VW GOES OUT ON A HIGH

MIKKELSEN LEADS OGIER HOME IN AUS­TRALIA

Motor Sport News - - Front Page -

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.

Mikkelsen beat pedal drama to win VW’S last rally

Mikkelsen’s ped­als got in a mud­dle

Mikkelsen held his nerve af­ter tense fi­nal dash

Pho­tos: mck­lein-im­age­database.com

Neuville lost in his chal­lenge for sec­ond in the points

Ogier pushed but came up short

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.