Thierry Neuville and Ott Tanak each put up a valiant effort, but in the end, it just wasn’t enough to dethrone Sebastien Ogier as the king of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Even as a handful of disappointing results and uncertainty for 2019 and beyond threw their season into question, Ogier and co-driver Julien Ingrassia made it two for two on titles with M-Sport Ford World Rally Team, the team they joined after Volkswagen Motorsport disbanded at the end of the 2016 season. When the dust settled, Ogier/Ingrassia had 219 points, 18 more than Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul of Hyundai Shell Mobis WRT and 38 ahead of Tanak and Martin Jarveoja of Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT.
All three entered the season-ending Kennards Hire Rally Australia with a shot at the title, but judging by the start of the season, it didn’t seem like anyone else would have a chance. Ogier won three of the first four rallies of the year, but Neuville kept it close with a win in Sweden and top six finishes in each of the first five events. Then, a disastrous Vodafone Rally de Portugal saw Ogier DNF, opening the door for Neuville, who won his second and third rounds of the season back-to-back in Portugal and Italy.
Meanwhile, Tanak was lurking close behind in his first season with Toyota after leaving M-Sport for a chance to become the lead driver for Tommi Makinen’s team. They took their first victory together in Argentina, and after Neuville’s pair of wins, Tanak ripped off three in a row in Finland, Germany, and the unpredictable return of Rally Turkey. During those rounds, Ogier finished in the points in all three races, but didn’t take a podium; Neuville was second in Germany, but missed the points entirely in Turkey.
From there, the stage was set for a three-way title fight in both the drivers’ and manufacturers’ standings. Going into Dayinsure Wales Rally GB, Neuville’s 177 points led Tanak’s 164 and Ogier’s 154, while Toyota’s 284 points led Hyundai’s 279 and M-Sport Ford’s 244. The time was now for Ogier to step up and defend his championship if he was going to do it.
Of course, that’s exactly what he did.
While Neuville placed a middling fifth overall and Tanak missed the points due to radiator damage in the second leg, Ogier won in Wales to close both championship gaps dramatically. Three weeks later in Spain, Ogier was the only driver of the three to crack the podium, finishing just 2.9 seconds behind the legendary Sebastien Loeb, whose limited engagement with Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT produced the nine-time champion’s first WRC victory since a limited run in 2013.
That set the stage for the Australian finale, and a tight battle that saw the title-eligible trio separated by 23 points. Tanak, the furthest back of the bunch, found himself in the lead after the second leg of the event, but would fall short of the finish with transmission damage. Neuville, meanwhile, clipped multiple obstacles and sheared a wheel off of his car to DNF himself. Ogier only finished fifth overall, but won the Power Stage to put the icing on the championship cake.
Meanwhile, Jari-Matti Latvala extended his WRC win streak to 11 consecutive seasons by ending the season with the win in Australia. It wrapped up Toyota’s first manufacturers’ title since 1999, and the first split drivers’ and manufacturers’ titles since 2007, when Loeb won the title for Citroen but M-Sport and Ford took the constructors’ crown.
The 2019 season will see a dramatically different field, with a number of driver changes: Ogier and Esapekka Lappi join a revitalized Citroen squad, while Kris Meeke replaces Lappi at Toyota. Rallye Monte Carlo will once again kick off the season from January 24-27, while Rally Australia again wraps up the proceedings on November 14-17. The schedule expands from 13 rounds to 14 with the addition of Rally Chile in May.