Volkswagen’s Sébastien Ogier has dominated Coates Hire Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast – but he leaves without winning the 2013 World Rally Championship.
The Frenchman came into this round of the international series with a 75-point lead in the battle for the drivers’ crown and expectations were high that he would grab his maiden title on Australian soil.
Victory and bonus points for first or second fastest in the final Power Stage would be sufficient for the Volkswagen star to do the job, and he was very much on track as he posted quickest times for 19 of the 22 stages ahead of three-time Rally Australia winner, Mikko Hirvonen (Citroën).
Then came the final stage, when Hirvonen’s DS3 was slowed by a puncture, pushing him back down to third. Until that point, Ford’s Thierry Neuville had been in third place but Hirvonen’s bad luck elevated him to runner-up.
Neuville is Ogier’s nearest rival in the points tally and the extra points he scored for second place, as well as the bonus points for being second fastest in the Power Stage, meant Ogier was denied the title by a single point.
“To be honest, it was a bit of a strange feeling at the end of the last stage when we heard on the radio: “Congrats guys, you won the rally… but you have to wait for the Championship,” Ogier said at the press conference.
“We knew before the start that this could happen, even if we score maximum and win the Power Stage, we knew that Thierry could finish second and do that. In this case we would not be champion. But regarding that, all the weekend we were the virtual champion – at the last minute it was a frustration.”
There are three rounds remaining for Ogier to wrap up the title, including his home event in France next month (the all-asphalt Rallye de France-Alsace, October 3-6).
For Hirvonen, who has not won an event since Rally Italia last year and has played ‘bridesmaid’ twice this year, it was almost as frustrating. He was putting in one of his best performances for the season until his rear left tyre punctured during the final 29.44km stage.
“I have absolutely no idea what happened. We don’t know what is the reason for the puncture. We were on a long straight then we have the big vibration and I knew we would lose the tyre sooner rather or later.
“It’s really disappointing. It was quite a good weekend until that – we were comfortable in second. These things happen, but this year it’s really often. It’s been a long year so far.”
He lost almost a minute of time and that was enough to allow the consistent Neuville through to second place, his fifth consecutive podium.
Ogier’s Volkswagen teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala, is currently third in the title battle and came to Australia with 98 points to Neuville’s 109. The ‘flying Finn’ finished fourth for the event after fighting his way back up the leader board from a slow start in the first few stages.
It would take a special effort (and bad luck on Ogier’s part) for either of them to win the championship, but they are locked in a battle for the position of runner-up, and that’s where Neuville’s focus was.
“I came to this event and I wanted to increase the gap between myself and Jari-Matti [Latvala], I didn’t think about wanting to stop him [Ogier] being champion. On the first day I was out of the rhythm, but it got better and finally it was a good result for us.
“We have scored good points for us and this is another step forward. I must be happy – we had a great rally with the Qatar M-Sport team, there were no problems on the car. I must be happy with the whole season and I am looking forward to the next two rallies.”
Fifth for the weekend was Mads Östberg (Ford) with Volkswagen’s Andreas Mikkelsen, Ford’s Evgeny Novikov and Nathan Quinn (Mini) coming in behind him.
Quinn flew a proud flag for Australian fans. The Coffs Coast local invested in a drive in a Motorsport Italia-prepared Mini Countryman John Cooper Works for the weekend, and drove a quick but cautious rally to finish eighth outright in his first-ever run in a WRC car. He came home 13 minutes and 10 seconds behind Ogier but a full two minutes ahead of WRC regular Khalid Al Qassimi (Citroën).
For Citroën’s Kris Meeke, it proved to be a weekend in Australia that he might prefer to forget. After being recruited to replace team regular Dani Sordo he was running as high as fourth on Saturday before rolling his DS3 seven times down an embankment in the third last stage of the day.
Team mechanics repaired the car, allowing him to re-start for the final day, however he retired again after destroying the right rear suspension late in the final stage.
Competitors in Coates Hire Rally Australia covered just over 352km in 22 stages during their visit to the Coffs Coast of New South Wales. The event also included rounds of the East Coast Bullbars Australian Rally Championship and the Australian Off Road Championship.