Various mechanical issues spoil Hinchcliffe’s St. Petersburg title defense

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James Hinchcliffe’s defense attempt of his 2013 win at St. Petersburg was never really able to get going in the manner he or his Andretti Autosport team would have liked.

Hinchcliffe was fastest in first practice on Friday, but his weekend took a turn off course after an accident in qualifying on Saturday. It left him 19th on the grid for his first race in the newly reliveried white-and-blue No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda, and his first race with new engineer Nathan O’Rourke.

Mechanical issues kept him from getting going almost from the start, which dropped him three laps off the lead. Although he was able to resume and get the pace going, it was a lost day to end in exactly the same place he started.

“At the end there, the United Fiber & Data car got even better,” Hinchcliffe said post-race. “We were going to be so strong at the end of this race if we had been in contention. You could see at the end there we were keeping pace with some of the guys; it’s unfortunate to see it like that. More yellows might have helped keep us on the lead lap, maybe. We could have taken advantage if some more guys have problems with their tires in the end.”

Hinchcliffe missed the 2011 St. Pete race as he was still finalizing a budget for his rookie year; in 2012, he made his Andretti team debut as the replacement for both Danica Patrick and the late Dan Wheldon in the GoDaddy Chevrolet, and finished fourth.

The weekend wasn’t a total loss though, as he was honored at the St. Petersburg winner’s display behind pit lane.

Neuville wins Rally Australia; Ogier takes FIA WRC title

Sebastien Ogier. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Belgium’s Thierry Neuville won Rally Australia by 22.5 seconds on Sunday as torrential rain added drama to the last day of the last race of the World Rally Championship season.

Neuville entered the final day with an almost 20 second advantage after inheriting the rally lead Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, defending champion Andreas Mikkelsen crashed and was forced to retire for the day.

His lead was halved by Jari-Matti Latvala early Sunday as monsoon-like rain made conditions treacherous on muddy forest stages on the New South Wales coast. The rain stopped on the short Wedding Bells stage where Neuville was almost 5 seconds quicker than his rivals, stretching his lead to 14.7 seconds entering the last stage.

COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 17: Thierry Neuville of Belgium and Nicolas Gilsoul of Belgium compete in their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 coupe WRC during Day One of the WRC Australia on November 17, 2017 in COFFS HARBOUR, Australia. (Photo by Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images)

That stage was full of incident. The driver’s door on Neuville’s Hyundai i20 coupe swung open in the middle of the stage and Neuville had to slam it closed as he approached a corner.

Latvala’s Toyota then crashed seconds from the end of the stage, allowing Estonia’s Ott Tanak, in a Ford, to take second place overall and New Zealalnd’s Haydon Paddon, in a Hyundai, to sneak into third.

Sebastian Ogier was fourth after winning the final, power stage but the Frenchman had already clinched his fifth world title before Rally Australia began. Neuville’s win was his fourth of the season, two more than Ogier, and was enough to give him second place in world drivers’ standings for the third time in five years.

Ogier owed his drivers’ title to his consistency: he retired only once and finished no worse than fifth all season.

Neuville admitted the last day was touch and go as the rain made some stages perilous, forcing the cancellation of the second to last stage.

“That was a hell of a ride,” Neuville said. “Really, really tricky conditions.

“I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input.”