, Ogier lost control and ploughed his Polo in to a barrier at high speed. This time there was no coming back for the world champion, whose car’s roll cage was damaged beyond repair. A double Ogier retirement is a real WRC collector’s item and will only evoke bad memories for the man himself, who failed here last year in similar circumstances.
Rain was forecast for the second day of action in Germany, but the deluge held off until the afternoon loop. Both Hyundai’s had gambled on running with soft, slick tyres in the morning and for Neuville in particular, this proved an inspired choice. The Belgian stuck like glue to the dry asphalt surface and quickly leapfrogged both Mikkelsen and Sordo to leave himself on the coattails of Meeke by Saturday afternoon. The Northern Irishman suffered a puncture but held on to second with some quick times later in the day.
When the weather did turn, it was former winner Sordo who suffered the most, dropping 20 seconds as he aquaplaned through a junction on stage 13 and losing touch with his faster teammate. He did, however, stay just ahead of Mikkelsen who had issues of his own as he misjudged the entry to a hairpin bend on the following test. The gap separating the i20 from the Polo stood at 10.2 seconds. The M-Sport duo of Hirvonen and Evans continued their inter-team scrap throughout the day and by Saturday the more experienced Finn led his young colleague as well as the DS3 of Mads Østberg in the battle for the minor places.
It is fair to say that top-notch final day action and excitement has been at a premium at recent rallies, with most front-runners cautiously cruising their way to the podium on Sunday’s tests. But Rallye Deutschland’s uncanny knack of tearing up the script once again reared its head and as such, the chaotic climax to this year’s edition came as a welcome and truly exhilarating surprise for WRC fans.
For the drivers hoping to avoid such drama, however, Sunday’s mayhem brought only gut-wrenching disappointment.
First, Latvala, with a full minute advantage over his rivals, lost control of his Polo on the treacherously slippery vineyard roads. His car came to rest in an adjacent field putting an end to his bid to claim a maiden victory on asphalt. More importantly, a golden opportunity to make major inroads in to Ogier’s championship lead was squandered.
Latvala’s error left a visibly suprised Kris Meeke contemplating the possibility of his first ever WRC win. Holding a sizable 8.4 second advantage over Neuville with only a handful of stages remaining, the dogged 35 year-old looked to be on the verge of becoming the first Brit to win a WRC rally since Colin McRae in 2002. But the Citroën man’s hopes were short lived as he ripped the rear left wheel from his DS3 on the very next stage following a heavy impact with a wall. Moments before, he had picked up a front left puncture whilst cutting a bank, compromising his car’s handling in to the next corner. It was a cruel way to deny such a dedicated driver his ultimate goal of topping the WRC podium.
As the dust settled, one of the most unlikely comebacks in many years was completed by the man who found himself without a working car on the evening before the rally. Neuville beat his teammate Sordo by 40.7 seconds with Mikkelsen third and Elfyn Evans matching a career best fourth place. The Welshman was also delighted at winning the power stage and relegating his vastly more experienced teammate Mikko Hirvonen in to fifth overall. An out of sorts Mads Østberg was the highest placed Citroën finisher in sixth.
The plaudits must ultimately go to Hyundai and Thierry Neuville for a splendid combined effort in the garage and on the roads. The team finally has the priceless experience of winning a rally under its belt, whilst on a more personal level, Neuville can revel in the pride of becoming only the second ever Belgian to taste victory in WRC – a long overdue accolade.
However, ironically the real winners in Germany were in fact the most high profile losers; Volkswagen. Despite missing out on the chance to wrap up the constructors championship, results conspire to mean that only a Polo driver can now be crowned 2014 WRC world champion. And with Latvala spurning a golden opportunity to make his biggest inroads yet in to the 44 point gap to the top of the drivers’ table, the unflappable Sébastien Ogier, although battered and bruised, has managed to keep the championship door firmly shut on his main rival. He is unlikely to let it creek ajar a second time.
The Gold Coast in Australia plays host to round 10 of the 2014 WRC from 11th-14th of September.
Final Results: Round 9 – Rallye Deutschland
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