Sébastien Ogier is on top of the WRC world again! The imperious Frenchman added the 2015 WRC title to his previous two crowns after beating Volkswagen teammate Jari Matti Latvala to victory by 12.3 secs in a thrilling edition of Rally Australia. Ogier’s seventh win of the season came in some style as he emerged from the dust bowl Down Under with a maximum haul of 27 points, handing the Volkswagen number one an unassailable 101 point lead in the world championship with three rounds left to run.
Once again, Ogier’s closest challenger throughout the three day event was Latvala, the only man who could have mathematically wrestled the title from the Frenchman’s iron grip. The Finn showed great character as always, battling the inevitable right up until the moment the champagne corks popped. However, the 30 year-old can be safe in the knowledge that his sterling efforts weren’t entirely in vain as the VW one-two in Oz was enough to ensure that the WRC manufactures crown returns to Wolfsburg for a third consecutive season. Kris Meeke rediscovered his form to secure third for Citroën .
A return to New South Wales signals a return to the gravel after a brief asphalt interlude in Germany. Although better known for its vast expanses of sun-scorched outback plains, a fair portion of Rally Australia’s 1023km of stages wends its 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. Australia has traditionally been a happy hunting ground for Finnish drivers, with Juha Kankkunen, Marcus Grönholm and Mikko Hirvonen each having 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 WRC’s current flying Finn Jari-Matti Latvala yet to mount the top step of the podium at this classic gravel event.
After Friday’s opening leg, Latvala would have been dreaming of finally breaking his duck (or duck billed platypus) in Australia. The morning didn’t begin on a particularly high note for the VW pilot who seemed to lack the confidence to go after early leaders Dani Sordo and Kris Meeke. However, as is often the case, the going was smoother for the early runners during Friday afternoon’s repeat run of stages. This gave Latvala the confidence to go on the offensive and sure enough a string of three consecutive stage wins hoisted him from fifth to second. Another impressive Latvala performance on Friday’s final test saw Meeke, the sole senior Citroën representative with Mads Østberg missing the rally through injury, finally relinquish the lead.
The Northern Irishman was understandably disappointed not to end the day on top of the pack. However, second overall and 2 secs behind the leader was admittedly a vast improvement on his previous record of poor starts, not least in Germany last month when he crashed his DS3 on the very first leg of stages. With regular teammate Østberg temporarily side-lined, Meeke was partnered by French rookie Stéphane Lefebvre in Australia. Team principle Yves Matton was keen to relieve the pressure on the last minute replacement, stressing that he didn’t expect the youngster to be competitive. Sadly, Matton’s caution was well founded as Lefebvre struck a rock on Friday morning which broke the front right wishbone on his DS3, an accident that brought his impromptu Australian adventure to a premature end.
It was back to drudgery of road sweeping in the gravel for Sébastien Ogier after a short asphalt interlude in Germany. The French ace predictably struggled on the virgin roads during the morning loop but, like Latvala, his fortunes turned on the freshly swept afternoon roads and fastest time on the evening stage hauled him up to third, 4.6 secs adrift of his teammate. Andreas Mikkelsen was able to hand on to the coattails of his VW colleague in fourth, the Norwegian heading the Hyundai trio of Dani Sordo, Hayden Paddon and Tierry Neuville in fifth, sixth and seventh. Sordo, demoted to the Hyundai’s second string squad for this rally, looked like a man with a point to prove. The Spaniard took full advantage of his lower spot in the running order, winning the opening three tests and storming into a 7 second lead before being ousted by Meeke in the afternoon. Paddon also thrived early on at what was virtually a home rally for the New Zealander youngster. His experience on the Aussie roads told as he flew to second on Friday morning, before steering gremlins on the i20 restricted him from producing the same rapid times in the afternoon.
