Monday Motor Sport Report

WRC: Atko off the bench, but VW closes on title

THE fight won’t be as explosive (or childish) as the volatile intra-team Formula One battle between Mercedes team-mates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton next weekend when world rally title rivals Sebastien Ogier and Jari-Matti Latvala cut loose during Rally Australia.

The Volkswagen drivers have been given free rein to fight each other for victory, the team hierarchy emphasising the absence of team orders.

Though an admirable approach not without risk, it’s one the fans will appreciate.

Frenchman Ogier has a solid but not uncatchable lead in the WRC, though only Latvala and third-placed Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway can accumulate enough points in the remaining rallies to catch the defending world champion.

VW is also poised to wrap up the manufacturers' championship with Ogier and Latvala requiring just five points between them to seal the title for VW.

Defending champion Ogier and Finland’s Latvala collectively need just five points in Australia to secure the 2014 FIA World Rally Championship manufacturers title early for VW.

If Volkswagen successfully defends the title in Australia, it would be the earliest in a season that a WRC title has been decided in 25 years.

Rallying, though, is anything but unpredictable, as VW discovered in Germany at the previous round, when both Ogier and Latvala crashed out and WRC newcomer Hyundai won its first rally at the world level.

Up to that point the two drivers had won every round of the season, with Ogier claiming five victories and Latvala three.

Hyundai has entered three i20s for Rally Australia, including one for local hero Chris Atkinson, who will be desperate for a strong result after warming the bench for much of the season.

Atkinson joins lead driver Neuville in the Hyundai Motorsport entry, while Kiwi Hayden Paddon returns to the i20 representing the Hyundai Motorsport N team.

This will be Atko's first WRC event since Mexico in March.

Fresh from his maiden WRC win, and having scored a podium at Rally Australia last year, Neuville has the potential to spoil the rally for Ogier and Latvala, and Atkinson.

Atkinson has not contested Rally Australia since it has relocated to Coffs Harbour, but hopes to make an impression. 

“Your home event is always special and the fact I haven’t done it for a few years makes it even more significant,” said Atko. 

“My target for Australia is to be consistent and be in the fight for a good result, but I’m not underestimating how difficult it will be to be on the pace after six months away.

“The car is showing some good speed, so everything is heading in the right direction.”

Based in Coffs Harbour – halfway between Sydney and Brisbane – Rally Australia kicks off on Friday, 12 September, after a Rally Show held in the city centre on the previous day.

F1: No hat-trick for Dan

A GLITCH with his launch mapping left pole man Lewis Hamilton struggling back in fourth moments after the start of yesterday’s Italian Grand Prix, but he fought back nobly to score a stunning win over his adversary, fellow Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.

It helped Hamilton’s cause that Rosberg wilted under pressure from his teammate. 

Hamilton is now 22 points behind the German in the title fight.

The GP was also a strong one for Williams, with Felipe Massa claiming third ahead of Valtteri Bottas.

Daniel Ricciardo took fifth, again ahead of the bloke on the other side of the Red Bull Racing garage, Sebastian Vettel.

After a crap start cost Ricciardo several spots, and left him back in 12th amidst the heart of struggletown, his second half charge back into the points was something to behold. 

How sweet it was for him to catch and pass Vettel with five laps remaining.

“The strategy helped today; it kept the tyres fresh enough to go those extra few laps at the end,” said Ricciardo.

“I saw the cars in front of me pit and the pace was still good enough, so seeing that we didn’t have great pace when we were out of position, we thought we would try something different and that’s why we went long, which helped towards the end of the race.

“I was more comfortable with the prime tyre and was able to do some good moves, which kept me smiling.

“The start wasn’t ideal; it’s one of the longest runs up to Turn One here from the start line and it’s not a place where you want to have a bad one, but I dropped the clutch and didn’t get the traction, so we will have to look at that.

“But we kept a cool head and picked our way back through the field. I think fifth, even with a good start, was the best we could do.”

Some memorable duels, principally between Sergio Perez and Jenson Button, were added highlights.

NASCAR: No Chase for Marcos

YET again Tasmania’s Marcos Ambrose won’t be part of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs.

Sixteen drivers are eligible to be the 2014 NASCAR champ, winning races to earn the right to be eligible for the biggest prize in American stock car racing.

A few big names missed out, including superstar Tony Stewart, a non-qualifier for the second straight year.

Stewart, who became front page news when his sprint car struck and killed rival driver Kevin Ward Jr in a dirt race last month, won championships in 2002, 2005 and 2011, but missed the Chase in 2006, 2013 and 2014.

He ran in the top 20 all night in the final qualifying race at Richmond, but, like Ambrose, wasn’t really a contender.

Stewart finished 15th with Ambrose 33rd, three laps down. Ambrose placed 23rd in the Sprint Cup points.

Brad Keselowski won at Richmond from Jeff Gordon.

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