Thierry Neuville and Mads Østberg were initially hampered by the unfamiliarity of the stages.
It was mission accomplished for the Qatar M-Sport Ford Fiesta RS WRCs on the first full day of competition at Rally Australia today. Tackling 91.34 kilometres of technically challenging stages to the south of Coffs Harbour, all three crews defied their inexperience to finish the day in third, sixth and eighth respectively.
Neuville in particular was straight back on the pace for the second pass. Indeed he and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul were back in style this afternoon – setting a string of top-three stage times and climbing into a podium position on the final test (SS10). The Qatar World Rally Team driver maintains that beating his championship rival – Jari-Matti Latvala in fifth – is his sole objective. But thanks to his blistering pace, the Belgian is on course to clinch a fifth successive podium.
By comparison, Østberg did well to avoid the pitfalls on SS8 when he and co-driver Jonas Andersson encountered a huge rock some 10 kilometres into the stage. Hitting the pairing’s Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team Fiesta RS WRC side-on, the impact was heavy enough to force the driver’s door open. Regrouping for the end-of-day super specials, the Norwegian brought his Fiesta home in sixth – ready and eager for tomorrow’s high speed tests.
Disadvantaged running earlier on the stages, Østberg’s team mate Evgeny Novikov had to contend with treacherous, slippery conditions. But the Russian was keeping his own – matching the times of Latvala while running in a similar position on the road. Softening the set-up of his Fiesta RS WRC, he and co-driver Ilka Minor maintained their speed over the afternoon loop to finish the day in eighth place – just over 10 seconds shy of the top-five.
Thierry Neuville (3rd) said: “It almost feels like we have been driving completely different stages this afternoon! My usual feeling and confidence with the car is certainly back. We worked hard to amend the pacenotes during midday service, but I think that maybe I was just struggling to get back into the rhythm of gravel driving this morning.
“Now, I feel much better and the handling of the car is great. I really enjoyed this afternoon’s stages. The times were quick, yes, but we were not pushing and not taking any big risks. My aim is to finish the rally – for experience, but also to increase my second place in the championship.”
Mads Østberg (6th) said: “I think the driving has been good this afternoon, but for some reason the times just aren’t coming. I have no answer as to why they are not. The car felt OK. The only thing I’m not 100 per cent confident with is turning into the high speeds corners – but there have not been a lot of those out there today. It’s a strange one for sure.
“The pacenotes were certainly a lot better, but on SS8 we hit a huge rock. It was so big that the impact opened the [driver’s] door. There was no way of avoiding it. It was in the middle of the line going into a right-hand corner and we hit it side-on. We were very lucky to get away with that one!”
Evgeny Novikov (8th) said: “We changed the set-up of the car in service which was OK, but I didn’t like the balance. I think we will go back to the original set-up for tomorrow – this one wasn’t necessarily worse, but I preferred the handling this morning.
“There was some dust on the second loop – sometimes it settled and sometimes it was blown away much quicker so it was not the same for everyone. The first two stages [SS6 and SS7] had much better grip levels, but on the last stage [SS8] especially it was much slipperier than it had been this morning.
“We have a long day tomorrow with two long stages, so I think we just need to continue managing our pace and see what happens.”
Team Principal, Malcolm Wilson OBE, said: “I am really pleased to see all three cars finishing Day 1 in such a strong position – especially considering how little experience they [the drivers] have on these stages. We’re certainly ahead of our goal for this rally. We always hoped a podium would be possible, but to be in a top-three position at the end of the first [full] day is very encouraging.”