PHOTO: Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen raises a cloud of dust behind his Volkswagen on the Rally Australia stages near Nambucca Heads (Jeremy Rogers pic)
COFFS COAST (NSW) – Andreas Mikkelsen’s hopes of ending his Volkswagen FIA World Rally Championship career with a win hung by a thread after the second leg of Kennards Hire Rally Australia today.
The Norwegian kept four-time world champion Sébastien Ogier and New Zealander Hayden Paddon at bay during a sweltering day on the Coffs Coast roads, but a bizarre problem in the final daytime speed test slashed his advantage.
Then Ogier took a further 0.8sec. off his Volkswagen teammate across the two twilight Destination NSW Super Special Stages on the host city’s harbour foreshore. They will start tomorrow 2.0sec apart and fight over the remaining 57.18km to the end of the season.
Again, large crowds turned out for a second night for the spectacular 1.27 sprint between the harbor and Pacific Ocean beach, witnessing stunning displays of skill as Ogier and Mikkelsen each won a stage.
Mikkelsen started the day 15.4sec ahead but lost most of that when his Volkswagen Polo R’s clutch pedal was bent and pushed down on the brake pedal. He drove more than half the 14.84km Valla16 stage with the brakes on and conceded 9.2sec to Ogier.
“I cut a corner like I had lots of others. There was a bang and I think a rock must have hit under the car and bent the clutch pedal across the brake,” Mikkelsen said.
Failure to win on Volkswagen’s last WRC appearance would likely see Mikkelsen fall short in his effort to overhaul Thierry Neuville in their fight for the championship runner-up position.
Despite the stakes for their team, the Volkswagen pair agreed they would fight to the finish. Under WRC rules, Mikkelsen tomorrow will have to handle the road-opening disadvantage Ogier has endured for the first two days.
“Seb told me he would help me get second in the championship but it doesn’t look like it,” Mikkelsen said.
“He is pushing very hard. Sadly we had an incident on the last proper stage where the clutch pedal went over the brake pedal and we drove half the stage with brake pressure on.
“Anyway it makes things really interesting for tomorrow. We will do everything we can to win this rally because we have nothing to lose and everything to gain – and so does Seb, so it will be very interesting.”
Paddon was first to attack Mikkelsen in the opening Nambucca test. The Kiwi relegated Ogier to third after a stirring drive through the 50.80km marathon.
When it was repeated this afternoon Ogier piled on the pressure, demoting Paddon and closing on Mikkelsen before the pedal drama.
Road-opener Ogier was worst affected by thick gravel on the roads this morning. The same tracks were cleaner this afternoon, but with the thermometer climbing above 35˚C tyre wear became an issue for all drivers.
Ogier didn’t expect to be in second place.
“I didn’t expect, with the disadvantage of road position, to be fighting for the win – but now we are,” he said.
“Today obviously we had a good drive and good tyre strategy. This morning we were the only ones to take the bet to use soft tyres on the front for the long stage and it worked out for us. At the end of the day it looks interesting for tomorrow.”
Paddon ended 10.0sec behind Ogier in his Hyundai i20, but teammate Neuville fell away from the podium battle. The Belgian regretted choosing hard-compound tyres when traction was at its worst this morning.
Paddon also had tyre issues.
“The tyres were good, and only started going off about 5km from the end (of the last forest stage). If I had done much more I might not have got here!
“Tomorrow will be a big push. Obviously it is very close and Seb and Andreas will be pushing each other as well – everybody has nothing to lose. The stages we get tomorrow are quite different to the rest of the rally – they are new and fast in the forest.”
The Coffs Coast event will see not only who finishes 2016 runner-up in the WRC, but also the winner of the WRC 2 support series.
Skoda driver Esapekka Lappi of Finland arrived in Australia needing only a win or second place at this final round to lift the crown – and he has not put a foot wrong so far.
Toyota driver Harry Bates is close to winning the Kumho Tyre Australian Rally Championship after series leader Simon Evans blew two tyres on one stage and, and with them, his chances of a fifth title.
Today’s visitors included Supercar star and rally fan Craig Lowndes, who met Hayden Paddon during the lunchtime service break.
Asked what he thought of his first WRC experience, Lowndes said: “Oh, look it’s fantastic, there no doubt about it, it’s great. I think it’s the fifth year here at Coffs and we have been chatting to some of the locals in town this morning and a lot of people are right behind it.
“I think it does have a bit of a buzz around the area it’s not just here in the service area. You go into town it’s a well presented and excellently laid out event.”
Sunday’s final leg heads north of Coffs Harbour for the first time. Drivers tackle four tests before the rally-closing live TV Power Stage, with bonus points for the fastest three drivers.
EVENT STANDINGS AFTER DAY TWO:
1. Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Volkswagen) Total time 2hr:15:06.2
2. Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Volkswagen) +2.0sec.
3. Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai) +10.0
4. Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai) +21.8
5. Dani Sordo/Marc Martí (Hyundai) +25.4
6. Mads Østberg/Ola Fløene (M-Sport Ford) +1.4
7. Eric Camilli/Benjamin Veillas (M-Sport Ford) +21.1
8. Ott Tänak/Raigo Mõlder (DMACK Ford) +58.2
9. Lorenzo Bertelli/Simone Scattolin (FWRT Ford) +2:36.7
10. Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Škoda) +26.1