PHOTO: Spectators stretch for a better view as Belgium’s Thierry Neuville attacks a corner on Coates Hire Rally Australia today (Jeremy Rogers pic)
COFFS COAST (NSW) – Frenchman Sebastien Ogier will take a lead of just 0.3 seconds and a near-certain shot at a third FIA World Rally Championship into a thrilling finale to Coates Hire Rally Australia tomorrow.
After a titanic day-long battle, Ogier hit the front of the FIA World Rally Championship 10th Round on the last and most difficult test of today, the 7.94 kilometre Valla II stage run in darkness and heavy dust to the south of the Coffs Harbour event base.
The Volkswagen pilot snatched the lead from Citroën driver Kris Meeke at the final moment with Jari-Matti Latvala a further 2.3sec behind in another Volkswagen Polo R WRC.
Victory for tomorrow would secure third consecutive world titles for Ogier, co-driver Julien Ingrassia and the Volkswagen Motorsprt team.
Meeke snatched the lead from Latvala in the marathon 50.80km Nambucca test which opened today’s action.
Ogier, who had the worst conditions of the top drivers on the slippery gravel roads, was fourth after that stage. But when the two morning stages were repeated on cleaner and faster roads, the Frenchman won both and overturned a 2.4 sec deficit in the final test.
“I’m really happy of course – I did not expect to be in the lead tonight,” Ogier said.
“Now I’m looking forward to tomorrow and the fight resuming. There is a very small gap to Kris and even Jari-Matti, so everything is still open. At least tomorrow I will start at the back of the field together with them and we will have pretty similar conditions.
“I’m very happy to end the day with the lead and I will have the best starting position tomorrow. Today the road position was bad with the sweeping while the guys behind me had a lot of dust.
“I still have to do the work tomorrow but the anticipation for the championship is great.”
Meeke gambled on soft-compound tyres for Citroën’s DS 3 in the opening Nambucca. Although his pace was sufficient to demote Latvala from the lead, he was disappointed to not have taken more time from his rivals with the advantage of a better road position.
Latvala was uncomfortable in both passes through Nambucca and ran wide in the final stage, the Finn admitting he must be more consistent tomorrow to deny teammate Ogier.
“I need to push tomorrow as there is no choice if I want to catch Ogier. Meeke and Mikkelsen will be very strong tomorrow as well,” he said.
“Today the afternoon grip was fine – much better than in the morning. Tomorrow the stages for me will be better – I will push, I won’t just let him (Ogier) win.”
Andreas Mikkelsen was fourth in another Polo R. The Norwegian was 9.1sec off the lead and survived an incident when his baseball cap landed in the footwell after being dislodged from the back of the car following a heavy landing.
Hayden Paddon vaulted into contention when he won both morning stages, having diagnosed a differential problem on his Hyundai i20 last night. However, gearshift problems and worn tyres left the Kiwi 19.4sec from the lead in fifth.
Ott Tänak climbed from eighth to sixth in his Ford Fiesta RS and Thierry Neuville came out on top of an intra-team fight with Dani Sordo to hold seventh.
Sordo, who led yesterday morning, lost time with brake problems.
A despondent Elfyn Evans was ninth, his lack of confidence not helped by a massive sixth-gear incident in the final stage which cost almost 20sec.
WRC 2 leader Nasser Al-Attiyah completed the Top 10 leaderboard after Lorenzo Bertelli retired his Fiesta RS with engine problems.
Sunday’s final leg restarts at 7.10 am and contains five stages and 68.76km of action.
It ends with the 9.23km live TV Power Stage through Wedding Bells, noprth of Coffs Harbour, with bonus points to the fastest three drivers.
“I need to push tomorrow as there is no choice if I want to catch Ogier. Meeke and Mikkelsen will be very strong tomorrow as well. Today the afternoon grip was fine – much better than in the morning. Tomorrow the stages for me will be better – I will push, I won’t just let him (Ogier) win.”
Ogier and Latvala’s junior teammate, Andreas Mikkelsen is currently fourth and keen for his maiden WRC win, as is Hyundai’s Kiwi driver, Hayden Paddon, who finished Day Two in fifth place. They both will be working hard to prove a point, as less than 20 seconds separates the top five with 69km to run before the finish.
Paddon, boosted by a cheering party of several hundred home supporters, starred today by claiming both stages of the morning loop. These included the 50.8km Nambucca stage, one of the longest tests on the WRC calendar and a favourite of the world’s fastest rally drivers.
Tyre choice was the key and Paddon called it right with hard rubber, bringing his Hyundai i20 home 4.6 seconds ahead of Volkswagen’s Andreas Mikkelsen.
He won again on the first pass through the 7.94km Valla, moving up to fifth in the order, and holding that place through the night stage. Around 5000 spectators trooped into the area to witness Australia’s first world rally championship stage under the stars, and had perfect weather to enjoy it.
WRC2 championship leader Nasser Al-Attiyah is quickest in the second tier category, ahead of Yurii Protasov and Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari. Coffs Coast local Nathan Quinn is fourth and the highest-placed Australian.
The rally closes with a ceremonial podium finish in the centre of Coffs Harbour at 3pm tomorrow.
Overall Classification after Day Two:
- Ogier / J. Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) 2:20:51.8
- Meeke / P. Nagle (Citroën DS3 WRC) +0.3
- M Latvala / M. Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +2.6
- Mikkelsen / O. Floene (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +9.1
- Paddon / J. Kennard (Hyundai i20 WRC) +19.4
- Tanak / R. Molder (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +39.1
- Neuville / N. Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) +1:03.9
- Sordo / M. Martí (Hyundai i20 WRC) +1:10.2
- Evans / D. Barritt (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +3:15.1
- Al-Attiyah / M. Baumel (Ford Fiesta RRC) +8:30.4