VW GOES OUT ON A HIGH
MIKKELSEN LEADS OGIER HOME IN AUSTRALIA
Sebastien Ogier’s car chief Martin ‘Hase’ Hassenpflug pressed play, prompting those unmistakable piano chords. Seconds later, Adele delivered the line: This is the end… Momentarily, it felt as though the sky would fall.
Three weeks ago in Wales, talk of the end had been roundly dismissed. Rumour. Gossip. Speculation. On the other side of the world, fiction became fact and fact became the beginning of the end. But what a way to end: with a stunning allVolkswagen fight to write an unbelievably emotional final chapter.
Day one: 56.65 miles; 11 stages Weather: sunny 19-31 celsius
Forget the dark side. Celebrate good times. Ogier didn’t want to dwell on the end of an era ahead of the opening day of Rally Australia.
Andreas Mikkelsen was on a different page.
“You can see it in the eyes of the mechanics,” he said, “this rally means something different. It’s so sad. I want to stay in this car forever…”
Well, he couldn’t. He’d be out of it for the final time come Sunday afternoon, leaving him just three days aboard this World Rally Championship record-breaker.
That was three days to do his bit to wrest a season-long silver from Thierry Neuville. Or three days to shine up his personal shop window before rival team principals start window shopping this week.
“It would be very nice to talk to [those team principals] as winner of the last round of the championship,” said Mikkelsen, “but I think I showed the whole year that I have what it takes to fight. In terms of our pace, everything is getting better and better. Our graph is going up.”
Earlier this season, when Mikkelsen won in Poland, much of that achievement was overshadowed by the emotion of Ott Tanak missing out on his maiden victory. Arguably, Mikkelsen had driven the better rally in Mikolajki, coping brilliantly with cleaning conditions from third on the road.
It was the same on the beautifully sweeping ‘shire’ roads south of Coffs Harbour last Friday. Mikkelsen found his mojo, tucked it into the door pocket of his Polo and led for all but one stage through the opening day.
While the Norwegian politely talked down the need for speed to keep him in a seat next season, there was no denying the other two factors driving him harder, further and faster. He wanted second in the championship and he wanted his current employer to go out on a high.
The latter was a sentiment also echoed by Volkswagen team principal Sven Smeets.
“There’s only one directive to them this week,” said Smeets, “and that’s to win. We have to go out on a high.”
The seasonal silver was a bit more complicated, with a Thierry Neuvillesized thorn remaining in the side of Mikkelsen’s plan. Neuville started Australia 14 points ahead.
“If he doesn’t retire, then I have to win,” said Andreas. “I got a good feeling from shakedown and I’m sure I can keep that in the rally. I have to take the risk, there’s nothing to lose for me.”
Fastest on four of the morning’s five stages, Mikkelsen’s shakedown form had indeed remained and looked like turning into a purple patch when he emerged from Friday with a 15-second lead. The afternoon hadn’t been quite so straightforward, but still he was satisfied.
It was a flustered Mikkelsen who landed at the finish of the day’s penultimate gravel stage.
“There was a bottle,” he said. “It was a water bottle getting underneath the pedal. That was quite intense! We took the water from the end of the stage before and then forgot to give the bottle to the guys at the start of the next one. It was at Anders [Jaeger, co-driver]’s feet, but then it came to my side. I lost the rhythm a bit after that.”
Crucially, bottle binned, he found his feet again.
Hyundai stars Dani Sordo and Hayden Paddon had been Mikkelsen’s closest pursuers through much of the morning. Sordo’s usually cheerful demeanour went south when he got lost on the way to the fifth stage. Two minutes late at the control meant a 20s penalty. Waiting to go into service following the stage, the Spaniard sat in the car, fiddling with his phone. His co-driver Marc Marti had vacated the car, leaving something of an atmosphere aboard the #20 i20.
Asked for an explanation of what happened, Sordo said: “I don’t know. We got lost in the dust…”
Silence. He looked up from his Apple only to offer the sort of wry smile and wink which signaled this particular interview was done.
Unfortunately for Sordo, that incident flattened the wave he’d been riding and he slipped back from the fight at the front.
Paddon was the only driver to take a gamble on tyres on Friday morning, shunning his fellow Michelin runners’ choice of softs all round in favour of a couple of hards to be bolted onto the front of the car for the day’s only forest stage, Newry (which had been shortened from 15 to six miles due to the potential for a dust problem).
“I lost the balance of the car,” he said. “The surface in there is softer, I had about four half-spins. That wasn’t really acceptable.”
There was more self-criticism at the end of the day, when the Kiwi stared at what was left of the Michelins sitting beneath the Hyundai.
“I was too hard on them,” he said. “It was my own fault really. I need to drive straighter.”
His team-mate Neuville and Ogier got past on Friday’s final loose surface stage.
Neuville’s effort was impressive from second on the road, but Ogier… well that was vintage Ogier.
The day ended with a couple of meaningless fan-friendly, threequarter-mile runs up and down the seafront. The Frenchman was fastest on both, breathtaking in his precision and phenomenal in his ability to slow the Polo on tyres battered by an afternoon ripping up the hard-baked, rock-solid New South Wales roads.
“I’m a little surprised to be second,” he said, “but we still have a day to go at the front. Let’s see what this looks like tomorrow, but still I think the chance for me to win is a long way away. Normally, I would not cheer for another driver, but I am cheering for Andreas today. We want this one. Volkswagen deserves this one.”
Ahead of the rally, both Ogier and Mikkelsen had pointed to the Finnish Polo as the one most likely to fulfill that ambition. Latvala, they said, held all the cards. They were absolutely right. Starting sixth on the road, J-ML should have had this one done and dusted on Friday night. What happened? He crashed. The left-rear of the Polo got out of line and slapped a bridge early in the Utungun opener. Suspension broken, he and co-driver Miikka Anttila used ratchet straps and everything at their disposal to bring the car through the morning, dropping almost eight minutes in the process.
