Opinion: WRC teams made a mistake by overlooking Mikkelsen

Andreas Mikkelsen emerged as a true winning force in the WRC in 2016 - so the fact he couldn't secure a top-level drive for this year is a loss for the sport, argues David Gruz.

Opinion: WRC teams made a mistake by overlooking Mikkelsen
Winner Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala, Miikka Anttila, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala; Juho Hänninen; Esapekka Lappi; Tommi Mäkinen; Toyota Racing, Toyota Yaris WRC 2017
Andreas Mikkelsen, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen and Ola Floene, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala, Volkswagen Motorsport
Jari-Matti Latvala, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, M-Sport, Ford Fiesta WRC 2017
Ott Tanak, Raigo Molder, M-Sport Ford Fiesta WRC
Andreas Mikkelsen, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport
Andreas Mikkelsen, Anders Jäger, Volkswagen Polo WRC, Volkswagen Motorsport

Volkswagen's decision to pull out of the WRC at the end of the 2016 season shocked the rally world, and generated a level of silly season intrigue the series hasn't experienced for a long time.

The German marque's three drivers, Sebastien Ogier, Jari-Matti Latvala and Mikkelsen, all lost their seats at a time when Hyundai and Citroen had already announced their line-ups, and the only potential factory options were the brand new Toyota outfit and the somewhat unfancied M-Sport squad.

Ogier, obviously, was never going to end up in the sidelines (at least, not unless he himself wanted to), and both Toyota and M-Sport rushed to let him test their cars in order to lure him away.

He eventually signed with the latter team, and Latvala was picked by Toyota, the Finn seemingly never in danger of being confined to the sidelines either.

Initially, Mikkelsen's range of options seemed similarly wide, especially because he rounded out arguably his best WRC season yet with a confident farewell win for VW in Australia.

In his three full-time seasons in WRC, the Norwegian has ended up third in the standings every time, although in 2016 he was unlucky not to take second, narrowly losing out to Thierry Neuville after finishing out of the points in Wales due to an early driveshaft problem.

Mikkelsen's strongest year

Quite clearly the third force in the Volkswagen camp in 2014, Mikkelsen started to challenge for wins a year later, only losing his first victory with an 11th-hour mistake in Sweden and finally breaking his duck in Spain thanks to a rare error by Ogier.

There was more of the same this year, as Mikkelsen was often found ahead of not only the stumbling Latvala, but Ogier as well - albeit with the latter often being disadvantaged by this year's running order rules.

Still, it's little surprise that Mikkelsen himself considers 2016 as his strongest year yet, highlighting the fact that he was able to fight and beat Ogier on merit for the first time.

"Last year I was not even close [to Ogier]; if I was in a fight with Sebastien, there was no way for me to win that fight," he told Motorsport.com late last season.

"This year I have upped my speed and kept the consistency there as well. I won several fights with Sebastien, like in Poland and Portugal, when he was leading on the last day, same road position, and we managed to win those.

"Last year I had a win [in Spain], but it was thanks to Ogier who made a mistake in the end. The win in Poland [this year] was probably more deserved; I really fought hard throughout the whole event and had a big fight with [Ott] Tanak, who eventually got a puncture, but the performance there was really really good.

"So I'd say I have taken step when it comes to pure speed, and kept the consistency more or less - even though Spain was not the perfect example."

After his win in Poland, Mikkelsen was victorious in the season finale in Australia – and there, he didn't need anyone to hit trouble.

Despite that final flourish, he still ended up six points behind Hyundai driver Neuville and settled for third in the standings again, ultimately not achieving his goal of finishing as runner-up.

"This year I set myself out to go and try to be second in the championship," recalled Mikkelsen. "I feel like I've done two driver mistakes this year, which was Mexico and in Spain.

"I have the speed, but I'm not as consistent for me to be in the championship. And for that second place, I decided not try to go flat-out and crash like in two of five rallies all the time.

"So it's been an approach to the safe direction during the year, instead of going flat-out and really try to challenge everything."

Toyota picks Latvala

While Ogier quite comfortably secured the title, Mikkelsen still managed to beat his other, also more illustrious and established teammate Latvala by no fewer than 42 points.

By his own admission, the Finn had a spectacularly poor season, failing to finish in the top five eight times over the course of the year - an inexcusable statistic for a Volkswagen driver.

Never famed for his consistency, Latvala's form became even worse as the year wore on as he suffered a loss of motivation, and he only had his usual strong pace in a handful of rallies.

Mikkelsen was already better than Latvala in keeping out of trouble in 2015, and in 2016, rallies like Australia and Poland showed he is now just as quick. Telling also were their respective responses to VW's decision to quit – while Mikkelsen took a convincing win in Australia, Latvala crashed out.

Why Toyota decided to pick Latvala over Mikkelsen as its lead driver for 2017 is therefore something of a mystery. His experience could be useful in developing the Yaris WRC, but once the team is strong enough, it's questionable whether Latvala can bring Toyota consistent results.

On the other hand, two-time IRC champion Mikkelsen has already proven he is able to deliver titles when the opportunity presents itself - and at 27, he's not yet the finished article, either.

No luck with M-Sport either

Despite being snubbed by Toyota, Mikkelsen still seemed to have a chance to land a drive with M-Sport, having been linked to the team's DMACK-backed third Ford Fiesta.

But, it eventually became clear this car had Elfyn Evans' name on it - which was finally confirmed when the Monte Carlo Rally entry list was revealed.

Promoting the Welshman back to WRC after a year spent in WRC2 is a logical enough move in itself, but less so when you take into consideration Mikkelsen's availability. After all, Evans was already given a chance in WRC, and didn't set the world alight in his two seasons at the highest level.

Then there was the possibility of a Qatar-backed privateer Volkswagen drive, but this didn't materialise either, even if Nasser Al-Attiyah says the project is still being worked on for 2018.

In the end, Mikkelsen was forced to accept a Skoda WRC2 drive for Monte Carlo, while less established names like Juho Hanninen, Esapekka Lappi, Stephane Lefebvre and Craig Breen all secured factory seats for 2017.

While being frozen out for one season isn't necessarily a disaster for the Norwegian, what's more troubling is that each manufacturer seems to have an obvious lead driver, while the likes of Breen, Lefebvre and Lappi represent the new generation who are going to get better.

And that's before you consider the experience he will miss out in the new-generation WRC cars, unlike all his rivals, something that will surely blunt the development he's shown in the last few years.

It's hard to imagine Mikkelsen not getting another chance in the future at the highest level, but after his 2016 season it seems unfair he'll be left out of what is set to be one of the most open and exciting WRC seasons in years.

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