PHOTO: Andreas Mikkelsen (right) and co-driver Anders Jaeger celebrate victory at Kennards Hire Rally Australia last year (Jeremy Rogers pic)
COFFS COAST (NSW) – Norwegian star Andreas Mikkelsen has made a surprise switch to the official Hyundai team to defend his Kennards Hire Rally Australia title at the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship finale on 16-19 November.
(Update: Citroën will step up its bid to hire Sébastien Ogier for 2018 following part-timer Andreas Mikkelsen’s switch to Hyundai.
“Sebastien Ogier is clearly our number one objective,” Citroen Racing boss Yves Matton told the news agency Agence France Presse.
Matton said budget constraints had prevented Citroën retaining Mikkelsen while at the same time trying to secure the services of the French four-time world champion.
“Talks with Ogier are continuing normally, but there’s nothing decided yet, it’s too early,” added Matton, who also raised the possibility of nine-time champion Sébastien Loeb returning “for two or three rallies” next season.
Ogier, who is ahead in his quest to win a fifth title, currently is on a one-year contract with M-Sport and has been outspoken in his call for Ford to return as a sponsor and ensure he stays at the British team.)
Mikkelsen, 28, has signed with Hyundai to contest the remaining rounds of the season in Spain, Great Britain and Australia, the team announced overnight.)
Although Mikkelsen had tested the Hyundai i20 Coupe in Portugal last April, the move to the Korean team was a surprise as he has more recently driven in three events for Citroën, finishing second in Rally Germany only last month.
His career-third victory in a Volkswagen at Kennards Hire Rally Australia last year was regarded as his finest.
He beat teammate and four-time world champion Sébastien Ogier in a straight-out fight – yet the performance was not enough to earn a new permanent seat at the elite level when Volkswagen quit the WRC at the end of 2016.
“Until now it hadn’t been known if Andreas Mikkelsen would be back to defend his title this year. Entries for Rally Australia open next week and it’s fantastic for fans to know already that his name will be on the list alongside the rest of the world’s greatest rally drivers including Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala, Thierry Neuville and others,” event Chairman Ben Rainsford said.
“The Hyundai has been very fast all season and it will be fascinating to see what Andreas can do with it on the Coffs Coast stages, where he’s obviously very comfortable.
“This will boost our ticket sales. They’re already well ahead of last year’s levels thanks to the possibility of a showdown for the drivers’ championship, but this will be another big incentive for spectators to book now.”
Mikkelsen will take the seat of Kiwi Hayden Paddon to partner Thierry Neuville and Dani Sordo at next month’s Rally RACC Catalunya-Rally de España.
Hyundai said its line-up for Dayinsure Wales Rally GB and Kennards Hire Rally Australia would differ from Spain. However, it’s expected Paddon will return for Australia, which is virtually a home event for the South Islander and where he is usually followed by more than 100 visiting countrymen.
Team principal Michel Nandan said the decision to make changes was necessary to help rekindle Hyundai’s manufacturers’ title hopes. Hyundai trails M-Sport World Rally Team by 64 points after poor performances at the most recent rounds in Finland and Germany.
“Discussions with Andreas have been ongoing since he was out of a drive, but we had nothing to offer him as our line-up was fixed. However, with us losing ground, we decided to re-evaluate the situation,” Nandan said.
Mikkelsen said: “My aim is to do all I can to help the team in the manufacturers’ championship.
“Anders (co-driver Jaeger) and I are ready for this and we hope it will be the start of something more long-term.”
Mikkelsen had been employed at Citroën to fill a similar role to that he’ll undertake at Hyundai, helping the French team stay in contention while it tried to sort out its troublesome C3 car and after a string of crashes by lead driver Kris Meeke.