SS3: Ogier snatches the lead
Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier moved into the lead of Rally Australia on Friday’s opening stage, having overturned the early advantage of his team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen.
As many crews struggled in the slippery gravel of Tuckers Nob, Ogier made the most of his start position of ninth on the road, to set the fastest time and pull a 3.3sec lead. “For sure it’s an advantage to be back in the road order,” Ogier said at the finish control. “It wasn’t really a great drive from me, but it’s a good start to the rally.”
Citroen DS3 driver Mikko Hirvonen was second fastest, 2.9sec adrift of Ogier’s time to move up to second overall. “No grip whatsoever in there,” reported the Finn, who is fifth in the running order. “For sure it will get better for the boys behind, but I’m doing all I can in my position.”
Qualifying stage winner Kris Meeke was third fastest, and surprised that his position of tenth in the start order hadn’t been more beneficial. “Maybe the position helps in some corners but there doesn’t seem to be hard base to the road, so it’s not as much of an advantage as I thought. It’s okay though, I’m here to finish the rally, not to win it.”
Driving the Rally Australia stages for the first time, Mads Ostberg was fourth quickest and concentrating on getting used to the conditions. “An okay start, but it was very slippery, very tricky, and I had a lot of oversteer,” he said. “It’ll take a bit of time to adjust but if I’m just 1.9 behind Mikko at this point then that’s a good start.”
Another newcomer to Australia, Mikkelsen rounded off the top five times with a cautious start. “Very, very slippery. I didn’t expect that. I lost some time in the beginning, but after that some sections were okay, some I was too careful. It’s still early in the rally,” he said.
An anxious Thierry Neuville was sixth fastest, the Belgian concerned that his new pace notes were too fast for the road conditions. “I felt like I was driving just on gravel and stones,” he said. “There was no traction and my lines were not the best. Not a good start.”
After struggling on Thursday’s qualifying stage, Jari-Matti Latvala remained dissatisfied with his performance. “It was quite slippery, worse than I had expected, and I spun – my first full spin in the Polo,” he said. “We were okay speed wise, but it was a cambered corner and that pulled us around. We lost about five seconds with that, and about the same with my driving.”
Coffs Harbour resident Nathan Quinn steered his Mini JCW though in the 11th fastest time, almost 29 seconds slower than Ogier, but 0.9sec quicker than WRC regular Khalid Al Qassimi. “It might not have been fast but that was a ball. Sixth gear in a World Rally Car - a dream come true!” said Quinn.
click: wrc.com/news/Aus ss3
SS4: Two out of two for Ogier
Sebastien Ogier claimed his second consecutive win of the morning but the Frenchman’s advantage over Kris Meeke was just half a second.
The Frenchman extended his lead to 4.4sec and looked relaxed in his Volkswagen Polo R as he pulled up at the finish. “Honestly, I wasn’t pushing, no. My road position helps but I’m just taking it stage by stage,” said Ogier, who is benefiting from roads swept clean by the early starters.
Meeke climbed to second overall in his Citroen DS3, the Northern Ireland driver happier than at the end of the opening stage.
“I had a better feeling in here,” he said. “I had never driven the car in conditions like SS1 before. The road snaked left and right and I have to learn the car. Here the road is different, a lot faster. There was dust hanging in the trees so I have to thank the organisers for extending the gap between cars to three minutes. It creates good competition and it’s safe.”
Team-mate Mikko Hirvonen was third, a further 4.7sec behind, but he was less content than his colleague. “It wasn’t as good as the first one. It was more technical and narrow and I was a bit cautious in places,” admitted the Finn.
Norwegians Mads Ostberg and Andreas Mikkelsen were tied for fourth, Ostberg moving his Ford Fiesta RS ahead of team-mate Thierry Neuville into fifth in the standings. “It wasn’t perfect. It was very, very difficult to find a rhythm but it seems like everyone is struggling,” he said.
