Volkswagen's Sebastien Ogier came tantalisingly close to being crowned the 2013 World Rally Champion on Rally Australia, however, despite dominating the event it wasn't quite enough.
Ogier proved untouchable Down Under and was in a class of his own throughout the tenth round in the 2013 World Rally Championship.
The Frenchman, who was fourth after the opening two Coffs super specials on Thursday evening, seized the lead in the first 'proper' stage and after that was never headed. Indeed on Friday he won seven of the eight stages to build an early 20-second advantage.
Ogier then extended that margin on Saturday, winning all six tests, to extend his overnight lead to 45.9 seconds.
He continued in a similar vein on Sunday too, and while he was 'only' second quickest in the first test of the day, he promptly won the remaining five stages – including the event ending Power Stage – to make it 19 stage wins from 22.
Despite taking the victory however, and despite also taking the maximum three bonus points for winning the Power Stage, he ended up one point shy of mathematically clinching the 2013 WRC Drivers' title after his closest championship rival, Thierry Neuville, found himself bumped up to second in SS22, when Mikko Hirvonen picked up a left-rear puncture and dropped back to third overall.
“We did the job. It was a perfect rally for us and for the team – good points for the manufacturers' title too. We missed [taking the drivers' title] by one point because Mikko had a problem – oh well... What can I do? I just did my best and mathematically [its only] one point – so we'll get that soon,” Ogier said philosophically after notching up his sixth win of the year and the 13th of his career.
Neuville meanwhile again impressed to secure his fifth podium in succession for the Qatar World Rally Team. The Belgian struggled a bit initially on Friday, but on the repeat loop hauled himself up the order in his M-Sport-run Fiesta RS WRC and snatched third from Kris Meeke in final test of the day. He then pulled clear on Saturday morning, and looked set for P3, until Hirvonen's late misfortune.
“A clean run and no mistakes,” Neuville said at the finish. “This test is unbelievably fast and flowing. My thanks to the team and now I want to congratulate Seb.”
Hirvonen had to settle for third having seemingly had the runners-up spot in the bag. The Finn had moved up into P2 on Friday afternoon, and was the only one anywhere near Ogier. He was also the only other driver to win one of the bush stages too – when he was quickest in SS17 on Sunday morning. The puncture at the end though, denied him silver.
“I have no idea,” he replied at the finish of SS22, when asked what had happened.
“I honestly have no idea why we have a puncture,” he reiterated, “we were in the middle of the road the whole stage.”
Hirvonen's late drama was bad news for Citroen, already reeling from Kris Meeke's off while running in fourth on Saturday.
Meeke re-started on Sunday under the Rally 2 regulations and was on course for P12 overall and two vital manufacturers' points, when he also hit trouble in Shipmans 2. The incident broke the left rear suspension and while he completed the stage, he was unable to get back to service. As a result Citroen misses out on five vital Manufacturers' points, which allows VW to increase its 26 points advantage to 48.
Volkswagen number two driver Jari-Matti Latvala held on to fourth, although he also picked up a left-rear puncture in Shipmans 2, and like Hirvonen, had no idea what had caused the failure: “I can tell you I am 100 per cent sure I didn't hit anything. I have no idea what happened to the tyre,” said the Finn after a rather mediocre showing.
Behind, Mads Ostberg rounded out the top five in his Qatar M-Sport Fiesta RS WRC and despite having been aiming for a podium pre-event, insisted he was happy with the result given he had a couple of scares along the way - most notably in SS8 on Friday, when he hit a big rock.
“We have learned so much about this event and it was quite different to what we expected – even after the recce. There were a lot of difficult things – and things that didn't go to plan. It was better for us to back off and the result was a positive. I'm happy to be at the end now,” he said.
Volkswagen Motorsport II pilot Andreas Mikkelsen came in sixth, a good showing given it was his first event with Paul Nagle calling the pacenotes. Mikkelsen's regular co-driver, Mikko Markkula is on an injury enforced absence.
“Paul and I had a good weekend,” Mikkelsen summarised. “We lost a lot of time running first on the road on the second day but we have achieved what we aimed for today. It's been a fantastic weekend and a big learning curve.”
Further back, Evgeny Novikov took seventh, while Nathan Quinn gave the locals something to cheer about by taking eighth on his debut in a WRC car. Quinn ran in the points in his Motorsport Italia-run MINI John Cooper Works WRC pretty much throughout and was emotional at the finish.
“I'm pretty stoked,” he said, fighting back tears. “We've got to thank a lot of people. It's a victory for me to be here now – today. We hoped we could get through – so this is pretty awesome.”
Of the rest, Abu Dhabi Citroen Total WRT man Khalid Al-Qassimi took ninth, with Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari rounding out the top-ten in his Ford Fiesta RRC.
In addition to claiming the final 'senior' WRC point, Al-Kuwari also won the WRC2 category, a result that lifts him ahead of Robert Kubica and puts him back on top in the WRC2 Drivers' Championship. Kubica was not competing in Australia this weekend (it was not one of his nominated events), and was instead taking in Rally Poland, the ninth round in the European Rally Championship.
Yuriy Protasov and Yazeed Al-Rajhi completed the WRC2 podium in second and third respectively, the former over a minute off Al-Kuwari.
In terms of retirements, Meeke was the only notable name not to make it to the finish and his double exit is a major blow to his hopes of getting a drive with Citroen in 2014.
The WRC now heads to Ogier's native country next month, with Rallye de France-Alsace running from October 3-6. The event there is going to be widely anticipated, not only because Ogier can clinch the title, but also because Sebastien Loeb will be back in action taking in his final WRC event.
To view the result for Rally Australia 2013 - CLICK HERE