Volkswagen captured the holy grail of WRC prizes by securing an historic one-two-three finish on Rally Australia. Sébastien Ogier headed his teammates Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen to give his own hopes of retaining the world championship another boost and also ensure that his team walks away with a second consecutive manufacturers’ title.
The podium lockout underlined the German squad’s dominance throughout the weekend. Ogier’s victory by 6.8secs over his Finnish colleague is his 22nd top WRC honour, six of which have come this season alone. 1 min 11secs further back, Mikkelsen was kept on his toes by Citroën’s Kris Meeke for much of the rally, until the fascinating duel for the final podium spot was cut short on Saturday evening when the Northern Irishman was slapped with a hefty time penalty for cutting a corner illegally. Mikkelsen’s podium finish in Oz is his fourth of 2014.
The Coffs harbour-based event is a compact and tricky gravel affair, much of which is run through the dense New South Wales rainforest. Hard compound tyres are usually the order of the day, however rain showers can often throw a spanner in the works, meaning teams must be spot on with their selection of rubber. To further test the drivers’ metal, a new super special stage has been added to the 2014 itinerary to be run in darkness on Friday and Saturday evening.
No decisive blows were struck on day one’s opening leg but it was the VW trio of Ogier, Latvala and Mikkelsen who headed a bunched field by Friday evening. The top five cars were separated by under 8secs as night fell, with Kris Meeke and Mikko Hirvonen the men keeping pace with the Polo’s in fourth and fifth respectively. In fact, Meeke had led after two excellent stage wins in the morning and held on until the penultimate stage when he was caught by Latvala, only for Ogier to then leapfrog them both on the final test. Mads Østberg’s poor form in the DS3 continued as he sat seventh after day one, whilst behind him Fiesta pilots Robert Kubica and Elfyn Evans both made early errors that cost them vital seconds on the road. Rally Germany winner Thierry Neuville’s hopes of recording back to back wins were also dashed early on when his Hyundai i20 suffered broken rear suspension, costing 2mins and dropping him down to tenth.
Rally Australia’s most pivotal action was played on day two, when Ogier snatched a vital advantage over his teammate and closest challenger Latvala. It was the Finn’s Polo R that set the early pace and the 29 year-old quickly eroded away the world champion’s lead with fastest times on the two morning stages. This left him with a 4.1sec cushion of his own; however the forecast for afternoon showers scuppered his attempts to maintain that gap. Going with the weather predictions, Latvala kitted out his Polo R with two soft tyres in anticipation of wet conditions. But the rains never came. Ogier, gambling with just one soft tyre, was able to push harder on the dry roads and took a decisive 13.4secs out of Latvala on the mammoth stage 11. This was enough to propel him in to an 11.8sec overnight lead that he wouldn’t relinquish.
There was more drama further back in the battle for third, which had switched hands four times between Meeke and Mikkelsen during the day. By the evening the gap stood at just 1.5secs in favour of the Norwegian, however the Citroën man was retrospectively handed a 1 minute time penalty for illegally cutting a corner in the darkness of Saturday’s super special night stage. This blow not only left Meeke well adrift of Mikkelsen but also dropped him to fifth below M-Sport’s Mikko Hirvonen who had himself struggled the tackle the dry roads on a full set of soft tyres. Østberg and Neuville climbed to sixth and eight respectively but the day went less than smoothly for Kubica who bizarrely lost over a minute when he became distracted by a cockpit warning light and crashed his Fiesta RS on the approach to a crest.
Latvala still maintained slim hopes of catching his teammate on the final day and did indeed regain some ground with a string of rapid times on Sunday. However, Ogier remained unruffled and expertly managed his lead to take his second consecutive WRC victory down under. Latvala and an untroubled Mikkelsen followed him home in triumphant style for Volkswagen whilst Meeke managed to regain fourth place from Hirvonen, beating the Finn by 9.6secs. They were followed by the Hyundai pair of Hayden Paddon and Thierry Neuville in sixth and seventh but Meeke’s teammate Østberg suffered a frustrating end to another frustrating rally. He had to stop to repair a broken rear suspension arm on stage 19 and finally limped over the finish line ten minutes later in a disappointing sixteenth position.
The emotions in the VW camp could hardly be more contrasting to those of the unfortunate Norwegian. The very fact that this is the earliest WRC championship win in 25 years perfectly sums up the team’s iron grip on the series right now. Virtually impossible to beat at an individual rally and nigh on unstoppable over a whole season, there may have never been a more dominant WRC force in terms of overall package than this this one. With even his closest pursuer Latvala now fading a full 50 points in to the distance, Sébastien Ogier looks all set to secure his second consecutive drivers’ crown at his home rally in France which begins on 3rd of October.
Final Results: Round 10 – Rally Australia
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