No stranger to WRC – Volkswagen first debuted in the sport in 1978 before exiting in 1990 – the fully supported and factory-backed Volkswagen Motorsport team began its development of the Volkswagen Polo R WRC car back in 2011.
With the help of two-time WRC champion, and 2010 Dakar winner, Carlos Sainz, and his former co-driver Luis Moya, Volkswagen was eyeing a competitive assault on the 2013 season, with aspirations of challenging for the championship in 2015.
Volkswagen Motorsport team principal and Volkswagen AG director of motorsport Jost Capito said Volkswagen and the WRC were a perfect match.
“I think it was a natural step from the Dakar for [Volkswagen] to go into a championship that has more than one event and also in a championship where you deal with production cars,” Capito said.
The former director of global performance vehicles and motorsport business development at Ford, Capito joined Volkswagen Motorsport in 2012.
“WRC [also] offers them to go everywhere in the world to go to all kinds of roads that the customers use globally.”
Entering the 2013 season with a three-car team, Volkswagen Motorsport had signed Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen (pictured above) and his Irish co-driver Paul Nagle, Finnish ex-Ford pair, Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila, and French duo Sebastien Ogier and Julien Ingrassia.
With nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb not competing full-time for the Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team following his 2012 retirement, the title door had been left wide open. His departure leaving experienced drivers such as Citroen’s Mikko Hirvonen and those newer to the premier class such as Ogier and 25-year-old Belgian Thierry Neuville – driving for the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team – to battle it out.
Arriving in Australia ahead of Thursday’s qualifying and opening two special stages, Ogier was leading the world championship by 75 points ahead of Neuville and Latvala. Hirvonen was in fifth on 88 points behind his Citroen team mate Spaniard Dani Sordo. Sordo was replaced for Rally Australia by Brit Kris Meeke (pictured below), after a poor showing in Rally Finland – a round deemed to have similar style roads to ours.
The standings brought into light the possibility that Ogier could very well put himself, and Volkswagen, in an unbeatable position ahead of the final three rounds in France, Spain and Great Britain.
“You could never expect the first year having that success,” said Capito.
“That is unreal. [The] original plan [was] to fight for the championship in 2015.”
In a position many long-standing teams would envy and any other first-year team would struggle to believe, the mood around the Volkswagen Motorsport service area located in Coffs Harbour was one of calm confidence. Smiles, jokes, laughing and pats on the back all openly expressed, accompanied by methodical organisation and planning in the background.
From drivers’ diets to cars’ engine mapping, everything is tracked and monitored. There were even four GoPro cameras in the vehicle service area to record each time-critical service.
Returning to Coffs Harbour in New South Wales after 2011's inaugural hosting of the event, Rally Australia has been on the WRC calendar since 1989. Originating in Perth, where it stayed based for 17 years, Rally Australia traditionally alternates with Rally New Zealand. It had also been won the last three times by Mikko Hirvonen (pictured below).
This year’s event was comprised of four-days, 352.36km of competitive driving broken into 22 stages, and 580.41km worth of transport stages.
A strong start by the Volkswagen Motorsport team on Thursday resulted in Rally Australia debutant Andreas Mikkelsen taking out Stage 1 and Ogier claiming Stage 2. Both stages were completed under lights around a 1.6km Super Special Stage in the heart of Coffs Harbour. Requiring two cars to be run simultaneously, starting from opposite sides of a former velodrome oval, the unique stage takes in sections of surrounding streets and includes both tarmac and gravel surfaces.
Friday was made up of eight stages including a morning and afternoon run through the 8.44km Tuckers Nob, 10.72km Bellingen and 24.91km Newry stages. The evening saw two more runs through the Coffs Super Special Stage.
Ogier took out Stages 3 to 9, Latvala top honours in Stage 10. The Frenchman’s early consistency put him 20 seconds ahead of Hirvonen and 38.1 seconds clear of Neuville in third.
“A great day,” Ogier said.
“And [we] are very pleased with the result. Two long days to go so nothing is done.”
