WRC title fight set for three-way battle in championship finale
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The 2018 FIA World Rally Championship remains a three-way battle heading into the final round in Australia in just over a fortnight.
Coffs Harbour will host the most intense final round title fight in recent years with defending champion Sebastien Ogier (France) having taken over the points lead after a runner-up effort in Spain last weekend.
Ogier finished a close second as compatriot Sebastien Loeb gave Citroen its first victory in 12 months.
With an additional four bonus points banked from second fastest time in Power Stage, Ogier now enjoys a three-point advantage over Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville (Belgium).
Neuville relinquished the lead he held since mid-season season by finishing fourth in Spain. He’d struggled running first on the road in Friday’s gravel and mixed surface stages and completed the first leg in ninth place. He climbed to fourth place but lost a chance of Power Stage bonus points with a damaged wheel.
It was the second rally in a row where Toyota’s Ott Tanak (Estonia) had powered into a commanding lead only to have his hopes dashed. Tanak was more than 30secs clear of second-placed Dani Sordo (Hyundai) when he had a puncture in Saturday’s third stage. He eventually finished sixth and again underlined his pace by winning the Power Stage.
Thierry Neuville finished fourth in Spain, losing the lead in the World Rally Championship heading to Rally Australia. Photo / Helena El Mokni/Hyundai Motorsport
Tanak is now 23 points behind Ogier, and a maximum of 30 points are available in Australia. It’s the first time since 2003 — when Petter Solberg won the title — that the championship has had three contenders at the start of the final round.
Mixed surfaces and changeable weather in Spain produced a thrilling, unpredictable rally.
Ogier led after two stages before Tanak gained control and built a lead of 32.9secs before dropping time with his puncture in stage 10.
Sordo led for one stage before Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) took over and held a narrow lead at the end of day two.
A slow start by Latvala on Sunday morning and an inspired gamble on hard compound tyres powered Loeb into the lead on Sunday and the nine-time world champion returned to the top step of a WRC podium for the first time since 2013.
Ott Tanak led in Spain but lost his chance at victory when he punctured on Sunday. Photo / Toyota Gazoo Racing WRC
It was a remarkable drive by Loeb in Spain in his third WRC outing of the season for Citroen. He’d stalled in the opening Barcelona Super Special stage on Thursday and went into Friday’s gravel stages in 27th place. He climbed to fifth on Friday, took his first stage win late on Saturday and surged into the lead during Sunday morning to claim the rally win by 2.9secs from Ogier.
Ogier’s hopes were boosted by M-Sport Ford team-mate Elfyn Evans (GB) who produced his second podium finish of 2018, denying Neuville third place points by 0.5secs.
Rally Australia is again based at Coffs Harbour, NSW and starts on November 16.
Though it uses many roads familiar from recent years the route has been significantly revised linking stages together in new formats.
There’s a strong likelihood the championship leaders will be penalised by their early road position if road surfaces are dry at the Coffs Coast. If Ogier and Neuville are left to battle for positions well down the order, Ogier’s three-point leading margin and the bonus points available in the Power Stage could be the deciding factor in the Driver’s championship.
The Manufacturers’ title race also closed up after Spain. Toyota Gazoo Racing leads with 331 points from Hyundai Motorsport with 319 and M-Sport Ford has 306. A maximum of 43 points are available in Australia.
Points table: 2018 FIA World Rally Championship (after round 12 of 13)
1 Sebastien Ogier (France) Ford Fiesta - 204 points
2 Thierry Neuville (Belgium) Hyundai i20 - 201
3 Ott Tanak (Estonia) Toyota Yaris - 181
4 Esapekka Lappi (Finland) Toyota Yaris - 110
5 Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) Toyota Yaris - 102
6 Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway) Hyundai i20 - 84
1 Toyota Gazoo Racing - 331 points
2 Hyundai Motorsport - 319
3 M-Sport Ford - 306
4 Citroen Total Abu Dhabi - 216