Duval and Citroen in command
Francois Duval, Sven Smeets and their Citroen have emerged as clear leaders in the 2005 Rally Australia this evening. The Perth-based event has proved particularly punishing so far and has already seen the elimination of the championship's three main challengers, namely Sebastien Loeb, Marcus Gronholm and Petter Solberg, a rare occurrence indeed. In the wake of the overnight leaders, the privately-entered, Team Kronos Racing-run Xsara WRC of Manfred Stohl and Ilka Minor follows in a superb 4th place.
The specific challenges of Rally Australia are well known and the familiar cocktail of the famous 'marble'-strewn stages, high average speeds and close trees puts the West Australian stages amongst the toughest of the entire championship. And if that wasn't enough, the local wildlife is turning out to be an additional hazard this year...
Friday afternoon saw Sebastien Loeb hit a kangaroo which attempted to cross the stage in front of his Xsara in 'Beraking' (SS8) and Harri Rovanpera's left door was badly damaged this morning on the first of the Sotico Complex stages ('Bannister North', SS12), when another 'roo hit his car which was then invaded by dust. Then, in 'Bannister Central' (SS13), Petter hit a third kangaroo head on, causing sufficient damage to cause the Norwegian driver's retirement which consequently enabled Francois Duval to take the lead.
"Seeing Francois in front is a little unexpected," admitted Guy Frequelin. "Petter was 50 seconds clear and we had no intention of challenging for the lead..." The regroup in Wespine enabled the Citroen boss to chat with the Belgian pair. "Francois was calm and relaxed. I asked him not to overdo it. He has a golden chance to score his first WRC win. For that, he first needs to finish. But since he's been in front, he has handled the situation very well..."
Francois was effectively relaxed at the regroup: "The first loop of stages went very well, except for the short stage ['Bannister Loop', SS14] where I drove a little less cleanly. I am pleased with the set-up of my Xsara and my tyre choice was good. Being in front doesn't really change that much: I still need to drive quite quickly because my chasers aren't that far behind and I need to stay focused to make sure I don't make any mistakes. But that was already the case..."
Francois celebrated his status as leader by posting fastest times on both the stages of the second 'Bannister' loop. He is less fond of 'Beraking' and 'Flynns' which, like yesterday, were run after the mid-leg service break, but the young Belgian profited from the two tests to ease progressively clear of Colin McRae and Harri Rovanpera who are battling in his wake. After wrapping up the day with a further best time in 'Perth City VI', the Citroen driver was obviously delighted as the team's technical staff took charge of his Xsara at the evening service halt: "I enjoyed the Bannister stages the most. I have never had so much fun. It's great when you can drive 100%. The afternoon was more difficult and I took it more carefully. I don't feel under any particular pressure. Tomorrow I will continue at the same pace..."
Competing in Australia for the sixth time, Manfred Stohl is also enjoying a stunning run. "We knew he was strong on events like Cyprus and Greece," commented Guy Frequelin. "I am surprised by his times on these fast stages which he is doing for the first time in a WRC car." The Austrian came out on top in his duel today with factory driver 'Gigi' Galli. "It's been a great day. I haven't had the slightest technical problem. Like Francois, I love the stages to the south, in what used to be known as the 'Bunnings Complex'. I am delighted to have pulled back ahead of 'Gigi' [Galli]. I will continue to attack tomorrow..."
Only the challenging final leg (6 stages/105 km east of Perth in the Mundaring/Helena River region) now stands between Francois and his dream of securing his first ever WRC win.