Photo Report: Witnessing Volkswagen’s last stand at Rally Australia

vw-polo-andreas-mikkelsenAndreas Mikkelsen, winner of Rally Australia 2016.

Last weekend I had the privilege to reconnect with an age-old passion of mine: World Rally Cars, to witness Volkswagen’s very last outing after the shock announcement earlier in the month that the company would retire from WRC, effective immediately. I watched three stages on Day 1, and one each on Day 2 and 3. Interestingly, the New Zealand public (for Hayden Paddon) and – more surprisingly – Estonian fans (for Odd Tanak) were present in force in the spectator areas all along the rally, which was won by Andreas Mikkelsen, giving Volkswagen its ultimate victory and completing an almost immaculate list of awards.

Judge for yourself: starting at the Monte Carlo Rally 2013, Australia is the 43rd victory for the VW Polo R out of 52 participations. That’s an incredible 83% winning ratio. Volkswagen finished one-two 20 times and one-two-three four times, winning both the driver and manufacturer World Championship titles for each and every season they participated (2013 to 2016). The German manufacturer won 640 of the 958 special stages it started, with Volkswagen drivers finishing inside the top three 1.570 times and finishing one-two-three 109 times. Finally, Volkswagen claimed 87 podium results in 52 WRC rallies – 43 of these have been victories, 26 second places and 18 third places. These stats sourced at wrc.com

hyundai-i20-hayden-paddonHaydon Paddensebastien-ogier-wrc-australiaSébastien Ogier

The emotion and tension was palpable with the mechanics in the Volkswagen stand at the Service Park. Sébastien Ogier and Andreas Mikkelsen appeared focused but preoccupied, while Jari-Matti Latvala escaped the area as soon as he arrived at the Park. But the big question on everyone’s mouth in Australia was “Where next for Ogier?” An article published on wrc.com before Rally Australia mentioned Ogier was in talks with Citroen and M Sport (Ford) but it was revealed today that he just tested the 2017 Toyota Yaris WRC. In other words, all bets are still open. “There are only weeks before Monte Carlo, so obviously we are already a little bit late now to be in optimal condition for next season but I hope that very soon I’ll be able to take my decision.” said Ogier to wrc.com.

ford-fiesta-eric-camilliEric Camilli 
wrc-australia-snake-warningSnake warnings at the entrance of each spectator section.

Waiting patiently for Ogier’s decision are the two other Volkswagen pilots, Andreas Mikkelsen and Jari-Matti Latvala. A clearly emotional Mikkelsen resumed his experience at Volkswagen after his win to wrc.com: “Volkswagen is the team that gave me the opportunity to step up into the top class of the WRC. They put a lot of faith in me and made so much possible for me. They will always have a special place in my heart. Everything came together at the final rally. Everything, absolutely everything, worked perfectly – it was simply the optimum of what we have achieved together in four years in the World Rally Championship.” On next year: “Obviously it’s not really ideal, it’s so late in the season that the seats are taken. I guess it’s the same situation for both myself and Jari-Matti – we have to sit and wait and see what Seb does.”

toyota-rav4-big-banana-coffs-harbourThe unmissable Big Banana in Coffs Harbour… 

Rally Australia was also the opportunity for me to take a rental Toyota RAV4 for a spin, to try and find out why despite the dominant position of Toyota in Australia, the RAV4 isn’t the best-selling SUV in the country. This honour has been held in Australia for a stunning four consecutive years by the Mazda CX-5, including 2016 so far (20.702 sales), with the RAV4 currently ranking third in the SUV race at 16.438 units below the Hyundai Tucson (16.814).

johns-river-petrol-station-australia-october-2016Johns River petrol station

First we have to name this RAV4, and as my trip coincided with the announcement that the revered – and personal favourite of mine – filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki was coming out of retirement for one last movie, Hayao the RAV4 it will be. For those of you BSCB readers who are following our adventures closely you will have noticed that we jumped from Esmeralda the Fiat Panda from Sardinia directly to the letter H. That’s because of an epic European summer adventure involving two cars (F.. and G…….) I will be reporting on shortly.

toyota-rav4-dorrigo-nsw-2Hayao in Dorrigo, NSW 

First impressions of Hayao, keeping in mind the No Bird rental I drove was a base model, is that the dashboard is pleasingly intuitive and not overcrowded yet the touch screen is on the smallish side, the finish is basic, there is no GPS and the seats are adjusted manually. The RAV4 does drive as nimbly as a car despite its inflated dimensions since the first two generations. The bonnet is curved up on the side giving you a truck stature, feeling particularly high on the street – which is the intended effect.

toyota-hilux-isuzu-mu-x-coffs-harbourToyota Hilux and Isuzu MU-X support cars at Rally Australia. 

I drove from Sydney to Coffs Harbour and back, totalling 1.669km and following the Pacific Ocean coast through quaint sun-kissed villages such as Johns River, Crescent Head, South West Rocks, Urunga, Dorrigo and of course I couldn’t afford to miss the World Famous (?) Big Banana… I drove the entire four days within some of the most populated areas of New South Wales, but as soon as I left the Sydney metropolitan area, the car park changed drastically, as it was already the case when I took a Haval H8 to Birdsville last July. According to our exclusive 2015 Australian State by State rankings, the best-sellers in New South Wales are the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and Hyundai i30 in this order…

ford-ranger-rally-australiaFord Ranger WRC 000 opening car

None of this compact car nonsense outside of Sydney, and the rupture is extremely clear. Up North, the Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger ferociously fight for supremacy with a flood of new generation models inundating the countryside roads. But there is one clearly over-performing ute (Australian slang for pickup truck): the pragmatic Isuzu D-Max. Great value for money, this robust fare has convinced the Australian country folks in droves.

toyota-rav4-fortuner-dorrigo-nswHayao with a Toyota Fortuner in Dorrigo NSW

A striking correlation to the tremendous success of utes in this part of Australia is the wild over-performing sales of pickup-based 4WDs, a new occurrence in the country. By these I mean the Toyota Fortuner (#74 so far in 2016), Ford Everest (#84) but most strikingly the Isuzu MU-X (#48). The MU-X should rank within the 10 best-selling nameplates in and around Coffs Harbour in 2016, so many of them I spotted on neighbouring roads. The success of these true blue 4WD is yet to be replicated nationally, one of the quirks of an Australian car market more than ever hungry for SUVs. Note that both Toyota Land Cruiser (70 and 200) are also particularly popular here, including the LC70 pickup.

toyota-land-cruiser-urunga-nswToyota Land Cruiser 

The rest of the region’s park is still resolutely skewed towards Australian-made models, a characteristic of regional Australia all the while the big cities have long opted for imported fares that will be the norm from 2018 onwards. The Holden Commodore is still very frequent on the streets – including the current generation both in sedan and ute variants, as is the Ford Territory and Holden Captiva (technically not made in Australia but assimilated as such due to its badge). The Mazda CX-5 justifies its status of #1 SUV even more so than in the cities.

ford-everest-coffs-harbourFord Everesttoyota-rav4-crescent-headAustralian Spring near Crescent Head

This concludes our World Rally Cars Photo Report, stay tuned for a trans-European adventure shortly.

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