Six-point-eight seconds. After 302km of competitive driving, that’s all that separated Sebastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala.
After 20 stages, thousands of corners, jumps and crests, given Ogier’s average speed of 104.7km/h, had the pair started together they would have been just 192 metres apart at the end. That’s how close Rally Australia was.
WRC newcomers could be forgiven for assuming Volkswagen was the only manufacturer present, as the German juggernaught swept the podium for the first time, winning its second successive manufacturer’s title in the process.
Kris Meeke should’ve been third, but an over-the-top one-minute penalty for “excessive corner cutting” (isn’t this rallying?) allowed young Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen to cruise to the final podium placing.
Kiwi Hayden Paddon equalled his best-ever WRC placing of sixth following a rally-long battle with Citroen’s Mads Ostberg, who hit trouble on the final day and eventually crawled to the finish in 16th.
Paddon’s team-mate, Hyundai team leader Thierry Neuvile, showed plenty of speed but lost two minutes on the first day with suspension damage and never recovered. Aussie Chris Atkinson struggled in his first WRC outing since Mexico, lacking pace and being forced to clean the road on days two and three.
On their first visit to Australia, M-Sport’s Elfyn Evans and Robert Kubica were more concerned with learning the stages than challenging for top times, though Mikko Hirvonen finished a strong fifth.
The next round of the WRC takes place in France from October 3-5.
Here’s how each driver-by-driver rundown of Rally Australia 2014.
Sebastien Ogier – 1st 9.5/10
Bounced back in style following a torrid Germany. Road-sweeping wasn’t a huge factor on Day One, and Ogier capitalised to sit third after the forest stages, before blitzing the first round of super special stages to lead going into Day Two.
Made his move in the second running of the 48.92km Nambucca stage, over seven seconds faster than anyone else and a crucial 13.4sec faster than Latvala. Visibly more committed than anyone else, yet not at all ragged, Ogier appears to possess another gear that he can engage at will.
With a 50-point lead and three rounds remaining, Ogier is now virtually assured of a second successive driver’s crown.
Jari-Matti Latvala – 2nd 9.0/10
Jari-Matti is a new man these days. Gone is the self-doubt and erratic driving under pressure, replaced by a steely resolve and confidence that he can challenge Ogier on pure pace at every event.
He says he finally understands how to set the Polo up and his results since Argentina back that up, though still has a tendency to over-drive the car. If World Rally Cars had twice the horsepower, JML would be unstoppable.
Was on the back foot from the beginning after losing 7.4sec on Stage One, but pushed Ogier every metre of the way. The final three rounds (and 2015, for that matter) should be something spectacular.
Andreas Mikkelsen – 3rd 8.0/10
Solid if not spectacular from the VW number three. Only a handful of seconds behind his more experience team-mates on most stages, but is getting ever closer.
Switched into cruise mode once Meeke’s penalty was applied, though was still spectacularly committed through the Wedding Bells live TV stage on Day Three.
Kris Meeke – 4th 9.0/10
Meeke had a disastrous Rally Australia in 2013, crashing twice and putting his 2014 drive in jeopardy, but more than repaid Citroen’s faith in him with an incredible performance this year.
The DS3 is no match for the Polo in terms of pure pace – nothing is – but Meeke looks to be the only driver capable of regularly challenging the VW trio. Has always said to judge his pace post-Finland, and has more than delivered on that promise.
Will be a strong podium contender for the rest of the year and could challenge for the win on home turf at the season-closing Rally GB.
Mikko Hirvonen – 5th 7.0/10
The strongest performance for a while from Mikko, which is both praise and criticism. His pace on Day One and Three brought to mind the Mikko of old, yet as a three-time winner of Rally Australia, fifth place – almost two minutes off the lead – is hardly anything to crow about.
To be fair, his chances were destroyed on Day Two, when a poor tyre choice left his rubber in shreds. Continually batted away questions about his future during the event, but it’s not yet clear whether we’ll see Hirvonen line up in the WRC next year.
Hayden Paddon – 6th 8.5/10
A strong event for the Kiwi, though so it should be; having competed at every Rally Australia since the move to Coffs Harbour he knows the stages better than any other event and now has plenty of experience with the car.
Still not quite able to match the pace of Neuville, but his learning curve is progressing nicely. Team boss Michel Nandan says Paddon’s re-appearance next year will depend on the team running a third car, but with performances like this he could put himself in the running as the team’s number two driver.
Thierry Neuville – 7th 8.0/10
Neuville is an absolute star, driving with a speed and (more importantly) a consistency that belies his 26 years. Suspension damage slowed him on SS5, costing him two minutes, which meant he was helping sweep the road for Days Two and Three.
With both he and the i20 WRC excelling on tarmac, Neuville should be troubling the podium in France and Spain. With so much potential, it’s a shame Hyundai’s new car won’t be arriving until the second half of 2015.
Elfyn Evans – 8th 7.0/10
A tough event for the young Welshman, but he did his job and learned the stages while taking a minimum of risks. While he’s frustrated at not being able to push, the experience will hold him in good stead for next year.
Evans is a lot more familiar with the last three events of the season, and M-Sport Malcolm Wilson is expecting him to lift his pace accordingly. He’s got the consistency; does he have the ultimate pace?
Robert Kubica – 9th 7.0/10
Another driver visiting the Australian stages for the first time, Kubica continues to stun with the pace at which he can drive a World Rally Car with so little experience.
Was perhaps lucky to get away with his second day mistake that left the rear of the car with hefty damage, but in general it was a more controlled drive than we’ve seen from the former F1 star for a while.
The scary thing is, as he gains more experience, he’s only going to get faster.
Chris Atkinson – 10th 5.0/10
As soon as he’d finished Thursday’s Shakedown stage, Chris Atkinson knew he was in for a tough event. With his pre-event testing held in torrential rain, and no competitive running in the car since Mexico in early March, Atko struggled to find a good rhythm in the car.
Much was made of the fact it was his ‘home’ event, but having never competed in Coffs before, he had much less experience than other drivers in the field. Even at rally’s end he wasn’t completely comfortable in the car; the speed is still there, but he needs an opportunity to unlock it. Let’s hope this isn’t his last run in a WRCar.
Mads Ostberg – 16th 6.0/10
Not a good rally for the Norwegian. Was adamant he didn’t hit anything that caused his suspension damage on Day One, but even without the late drama, he was at a loss to explain his relative lack of pace.
With only eight points from the last four events, Ostberg needs a run of good results to close the year to make sure he remains on teams’ radars for next year.