Sebastien Ogier made an impressive start to his bid to clinch the FIA World Rally Championship drivers' title at Coates Hire Rally Australia by dominating today’s opening leg.
Having won the second of last night’s two short curtain-raising speed tests in the centre of Coffs Harbour, the Frenchman was fastest on all six of today’s country stages and one of the repeat town tests in his Volkswagen Polo R to overnight with a 20.0sec lead.
“It was a perfect day,” admitted Ogier, who will secure his maiden title on Sunday if he collects nine points more than closest rival Thierry Neuville. “It was a short day and there are two long days in front of us so nothing is done, but we couldn’t have expected better.”
After a long period without rain, the roads were covered in a slippery layer of thick gravel. Most were new to everyone and Ogier was cautious this morning as he checked his pace notes at rally speed before attacking harder in cleaner conditions this afternoon.
Mikko Hirvonen enjoyed one of his best days of a tough year. Despite a far from ideal road position, he held third before using the benefit of the swept roads to displace Citroen DS3 team-mate Kris Meeke from second this afternoon.
“I’m really happy with my pace and, from my road position, I’m equally happy with second tonight,” said the Finn. “Dust was a problem this afternoon and also in tonight’s stages in town when it was hard to see anything.”
Meeke won qualifying yesterday to earn the best start position. His thoughts were set on securing a solid points finish rather than chasing victory, and he looked certain to overnight in third until he stalled at the start of the final test and slipped to fourth
“I was quite happy this morning but I found it a bit more difficult this afternoon,” admitted the Northern Ireland driver. “In these conditions you need experience of your car and I played it a little bit careful because this is only my second rally in the DS3. I’m driving my own race and I want to be at the finish.”
Neuville was the beneficiary of Meeke’s error, the Belgian 0.5sec ahead and 18.1sec behind Hirvonen in his Ford Fiesta RS. He admitted to feeling ‘lost’ on this morning’s slippery roads but his confidence and pace improved along with the grip this afternoon.
It was a similar story from Jari-Matti Latvala. The Finn cut a downbeat figure as he ended the opening loop in eighth in a Polo R. But he fought back to fifth, aided by fastest time in the final stage, and is 19.6sec behind Meeke.
Rounding off the top six is a frustrated Mads Ostberg. The Norwegian felt he drove well but was disappointed with his times. “I was driving on the limit and couldn’t do any more,” said Ostberg, who was lucky to survive a sideways impact with a rock in SS8 that was so hard that the door of his Fiesta RS flew open.
Andreas Mikkelsen, who led after last night’s opening tests, is seventh in a Polo R. He lost time with an overshoot but remained ahead of Russia’s Evgeny Novikov. Ostberg, Mikkelsen and Novikov are covered by just 7.5sec.
Coffs Harbour resident Nathan Quinn holds ninth after a solid debut in a Mini John Cooper Works with Khalid Al Qassimi’s DS3 completing the leaderboard.
Dust hanging among the trees proved a constant hazard and organisers extended the gap between cars from two to three minutes this morning, before widening it to four minutes this afternoon as the breeze dropped totally.
Tomorrow’s action begins at 08.00hrs and competitors face six more stages covering 132.68km. Key to the day will be the monster 49.90km Nambucca test which opens both the morning and afternoon loops.