PHOTO:  Sebastien Ogier’s Volkswagen cleans up the jump markers on the Hyundai Jump at the Rally Village this morning (Jeremy Rogers pic)

COFFS COAST (NSW) – It’s a full-on fight in the Volkswagen Motorsport camp as fast Finn Jari-Matti Latvala tries to close the gap on his French teammate in the closing stages of Coates Hire Rally Australia today.

Defending champion Sébastien Ogier (VW Polo R WRC) came into the morning 11.8 seconds ahead of Latvala, but the Finn narrowed that gap to 8.7 seconds after three of six stages of the final day of Round 10 of the FIA World Rally Championship.

Latvala grabbed two seconds in the first stage of the morning (‘Shipmans’, 30.20km) but knew he had more work to do.

“It was a good run but two seconds isn’t massive when you want around four or five,” said Latvala. “It’s the right direction and there’s a bit of pressure on him [Ogier], so that’s good.”

Latvala grabbed some more time in the third stage (‘Wedding Bells’, 9.23km) which was televised live, but was all over the road and ended up second fastest to Citroën’s Kris Meeke. The same stage will be repeated this afternoon as the final ‘Power Stage’, and televised live (3pm).

“I’m pushing too hard and did a mistake,” Latvala said.

“I tried, but there were too many slippy places. It won’t be easy to win but of course we have to keep the pressure on, otherwise it is not exciting for anybody. I can improve a lot for sure.”

All was not lost though, when he received a boost from an unexpected quarter: the rally leader came through for seventh place on the third stage, 3.7sec slower than Meeke (Citroën DS3 WRC), which allowed Latvala to narrow the gap to 8.7sec. It was a shock to those taking note but the defending champion insisted it was deliberate.

“It was slippery at the beginning and on the slippery part I didn’t take any risks. I can’t afford to. When you have less than 10 seconds [lead] it’s not too comfortable, but it’s all in the plan. I tried to control it,” Ogier said.

“If I drive well, it should be enough. There is 45km to go and we know Jari [Latvala] will push hard, so he is still in the hunt.”

Next in the order is yet another Volkswagen Motorsport driver – Norway’s Andreas Mikkelsen – who’s 34.2 seconds behind his team leader but secure in third overall and aware of his role in helping to lock down the 2014 Manufacturers’ Championship for Volkswagen this weekend.

“For us it has been a good morning and I am really, really enjoying the stages and the driving. We are third place overall with a good gap to fourth place so I’m really happy with that. The plan this afternoon is to secure the third place.

“It is quite far to second and very far to fourth so we’re in a very good position. It would be fantastic to celebrate the manufacturers’ title with three cars on the podium – that would be awesome.”

Citroën’s Meeke, who was relegated one position in the standings as a penalty for cutting a corner, was trying to be philosophical about the ‘fine’ and let his driving do the talking. He quickly disposed of Ford’s Mikko Hirvonen to regain fourth on the road in his Citroën DS3 WRC. The Irishman is now 2.6sec ahead of the Finn.

Hyundai’s Australian driver Chris Atkinson is hamstrung by being first car on the road, ‘sweeping’ the surface for those who are following. After the last of the morning stages, his Hyundai i20 WRC was nearly eight minutes behind Ogier, in eleventh place.

“That was a tricky little stage with a few sharp jumps, but it was awesome with the crowd there and a great day for spectating. It was loose in some places but one of the most slippery stages of the weekend – you have to take a bit of care.”

Today’s stages are northwest of Coffs Harbour, in the state forests near the towns of Nana Glen and Coramba. The three stages are run twice, for a total competitive distance of 89.62km. The final Power Stage offers bonus points to the three fastest drivers.

Overall Classification after morning stages, Day Three

(total time, and difference from leader):

1. S. Ogier / J. Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)              2h:28:52.1

2. J.M Latvala / M. Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)               +8.7

3. A. Mikkelsen / O. Floene (Volkswagen Polo R WRC)          +48.2

4. K. Meeke / P. Nagle (Citroën DS3 WRC)                                +1:32.6

5. M. Hirvonen / J. Lehtinen (Ford Fiesta RS WRC)                  +1:37.4

6. M. Østberg / Jonas Andersson (Citroën DS3 WRC)                        +2:24.8

7. H. Paddon / J. Kennard (Hyundai i20 WRC)                          +2:30.9

8. T. Neuville / N. Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC)                            +4:11.7

9. E. Evans / D. Barritt (Ford Fiesta RS WRC)                           +4:32.7

10. R. Kubica / M. Szczepaniak (Ford Fiesta RS WRC)           +5:51.7

11. C. Atkinson / S. Prévot (Hyundai i20 WRC)                          +8:21.8

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.