For all the undoubted joy experienced by the Hyundai team in the wake of its fourth win of the season, all of them thanks to Thierry Neuville, there must have been a small kernel of disappointment buried within the elation. The knowledge that, with a little more luck and a few less errors, it could have been crowning its driver as WRC champion and taking the manufactures’ gong back home to Seoul, that must sting.
Still, the i20 Coupe WRC’s dominant display down under will no doubt give the team heart as the off-season, as well as giving them a solid foundation on which to build towards 2018. The event itself was a typically Aussie affair, with intense high speed sections, technically demanding corner complexes, treacherously slippy gravel, unflinching trees – and a correspondingly high rate of attrition!
Friday belonged to another Hyundai driver and one who will no doubt look to cement his position within the team moving forward, Andreas Mikkelsen. The Norwegian has been a significant factor in every one of the 3 events he’s started for Hyundai this year, and each time it’s ended in disappointment. This time was to be no different but there was no inkling of this on Friday, a day Mikkelsen made his own on an an event he admits is one of his favourites. He won 5 out of Friday’s 8 stages and ended the day 20.1 seconds to the good, and it would have taken a very brave man to bet against him, especially as the his nearest challenger was actually his team mate, Thierry Neuville.
The first full day of Rally Australia 2017 was anything but plain sailing for many of Mikkelsen’s competitors though, with Kris Meeke’s chronically painful season continuing unabated. At first the Northern Irishman was able to keep the pace-setting Hyundai’s in check, splitting Mikkelsen and Neuville for most of the morning, but a costly slide into the undergrowth in Sherwood saw him drop a good 10 seconds. He managed to salvage the day and ended it in third place overall, still within touching distance of Neuville.
Ott Tanak’s continually improving pace saw him haul the Fiesta into the now three-way fight for fourth, joining the Yaris of Jari-Matti Latvala and the C3 of Craig Breen. All 4 cars were covered by a scant 3.1 seconds (with Hayden Paddon a mere 5.2 seconds further back in 7) at the close of play on Friday. Sebastian Ogier was hampered by his road position and could only manage eighth, almost 10 seconds down on Paddon and another 10 or so seconds ahead of Stephane Lefebvre, with Elfyn Evans down in 10th.
The rally leader was the first to feel the wrath of the Aussie scrubland when he crested an innocuous looking right hander on the second stage of Saturday morning, SS10 (Newry), cutting the inside of the corner in utterly conventional fashion…and receiving a pair of punctures for his trouble! He was forced to retire from the day’s action due to having just the one spare tyre, which duly promoted his team mate to a lead he was to hold for the remainder of the event. It wasn’t all plain sailing for Neuville though as the Belgian was one of several drivers to miss a junction and lose time (he also damaged his gearbox), with Meeke and Ogier also falling prey to the innocent enough looking stretch of road.
The rest of Saturday saw Neuville working hard to secure his lead over the hard-chasing Yaris of Latvala, the latter’s car clearly better suited to Australian gravel than Welsh mud, though a dominant performance in the afternoon loop saw momentum swing decisively in the Belgian’s favour. Other drivers found the going almost impossible slippery, with Kris Meeke the most high profile victim – he slid wide and clouted a bridge parapet on Welshs Creek and was forced to retire from the day’s rallying, seemingly at the behest of his team. It wasn’t the first time that we were left with a thunderous Northern Irishman skulking around the back of the Citroen service park in 2017.
Sunday brought a smattering of showers and even slippier conditions, but no change in the order up front. Latvala had the bit between his teeth and set out to wrest control of the rally from Neuville, but he was running out of stage mileage to hack down the Belgian’s 19 second advantage, especially as the penultimate stage was cancelled. Not that he looked in any way consigned to second place, especially after the morning’s run through Bucca, a stage in which Neuville hemorrhaged time and which saw the gap between the two dip beneath the 10 second mark.
Things came to a head on the Power Stage, Wedding Bells, with Neuville starting with a serviceable 14.7 second lead and the knowledge that he’d been fastest through on the first run. In the end it all came to nowt, with the flying Latvala also caught out by the low-grip Aussie gravel and flung into the scenery midway through the stage. The Finn was physically fine but visibly distraught, only too aware that he’d dropped the ball in front of the Toyota ‘top brass,’ many of whom had made the trip to Australia to see the fruits of their multi-million yen investment.
Latvala wasn’t the only driver to come a cropper on Sunday though, with Citroen’s torrid run of form compounded by the retirement of both the remaining C3 WRCs. Lefebvre’s rear suspension collapsed after taking a knock, while Breen cartwheeled his car out of the event having clipped the bank on a tightening right-hander. The pair were effectively ‘off the leash’ and driving at full chat (as requested by Yves Matton), but it’s yet more evidence that the C3 remains a tricky beast to drive at the ragged edge on loose surfaces.
The high rate of attrition served to promote a number of crews further up the order than they might have deemed possible when they awoke on Sunday morning, with Ott Tanak the main beneficiary. He was able to sign off his M-Sport career with a second place thanks to Latvala’s demise, while Hayden Paddon found himself on the bottom step of the podium on the closest event the Kiwi has to a home rally.
Tanak’s surprise second aside, M-Sport will be chuffed that they put both the titles beyond reach last time out in Wales. Ogier claimed the maximum haul of Power Stage bonus points but otherwise endured a relatively anonymous rally to come home fourth, while team mate Evans could only muster a distant fifth thanks to the poor performance of his DMACK rubber.
The sole surviving Yaris WRC of Esapekka Lappi came home in sixth, the young Finn having struggled to master the unique demands of the Australian stages. The fact that he was able to survive meant he banked some useful points, and there’s no doubting that the experience will stand him in good stead for next year.
Kennards Hire Rally Australia 2017 Results
1) Thierry Neuville Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC 2:35:44.8 2) Ott Tanak Ford Fiesta WRC 2:36:07.3 +22.5 3) Hayden Paddon Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC 2:36:43.9 +59.1 4) Sebastian Ogier Ford Fiesta WRC 2:38:12.5 +2:27.7 5) Elfyn Evans Ford Fiesta WRC 2:38:50.4 +3:05.6 6) Esapekka Lapp Toyota Yaris WRC 2:39:34.3 +3:49.5 7) Kris Meeke Citroen C3 WRC 2:58:43.2 +22:58.4 13) Andreas Mikkelsen Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC 3:13.24.5