Nancy Knapp Schilke, WRC Correspondent
Ford rules while Citroen crashes out of the first leg in Australia
Rally Australia opened last night with two special stages on asphalt before the real competition began on gravel this morning after an overnight rain which made the conditions slippery for the first real test on the new route. The return of the World Rally Championship to the land down under was moved to the Coffs Coast area of New South Wales. In 2009, the rally was held near the Northern Rivers of Perth, Australia.
At the end of the first leg, Mikko Hirvonen ended up on top of the leaderboard with teammate Jari-Matti Latvala in second. The two Finns are familiar with driving in slippery conditions which may have aided them slightly on today’s route, even though they both made slight mistakes.
"Conditions were hell and I'm just happy to be here tonight," Hirvonen said. "To lead is a bonus. It's too early to think about winning because in these conditions, just finishing will be tricky."
Sebastien Ogier held a very slight edge over his Citroen teammate Sebastien Loeb of just 0.6 seconds after the first two Coffs stages before taking on the real challenge. The current points leader was of course the sweeper, but the overnight rain appeared to play into Loeb’s favor as it made the gravel more compact instead of the loose gravel that he would have had to clean. However, by the end of day, the two Ford factory drivers were on top of the chart while the two Citroen key men crashed out on the first leg.
Leg 1 proved to be not only challenging but it also became a major factor into today’s competition as just one slight error could change the expected outcome. For the pair of Citroen Frenchmen the day started good but then ended with both crashing. The seven-time consecutive champion Loeb was in the lead, having taken the win in Stage 3 but it was on the fourth stage – the second test on gravel – that the champion made a rare mistake and was out of the first leg after rolling his Citroen four times. Both he and Daniel Elena were uninjured.
Loeb stepped up to the plate by stating it was his own error. “I lost concentration for a second by glancing at the split time which had just appeared on Daniel’s screen. I didn’t interpret the note very well and I braked too late for the next corner.”
Prior to the fifth stage, then leader Ogier commented, “It is difficult to drive today. It's very slippery on the hard tyre so I will just try for a clean drive, no risk. The plan is still the same, good rally and strong points. The rally is still very long and anything can happen."
Ogier was correct as he ended up hitting a tree and was out of the action. The good news was that neither he nor Julien Ingrassia needed medical attention. After Stage 4, Hirvonen said, "It is so unbelievably slippery. When you brake it is like braking on ice. I had a spin and went off into a field and was lucky to get back onto the road. Sebastien Ogier had hit a tree and was stopped on the side of the road."
Ogier said that they, “skidded on a portion where there was absolutely no grip” on their accident.
Even though Hirvonen holds the lead – a mere seven seconds over teammate Latvala – he did damage his Ford Fiesta on the day's first stage this morning as he explained, “About 2km after the start I slid wide in a fourth gear corner and hit two metal posts. It knocked my confidence and I was too cautious afterwards. I made my own mistakes today, but others made even bigger errors.”
Latvala also had his moments on the route and on the same stage as his teammate Hirvonen. The Finn commented, "I slid wide on a right bend over a crest. The rear left of the car touched a steel post and the impact threw it into a 180 degree spin into the forest. The car became stuck and I lost 20sec. I was stressed and drove badly for the rest of the stage. The steering pulled left under acceleration and although I was concerned something might break, it didn't disturb me too much.”
Both Finns continued and were able to nail down the one-two finish despite the slippery conditions during the morning. The rain did depart and the roads became dusty but still they, along with those chasing them, had to drive with care just to ensure their positions for the second leg tomorrow.
Even with the factory Citroens being repaired to allow Loeb and Ogier to use the SuperRally rule tomorrow, there is still the privateer team of Petter Solberg. The Norwigian is third 44.3 seconds adrift of the lead in his Citroen DS3.
“I am very happy with the performance today,” said Solberg. “The conditions have been very challenging, I don’t think I have ever seen such muddy conditions. Had a couple of spins today, and lost time, but luckily I’m still here!”
A past WRC champion, Solberg added, “Hopefully it will dry up for tomorrow, and that gives us a good road position. We are not far behind, so we still have a fair chance!”
Behind his brother in fourth lays Henning Solberg but he has a lot of ground to make up in his M-Sport Stobart Ford. Fifth is his teammate Matthew Wilson.