As the weather got hotter in Coffs Harbour, so did the action. As expected, every single driver is pushing themselves and their cars to the absolute limit at the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) in Australia. They have nothing to lose and it’s showing.
Overall positions swapped at the end of almost every stage today as the battles between Andreas Mikkelsen, Sebastien Ogier, Hayden Paddon and Thierry Neuville intensified. But the day ultimately ended with a huge drama for rally-leader Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway) reducing his gap to the top three to a mere 10.1 seconds, casting a tense excitement amongst fans.
The crowds here in Australia have been incredibly respectful and yet, so vocally passionate. They wear their team’s colours, fly their flags and shout their support at every corner. But, the late day drama has seen many of them conflicted.
“Mikkelsen deserves to win but we love a good battle.
“Nothing is better than a rally where it comes down to the final stage but the pressure must be crazy on those guys [drivers].
“That would suck [Mikkelsen’s problem] but it’s good for us fans.
“We still want Hayden to win but feel really sorry for Mikkelsen. Hopefully they can all battle to the end” — and no, this wasn’t said by a Kiwi, though I get the impression they would probably say the same thing. All 110 of them, with their signature silver fern flags and blue Hayden shirts in tow.
So what happened to the charging Norwegian? In SS16 Mikkelsen’s clutch pedal bent towards the brake pedal meaning he was “driving with the brakes on”. He haemorrhaged time to his fellow competitors and with Ogier and Paddon both going on a charge today, his lead diminished to only 2.8 seconds over his French team-mate.
But the biggest discussion, or perhaps the biggest game-changer of the day was tyre wear as temperatures around the stages climbed to 38C. Add that to the monster 50.9 kilometre Nambucca stage — which was run twice today — and it came down to the team who could push, but not too much, to manage their tyre wear.
Jari-Matti Latvala managed to turn his tyres into slicks which may come in helpful for the short tarmac super special stages tonight but not for much else. In fact, almost every driver commented on “managing tyres” except Ott Tanak. All we could get out of the Estonian was “it is like a sauna”.
Championship positions are also on the line here but in some cases, so is a drive in 2017 as reported yesterday [insert link to yesterday’s story]. The championship mathematics are quite complex but basically, Paddon, Mikkelsen, Neuville and Dani Sordo are all fighting for a podium position in the overall FIA WRC drivers’ championship and how they finish tomorrow will influence their final places. As if leaving 2016 on a high wasn’t enough pressure already…
With just over 50 kilometres left to run tomorrow and two short super special stages tonight, the fight is almost certain to go down to the final stage. Ogier says closing the gap to Mikkelsen is “do-able” and Paddon wants the win for all his fans at his closest-to-home-rally, and you really can’t discount any of the others too. As we’ve learnt in the past, literally anything can happen in a rally.
Expect the unexpected.
Regardless of how the rally finishes tomorrow afternoon, I have to say the camaraderie has been the standout fixture this weekend. From Hyundai making a line of honour at the official start on Thursday for the VW’s, to seeing fans supporting multiple drivers, to drivers and co-drivers from different teams enjoying a laugh together at the regroups, this event has really brought people together.
I think it’s important to remember why we do this crazy sport when times are tough, or when uncertainty shadows your involvement. It’s an incredibly tough sport with massive-highs and heartbreaking-lows but really, there is nothing else quite like it in the world. You don’t see many sad people around these parts.
And as a much loved Kiwi driver, who has inspired many of us including Paddon once said, “It’s the most fun you can have with your pants on.” Thanks, Possum.
Results after SS16 (difference to previous/difference to leader):
1. Mikkelsen 2:13:02.2
2. Ogier +2.8 / +2.8
3. Paddon +7.3 / +10.1
4. Neuville +22.5 / +32.6
5. Sordo +26.3 / +58.9
Thanks to Alana McIsaac for the words, and Alana McIsaac, Jeremy Rogers, and Bruce Thomas for the photos.