“This was not what I wanted,” said Latvala, rather superfluously. “Now I must finish the rally with dignity.” End of day one: 1 Mikkelsen/jaeger 57m16.7s; 2 Ogier/ Ingrassia +15.4s; 3 Neuville/ Gilsoul +22.5s; 4 Paddon/ Kennard +23.7s; 5 Ostberg/ Floene +33.8s; 6 Camilli/ Veillas +46.6s
Day two: 84.00 miles; 7 stages Weather: Sunny 20-34 celsius
Ogier’s demeanour was definitely more bouncy on Saturday morning. He sensed something could be possible. He had a card to play. That card was running softs all around on the first loop.
Despite temperatures on Australia’s east coast rapidly rising towards the 30 degree mark, Ogier played his card and set about the 31-mile Nambucca test, ignoring the raised eyebrows around the service park.
But this wasn’t a gamble. This was the champion playing to one of his major strengths, notably his ability to drive harder for longer while using his tyres less than anybody. And the theory was simple here: the gravel was so deep, the soft covers would spin through the dirt without clawing at mother earth. And so it played out. Second in behind Ogier, Neuville lost 9.7s – so much for the theory that each car in would gain 0.2s per kilometre from the cleaning effect.
Mikkelsen took 2.4s, but he knew it wasn’t enough.
The scarred front of Ogier’s Polo told its own story.
“I was flat-out,” said Ogier, with a smile. “I pushed so hard, it was the maximum. cut every corner and hit every pole.”
On hearing Neuville’s time, Ogier said: “He’s behind me on the road; I killed him.”
Paddon had been looking forward to this weekend all season. “This is my day,” he said. “I love these stages, they just suit me.”
Good as his word, he took 12 seconds out of Ogier and moved back to second place. But that was as good as it would get for the Kiwi. He didn’t beat the number one Polo again and was powerless to stop him coming past on the second run through Nambucca.
Paddon remained in third place at the end of the day, rapidly dispensing questions about whether he would be
sacrificing his own podium finish to allow team-mate Neuville to grab the extra points to go for second place in the championship.
“It’s the drivers’ championship…” came Paddon’s rather caustic response.
The fastest time through Valla 2 showed Neuville was willing to do his own dirty work; 21.8s separated him from Paddon with one day to run.
Back to second on Saturday afternoon, Ogier locked on to Mikkelsen, but ending the day just two seconds off the lead was more than even he had expected.
“It should not be possible for me to be here,” said Ogier. “There are two reasons I’m here, firstly is because of Jari-matti’s problem. He should have been leading by a long way from his place on the road. The second point is that I take the full risk, normally I never allow myself to do this when we are fighting for the championship.”
The other reason? Another freak moment in Mikkelsen’s footwell. But this time it was far worse than an errant bottle of water.
Not far from the end of the stage, the Volkswagen hit something under the car. The force twisted the clutch pedal over and onto the brake, partly depressing the middle pedal.
Mid-stage, the leader grabbed the occasional glance at his feet, desperately trying to figure out what was going on. When he reached the finish, he glared at the pedals: effect had overtaken cause and he’d shipped nine seconds to his team-mate.
Back in service, Mikkelsen had cheered up. Slightly.
“It’s simple,” he said. “If I want to win, my last day working for Volkswagen has to be the best day of my life.”
There was an entirely unintentional twisted irony about that. End of day two 1 Mikkelsen/jaeger 2h15m06.2s; 2 Ogier/ Ingrassia +2.0s; 3 Paddon/ Kennard +12.0s; 4 Neuville/ Gilsoul +33.8s 5 Sordo/ Marti + 59.2s; 6 Ostberg/ Floene +1m00.6s. Day three: 35.53 miles; 5 stages Weather: sunny 18-29 celsius Two seconds. Two seconds. “It’s nothing,” said Mikkelsen. But it could be everything. He grinned. “Then let’s give it everything.” The contrast at morning service was marked. His car perfect, polished and poised, Ogier waited patiently, leaning on the roof and making small talk with his mechanics. The unmistakable thump of lump hammer on metal came from beneath Mikkelsen’s car as his boys continued to straighten the underside after his pedaltwisting whack a day earlier.
They were gone, one more day to play in the Polos.
The building emotion was defused to some extent by the fight that remained.
Two seconds. Five stages. Mikkelsen stole 0.6s on the opener and readied himself for Bucca – the location for 19 of the day’s 35 competitive miles.
This one could be decisive. Through the four split times, Mikkelsen trailed Ogier. Just over halfway through, the champ’s advantage in the stage peaked at 2.3s. Mikkelsen trimmed it back 0.6s in the penultimate sector.
Just when we looked to be heading for a tenth-for-tenth kind of a day, Ogier dropped it and spun in the closing mile.
Mikkelsen’s lead mushroomed to 22.2s. Elation and devastation were just a Polo apart. But what this rally gave Mikkelsen with one hand it took away with another: Paddon knocked a tyre off a rim, gifting Neuville third overall and second in the championship.
Forget the war. If there was ever a battle to win, this was it. Mikkelsen knew it.
As the end neared, the emotion began to build again. Andreas couldn’t help himself.
“I had to tell Anders how much I will miss this car…” he said.
On any other day or any other rally, interrupting your co-driver in the last mile of a powerstage might have been considered a bit bonkers. Not on Sunday. A Volkswagen one-two, 43rd win and 87th podium. These were the numbers at the end of the Polo R WRC’S 30,276th and final mile as a factory World Rally Car.
But the numbers mean nothing without the people. As the tears flowed, realisation dawned on the people. Their number was up.
This is the end.