It only took a year…
Twelve months ago, Andreas Mikkelsen was so sure he was back with Hyundai Motorsport, he telephoned Mlada Boleslav and told Škoda he wouldn’t be needing that Fabia RS Rally2 for 2023.
Then the music stopped and Esapekka Lappi landed in the Norwegian’s seat.
The music stopped again on Wednesday afternoon, but this time the reigning WRC2 champion was in the right place at the right time.
He’s back. Good for him. And good for Hyundai.
With Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak on its books for next year, the Alzenau-based team was already looking strong for 2024 – but with Mikkelsen, Lappi and Dani Sordo sharing a third i20 N Rally1, the blue and orange corner is starting to look a little bit invincible.
Invincible? Bit strong?
Mikkelsen arrived at Hyundai with something of a fanfare in Spain, 2017. He departed at the end of 2019, when an expected full campaign had been trimmed to accommodate Craig Breen. In 26 starts, he landed four podiums and no wins. It’s fair to say Mikikelsen’s time in an i20 didn’t mirror the four years he’d enjoyed in a Volkswagen Polo R WRC.
At the end of 2016, he was at the top of his game and looking like a world champion in the making. A couple of years trying to dial himself into a Hyundai which, at times, looked to be at odds with his driving style – especially on the second pass of stages – didn’t help in terms of career progression.
So what now? He’s 34 years old and, until not so long ago, had the look of a driver who had satisfied himself with the potential to make a living chasing more WRC2 titles (he’s had two of the last three).
Can Mikkelsen still win rallies? Yes he can. In terms of competitive edge, WRC2 will have kept his knife as sharp as any other campaign – it’s been cut and thrust all season long.
His performance to rip back through the field to win the class in Greece was outstanding and a demonstration that he’s more than capable of setting a rally car on its doorhandles and keeping it there for three days on the bounce.
So, he has the speed. But what about the Rally1 factor? He will make that transition, no problem. Give him a day of testing and some grace on his first WRC outing and he should be in the ballpark.
Arguably his biggest asset – and this is the one Cyril Abiteboul will have identified, with the help of Mikkelsen’s former technical director at Volkswagen, F-X Demaison – is his consistency and rally craft. He has demonstrated both this year.
There are new faces from last time Mikkelsen was in the Frankfurt suburbs, but his neighbor and buddy Neuville is still there. They’ve worked well together in the past and that alliance could serve both well next season.
At the top of 2023, Mikkelsen feared it might all be over. Škoda had taken that call – accepting its time with a man who’d helped make the marque into the modern day Rally2 force it is – was done.
When Andreas got back on the phone, there was a lifeline. And then another. The odd event turned into a genuine program and a tilt at another WRC2 title. He delivered another crown to the Czech Republic.
Mikkelsen deserves another shot in the WRC’s premier league.
He deserves his seat. Next year, he needs to be sensible. Play himself in. Remind the establishment what he’s about and what he can do. If the car works for him, he can do that. Then? Is it too late to consider Mikkelsen a world champion candidate?
Not a bit of it. Welcome back. Now go to work.