Long indeed. Saturday saw drivers and co-drivers cover the monster 49.90km Nambucca Stage twice over the day, the 14.84km Valla Stage twice and 257.40km worth of transport stages along the way. Coffs’ lit up Super Special Stage then, yet again, hosted two runs to complete the competitors’ 390.08km day.
In a commanding display of skill and boldness, Ogier dominated the day winning every stage – 11 to 16 – and extending his lead over Hirvonen and Neuville by 45.9sec and 1min11.4sec respectively.
“We are very happy,” Ogier said.
“Up to now the rally has been perfect for us.”
Things were not so positive for the Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team with Kris Meeke leaving the road 20km into Stage 13 (Nambucca II) and rolling his DS3 seven times.
“I went into a second gear corner and I arrived 5 or 10km/h too fast,” Meeke explained.
“I thought I’d got away with it, but the car just slipped off the road. It nearly stopped, but unfortunately there was a very steep bank down into a field and it just kept tumbling.
“A very slow accident, but hey, an accident is an accident – the same result unfortunately.”
Meeke and his Irish co-driver Chris Patterson were in fourth position behind Neuville going into the stage, with both under clear instructions from Citroen to simply finish the rally and not fight for a victory. Neither driver was injured in the crash and, thanks to the team’s mechanics working for 2hrs 50min overnight, Meeke’s car was repaired and ready to compete again by Sunday morning.
The final day of competition began with the 10.89km Bucca stage followed by Wedding Bells (22.24km) and Shipmans (29.44km). All three were then repeated in the afternoon to complete the rally, with Shipmans II dubbed a ‘Power Stage’ offering bonus points to the first- and second-fastest drivers.
Mikko Hirvonen claimed his first stage win of the rally on Stage 17 (Bucca I), breaking Ogier’s six-stage winning streak by 0.1 of a second.
“It was okay – there were no problems,” said the Finn.
Conscious of being only five stages away from securing his maiden world title, Ogier remained focused saying, “There are a lot of kilometres to go so we have to stay cool.”
While many drivers entered the final five stages in survival mode, Ogier continued to push and asserted his authority on the rally once again taking out Stages 18 to 21.
Going into Sunday’s final Power Stage, Ogier led the rally by 1min04.1sec ahead of Hirvonen, with a 1min29.3sec gap back to Neuville in third place in his Ford Fiesta RS.
By the end of Shipmans II, Ogier had stretched his lead to 1min32.1sec over second place, claiming the Rally Australia win. Due to a punctured rear left tyre on his Citroen, however, Hirvonen was leap-frogged on the stage by Neuville, earning the Belgian bonus championship points. The result left Ogier one point short of securing his first world title with three rounds of the 2013 WRC season to go.
“We did the job,” said Ogier.
“It was a perfect rally for us and for the team – good points for the manufacturer title too.
“We missed by one point because Mikko had a problem – oh well. What can I do? I just did my best and mathematically one point – so we’ll get that soon.
“I’m looking forward to my home rally and the fans in France. I want to clinch the title there by winning and take my team a big step closer to winning the manufacturers’ championship.”
After thanking his Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team, Thierry Neuville (pictured above) congratulated Ogier saying, "Seb – he deserves this title.”
The weekend over, Ogier now leads Neuville by 83 points in the drivers’ championship, with Latvala still in third position on 110 points. In 10th place, on 34 points, is Mikkelsen.
The battle for the manufacturer’s title is a closer affair, with Volkswagen Motorsport ahead of Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team by 48 points.
Despite Volkswagen Motorsport’s WRC program only having approval until 2015, team principal Jost Capito said it’s not a short-term engagement for the German brand.
“The investment is quite significant, so you don’t invest it for a year or two.”
With Ogier being specifically told by Capito after Rally Australia to “go for it”, Neuville keen to finish his season strong and Loeb returning for his final WRC round after competing in Monte-Carlo, Sweden and Argentina this year – winning both the former and the latter – October's Rally France will be one to watch whether you’re a long-time WRC fan or not.
Click on the Photos tab for the full WRC Rally Australia gallery.