Mikkelsen slipped to fourth overall after a cautious drive. “I clipped a rock with the left front at the exit of a corner and I was afraid we had a puncture. I was a bit cautious. It’s a tricky rally but we’re trying to build a rhythm,” he said.
The top six was rounded off by Evgeny Novikov, the Russian hampered by loose gravel on the surface. “It was very slippery. I hope it will be better for the second pass. Maybe the set-up isn’t the best for these conditions but we’re out on the stages now so there’s nothing we can do,” explained the Fiesta RS pilot.
Neuville was next up, the Belgian struggling with visibility issues due to dust on the windscreen of his Fiesta RS. Jari-Matti Latvala, eighth in his Polo R, cut a downbeat figure, the Finn admitting he didn’t think it would be so slippery at third in the start order.
click: wrc.com/news/Aus ss4
SS5: Stage win hat-trick
A clean sweep of fastest times on Friday morning’s three stages has given Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier a rally lead of 8.8sec as crews return to Coffs Harbour for the 30-minute midday service.
Citroen’s guest driver Kris Meeke continues to impress in second, with his team-mate Mikko Hirvonen third in another DS3.
As expected, road position proved to be an important factor on the opening loop of gravel tests, and drivers running down the start order benefited from roads swept by the cars ahead.
But the sweeping effect on today’s new stages proved less pronounced than many drivers had expected, with the soft base roads remaining slippery for just about everyone.
Running ninth in the start order, Ogier, who can wrap up the drivers’ championship this weekend, rounded off a drama-free morning in his Polo R with a fastest time through the 24km Newry test. But despite his running order advantage, he was only 0.5sec quicker than Hirvonen who was fifth car through. “The road just doesn’t get very clean so it’s very difficult to find the line,” he said.
Meeke, driving here in place of Dani Sordo, was in the top-three stage times all morning and had the benefit of the best possible start position of 10th. At the end of the SS5, however, Meeke revealed that following nine World Rally Cars through also had its disadvantages.
“Sometimes it’s not so great - we hit a massive stone pulled out in the middle of the road and the impact wrenched the steering wheel out of my hands,” he explained. “Thankfully it’s a strong car and I’m still here. In the second half of the stage I struggled to commit in case something else had been pulled out on the line.”
Hirvonen has been the other consistently good performer this morning. Despite admitting to ‘a few hairy moments’ on SS5, the Finn ended the loop third, just 0.2sec behind Meeke.
With 47.7 stage kilometres completed, the lead trio have pulled 16.6sec ahead of the chasing pack, led by a less than comfortable Thierry Neuville in a Ford Fiesta RS. “I’m not enjoying it at all for the moment - I have no rhythm or confidence. I’m here for the first time and it’s completely different to what I was expecting. I’m a bit lost,” the Belgian acknowledged.
Fellow Fiesta RS driver Mads Ostberg is 2.1sec back in fifth, and also struggling to get to grips with a rally that to him is brand new. “I’m finding it difficult to find the rhythm,” he said. “My pace notes have been far too fast in some sections, and then, when I try to adapt my driving, they’re too slow. I don’t know why, but they’re not right.”
Thursday’s overnight leader Andreas Mikkelsen is 9.3sec further back in sixth, having dropped three places with an overshoot on SS5. “We came across a left-hander after a crest a little too fast and I drove down an escape road,” the Norwegian explained. “It was so dusty we had to stop and wait for 20 seconds to see where we were – I didn’t have a clue.”
Yazeed Al Rajhi heads the WRC 2 category, the Saudi Arabian building a 19.6sec advantage in his Ford Fiesta RRC. Ukraine's Yuriy Protasov lies second in a Fiesta R5, with Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari holidng third, the Qatari a further 18.1sec behind in his Fiesta RRC.
Hayden Paddon retired his Skoda Fabia S2000 en route to the opening stage with electrical problems while Subhan Aksa failed to restart. The Indonesian's engine issues yesterday were diagnosed as a broken cylinder head stud and he has retired from the rally.
click: wrc.com/news/Aus ss5