Sébastien Ogier placed another cherry on his sizeable championship winning cake by strolling to victory number eight of 2014 at the traditional WRC season finale at Wales Rally GB. The Frenchman was followed home by an emotional Mikko Hirvonen on what would be the great Finn’s final ever WRC appearance. It looked as if a British driver would be joining them on the podium until a last minute disaster for Kris Meeke somewhat dampened the home fan’s spirits, with his Citroën teammate Mads Østberg eventually clinching third spot.
Cold, wet and muddy; three words that no summery of Wales Rally GB would be complete without. Nevertheless, despite the event’s decidedly dank and gloomy appearance, few in the WRC would argue that Wales is not the perfect setting for serving up outstanding rallying conditions worthy of gracing the season’s curtain call. With a greater emphasis on tackling the roads and tracks of north Wales, the 2014 edition of this titan among gravel events is certain to test even the most battle-hardened drivers to the limit. The combination of slimy mud and standing water – an unavoidable hazard here – makes the task of identifying and maintaining grip devilishly complicated. Understeer can strike at any given moment, even when a car seems to be behaving impeccably on the road. A sudden unruly snap of the back end or unscheduled sideways moment can derail a strong charge in seconds.
For Ogier, occupying his usual spot first out on the road, the search for his eighth win of the season started on a strong footing. He and his two Volkswagen teammates began the three day event impressively by grabbing a 1-2-3 on stage one. The trio was soon broken up however, as young gun Andreas Mikkelsen, chasing Ogier perhaps a little too enthusiastically, span not far in to stage 2, hitting a bank which catapulted him in to a ditch on the opposite side of the track. This ugly incident left him with broken suspension and plenty of spare time to fill in the afternoon as he retired for the day. His Finnish teammate Jari-Matti Latvala, now resigned to second place in the championship, plugged away with a series of top three finishes and fastest times throughout the day. However, the pattern was already set, as Ogier always seemed to have the edge over his college. After trading stage wins, it was the Frenchman who led by 10 secs after the morning loop. That advantage had diminished to 6.6 secs by the evening, leaving Latvala just that little bit too far back to mount a major attack.
Meanwhile, the battle for third was developing nicely. Leading the charge was Citroën’s Kris Meeke who was forced to recoup time after being slapped with a 10sec penalty for arriving late at stage 1. Further problems were to follow on what was an eventful opening day for the Northern Irishman when he overshot the same hairpin on both runnings of Gartheiniog, losing him precious seconds. Low sun and intermittent grip hampered his cause on stage 4 before complaining of severe understeer on the afternoon’s polished repeated stages. Despite all this, the Citroën man was able to hold off his younger teammate Mads Østberg and finished the day fourth behind a clearly determined Mikko Hirvonen. Just 8.5 seconds covered the trio after eight stages.
Both Robert Kubica and Juho Hänninen suffered calamities of varying degrees on day one. The Pole took a wrong turn on stage 4 and ended up having to reverse out of a service road. Hyundai’s Hänninen endured a rather more terminal mishap however, when the lack of grip on stage 3 sent him understeering in to a ditch on a low-speed right-hander and out of the running on day one. With Dani Sordo expected to be confirmed for at least ten rounds of the 2015 championship with Hyundai, Hänninen’s WRC future looks to be on shaky ground.
If Ogier had the slightest shred of apprehension about defending his lead going in to day two, Latvala quickly dispelled it by planting his Polo R straight in to a rather deep ditch on Saturday’s first stage. With the help of spectators, the Finn toiled for 3mins attempting to free himself from this muddy grave. He finally did so but not after being passed by Ogier on the road and sliding all the way down to tenth overall. This left the double world champion in the clear, a full 1min12secs ahead of his nearest rival Hirvonen.
The retiring M-Sport driver only briefly relinquished second place in the afternoon when Meeke went fastest on stage 14. However, just one stage later the Finn responded with the seconded fastest time, gaining 4.4secs on his Citroën rival and shunting him back to third. The gap between the pair by the end of the day stood at 3.4secs. For much of the day the battle had been a three-way one, with Mads Østberg desperate to get in on the act. He did just that on stage 11, taking advantage of another missed hairpin by Meeke to capture third, but was demoted again on the following stage curtesy of a 10sec time penalty for arriving late at a time control. However, for the Norwegian, the real damage was done on Saturday’s night stage when a delaminating tyre cost Østberg 20secs, seemingly dashing his hopes of a podium finish.