M-Sport duo Ott Tänak and Elfyn Evans trailed the Hyundai i20s in eighth and ninth position respectively but neither man managed a clean run through Friday’s stages. Tänak was frustrated by persistent differential problems in the afternoon whilst Welshman Evans lost over a minute when he punctured the left rear tyre on his Fiesta RS after a spin into a bank on stage 4.
The Polo R drivers may have ended day one in fine form but on Saturday Morning road sweeping duties once again hamstrung the likes of Ogier and Latvala, the first two men on the road. Trips through Nambucca and Valla in the morning were dominated by Hayden Paddon who drew on his experience of driving Down Under to register a brace of fastest times. Whilst the Kiwi had climbed to fifth by afternoon service, the lead was back with Meeke. The DS3 pilot, on fresh soft rubber, reeled in overnight leader Latvala as the Finn ploughed his way through the gravel on stage 9 to end the morning loop 2.3 secs up on his nearest challenger.
Whilst the Polos struggled for grip in the morning, the tables very much turned on the afternoon loop as Latvala and Ogier went on the attack. The former looked like he had the speed to snatch the lead back from Citroën until a minor error on the night stage cost him a handful of seconds and ultimately top spot. The real prince of the darkness was Ogier who scythed through the gloom to better both Latvala and Meeke’s times and grab the overnight lead. Away from the fight for the podium places, the big movers were Paddon and Tänak who climed to fifth and sixth respectively. The New Zealander briefly had designs on leapfrogging fourth-place Mikkelsen after a brilliant morning session but was held back as his tyres faded later in the day.
Just 2.6 secs covered the top three cars heading into the final day in Oz. And what a day it would turn out to be for Volkswagen. After winning just two stages in as many days, Ogier was finally relieved of road sweeping duties and proceeded to dominate Sunday’s action. His five fastest times blew away any lingering hopes of a Citroën triumph and firmly shut the door on teammate Latvala. Unlike this time last year, there was no need to get the calculator out as Ogier ensured a third consecutive world title was a mathematical certainty. Polo’s accounted for the top three times in each of Sunday’s five stages, a fitting way to confirm what we’ve already known for some time; the 2015 manufacturers’ championship will be staying put in Germany for another year.
Kris Meeke will be feeling a mixture of joy and relief at finishing the three day event strongly. The Briton ended a run of poor results by clinging on to third in Australia. Meeke rebuffed the advances of fourth-place Andreas Mikkelsen who might have made it another VW podium lock-out had he not been docked 10 seconds for checking in late at midday service on Sunday.
Haydon Paddon justified his team’s decision to promote him to the Hyundai senior squad by posting an impressive fifth place. He was roared on by a strong Kiwi following who had made the short trip across the Tasman Sea to watch their hero in action. The more experienced i20 pairing of Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo came home seventh and eighth overall. Spaniard Sordo will be disappointed not to have capitalised on his lightening stard but can count himself unlucky as break problems blighted his i20 for most of Saturday. Elsewhere, Ott Tänak was the highest M-Sport finisher in sixth whilst Fiesta RS colleague Elfyn Evans never recovered his mojo after a torrid, incident strewn first day, eventually finishing a disappointing ninth.
Another year, another Volkswagen whitewash. Jost Capito and chums would be forgiven for a lack of motivation, such has been the ease with which they’ve monopolized WRC trophy ceremonies over the last three seasons. But this is a team driven by domination. As with all star performers in the world of sport, success for Volkswagen WRC is the most addictive of drugs and will continue to drive this extraordinary cohort of statisticians, mechanics and crews on to even bigger and better things.
Naturally, the same applies to Sébastien Ogier, who now joins an exclusive club of WRC legends to have won three of more world titles. Add a fourth to his collection in 2016, and he’ll be on an equal footing with Finnish giants Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen. It’s a brave man who bets against a driver of Ogier’s supreme talent doing just that.
The newly proclaimed triple world champion will come home to a hero’s welcome as the WRC returns to France next month. The Gallic event returns to its spiritual home on the island of Corsica from the 1 – 4 October.
Final Results: Round 10 – Rally Australia
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