COFFS COAST (NSW) – Thierry Neuville has survived chaotic last-minute conditions to record his first Kennards Hire Rally Australia victory today.
Neuville had an early scare as torrential rain made the morning stages almost undriveable but he was able to pull clear when it counted to supply Hyundai with a perfect end to the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship season.
Jari-Matti Latvala’s pursuit of Neuville from second place ended dramatically when his Toyota Gazoo Racing Yaris crashed into trees after sliding wide on a fast left-hand corner on the 20th and final stage in the Wedding Bells State forest.
The uninjured but distraught Finn retired on the spot, elevating M-Sport driver Ott Tanak to second place in a Ford Fiesta and a surprised New Zealander Hayden Paddon to third in another Hyundai.
Five-times World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier (M-Sport) won the points-paying Power Stage that closed the rally and the season and finished fourth after a weekend beset with problems.
The 29-year-old Neuville recorded his fourth victory of the season, double Ogier’s score in achieving his fifth straight drivers’ world championship last month. He also hoisted his 54th special stage win of the 2017 season in the first run through Wedding Bells this morning, astonishingly also more than double Ogier ‘s score.
Neuville had started the day more than 20sec ahead of Latvala but saw this halved after rain – described by Citroen driver Kris Meeke as “horrendous” – dumped on the second test, Bucca. The conditions affected other parts of the course and organisers cancelled the penultimate stage, Pilbara Reverse, leaving Latvala with too little time and distance to continue his charge.
In a post-event press conference, said the season’s achievements made he and the Hyundai Motorsport team feel like World Champions, even though they missed the title because of early mistakes and problems.
“This one is a special one and really goes to the whole team of Hyundai Motorsport,” he said, admitting Latvala had been close enough today to challenge for the win.
“We are not World Champions but we drove like World Champions.
“Every morning when you see Jari-Matti doing his push-ups you know that he’s going for a big attack.
“He did it this morning and he will not give up and try until the very end.
“There was a real opportunity for him to get the first place, so we had to resist in a clever way but not taking too much risk in the tricky conditions.”
While Latvala’s run finished bitterly, Tanak completed his M-Sport tenure with a solid performance before switching to the Tommi Makinen-run Toyota outfit in 2018.
“It’s important to finish the season like this. It was quite difficult to think about this (finishing second) on Friday as I was not comfortable in the car,” Tanak said.
Paddon managed to take some positives away from his most difficult season in rallying.
“On speed alone we didn’t deserve a podium this weekend,” the New Zealander said.
“When the rain came we knew it would be very, very tricky. We had a bit of an idea of what to expect and took it nice and easy to look after our position.
“So it was a nice way to finish what was a pretty trying year.”
Rally Wales winner Elfyn Evans was fifth ahead of Toyota’s Esapekka Lappi.
Kris Meeke, who re-entered today under Rally 2 rules after suffering a broken suspension yesterday, was seventh.
Australians Richie Dalton (Skoda), Nathan Quinn (Mitsubishi) and Dean Herridge (Subaru) completed the top 10 in a field of 78 starters.
Quinn won the CAMS Australian Rally Championship, driving a 10-year-old Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9 called “Shirley”, so named he says because the car has had more hits than the famous singer Shirley Bassey.