Elsewhere, Andreas Mikkelsen’s luck showed no signs of improving when his helmet intercom failed forcing co-driver Ola Floene to resort to communicating his pace notes via a series of hand signals. Local hero Elfyn Evans began to come to the fore as he steadily closed on the man he replaced in the M-Sport Fiesta, sixth-placed Thierry Neuville. However, there was no doubting the man in control; Ogier may have seen his lead trimmed to 58secs by close of play on the penultimate day but that was little reason to spoil the Frenchman’s proverbial walk in the Welsh park.
The final day of WRC competition in 2014 began with a bump for Kris Meeke when the Ulsterman dropped two wheels of his DS3 in to a deep ditch. With his foot nailed to the floor, the car soon bounced back out, luckily suffering no ill-effects. At one point, he had closed to within 1.6secs of Hirvonen but the Finn was in no mood to have his retirement party gate-crashed. He immediately responded with another lightning time on stage 21, partly demolishing the final time control in the process. Unbeknownst to Hirvonen, Meeke was in fact running on borrowed time, or more accurately borrowed rubber. On the following stage, Meeke’s heavily battered tyres finally gave up the ghost. With his rear right hanging off the rim, completely delaminated, and the DS3 reduced to crawling pace, Meeke was helpless to prevent himself tumbling down the leader board to sixth, his podium finish cruelly ripped away.
This left Mads Østberg with the unexpected honour of mounting the podium in Wales, his fourth top-three finish of the season, whilst simultaneously helping to secure second place in the manufacturers’ standings for Citroën ahead of M-Sport and Hyundai. He headed home Thierry Neuville who secured a positive fourth place finish despite the i20’s lack of front end grip throughout the rally. Elfyn Evans was delighted to devour the limping Meeke on the final stage to take fifth on the roads where he first learned to rally. The young Welshman undoubtedly has the talent to go from strength to strength over the coming years with the full backing and belief of M-Sport. Allowing Evans to step in to Hirvonen’s shoes as team leader next season would be a logical step and just reward after a promising debut campaign.
The last rally review of the season would not be complete without one final game of Volkswagen number-crunching. And the figures certainly do make for some extraordinary reading: the German outfit scooped twelve out of a possible thirteen wins, a WRC record, including seven double victories and a historic 1-2-3 finish in Australia. Moreover, VW is only the second manufacturer in WRC history to provide all of the top three drivers in the Drivers’ World Championship. Only the great Lancia team had achieved this feat before now, in 1987 and 1988. At this stage, another era of Lancia-esc dominance seems a distinct possibility.
But Wales Rally GB 2014 was really a tale of two men; each with contrasting fortunes.
For an emotional Mikko Hirvonen, who admitted that second place here was “the best possible end” to his career, his 69th podium will be his last. It signs off the career of one of the most likeable men in the business who spent his 12 seasons and 163 rallies in the WRC serving each one of his teams with the utmost loyalty and professionalism. Nevertheless, in years to come the four-time championship runner-up will surely reflect on his distinguished career and wonder to himself what it might have felt like to be crowned champion of the world, having come so tantalisingly close on so many occasions.
It is not a thought that will ever play on the mind of Sébastien Ogier. In the story of his career, Wales Rally GB 2014 will simply go down as a fairly routine win to round off a fairly routine championship campaign. Will there be more to come? As for the former; almost undoubtedly. Regarding the latter; there is very little evidence out there at the moment to suggest otherwise.
Hirvonen rightly deserves his place in the history books. He has been a true WRC hero to many, and his name will go down as such. But Ogier is a man who doesn’t just settle for having a place in the history books; he writes them.
Can he be the author of the next chapter too? That question will have to wait until we embark on a brand new season of WRC action in Monte Carlo on 19th January 2015.
Final Results: Wales Rally GB 2014
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Final Results: Drivers’ World Championship 2014
Final Results: Constructors’ World Championship 2014