Finnish ace Jari-Matti Latvala will go into tomorrow’s second day of Coates Hire Rally Australia with a lead of just two seconds as his Volkswagen team fights for an extraordinary triple hat-trick of FIA World Rally Championships.
Starting second on the road this morning behind double world champion Sebastien Ogier, Latvala fought for confidence in his Polo R WRC car on stages that were slippery and abrasive with loose gravel.
But in the afternoon’s second pass Latvala surged from fifth to first on cleaner, faster surfaces, overtaking previous leaders Kris Meeke (Citroen) and Dani Sordo (Hyundai).
The first three stages were run in the Taylors Arm area, west of Mackville and home to the famous Pub With No Beer.
The hamlet and rustic pub were packed with revellers keen to see how the world’s fastest rally drivers tackled challenging roads that were completely new to this year’s schedule.
Latvala hit the front only on the eighth and final stage of the day, but the advantage of clean roads will be short-lived as the same starting order applies for tomorrow’s four-stage itinerary.
Meeke, frequently one of the fastest non-Volkswagen drivers this season, was happy with his performance after disappointing recent rounds and holds a 4.6 sec. lead over Ogier.
Ogier is hoping to wrap up his third straight drivers’ championship during his Australian visit, while co-driver Julien Ingrassia and the Volkswagen Motorsport team both aim for their own hat-tricks.
The third Volkswagen driver, Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway, came home fourth ahead of Sordo and New Zealander Hayden Paddon.
High hopes for Australian Scott Pedder in the WRC2 category were dashed when the Ford driver rolled on the second stage. His car was repaired and the crew will rejoin the rally tomorrow.
Today’s action began after a starting ceremony that packed the centre of Coffs Harbour with thousands of visiting and local fans last night. Drivers were mobbed for autographs and ‘selfie’ photographs in the biggest such event Rally Australia has hosted.
Latvala, most recently a winner at Rallly Finland, admitted he’d had a soft start this morning.
“This morning I didn’t have the spark and lacked the last two percent to attack, but I attacked in the first three afternoon stages,” he said.
“In the last stage I didn’t have the best feeling because my tyres were used. I calculated if I didn’t lose more than five seconds I’d be happy. I dropped only 4.7sec to Ogier, but was faster than Meeke.”
Tyre management was key all day, both this morning when most drivers opted for Michelin’s soft compound rubber and this afternoon when hard compounds were preferred.
Meeke led for four stages in Citroën’s DS 3 but was hampered by hanging dust in the final test.
“I couldn’t see the end of the bonnet. Driving in sixth gear when you can’t see anything isn’t easy,” the Ulsterman said.
Paddon, cheered by a noisy army of almost 100 Kiwi supporters, held second initially but slipped to sixth after handling problems in his Hyundai i20.
Teammate Thierry Neuville was behind after demoting Ott Tänak, who suffered a differential problem this afternoon in his Ford Fiesta RS to add to a spin and engine stall earlier.
Elfyn Evans struggled for confidence and dropped more time with a rear-left puncture after spinning his Fiesta RS into a bank. He was ninth, with Lorenzo Bertelli completing the leaderboard despite handbrake problems in his similar car.
The only major retirement was Stéphane Lefebvre who hit a rock and broke the front right wishbone in his DS 3. Lefebvre was a last-minute replacement for Mads Østberg, who was injured in a practice crash.
The highest-placed Australian is Nathan Quinn, in a Mitsubishi Lancer. The Coffs Harbour local, who finished eighth in 2013 in a WRC Mini, is 15th outright and fourth n the WRC2 category.
Drivers tomorrow face the longest stage of the rally, the 50.8km Nambucca stage, described by many as their favourite test Down Under.
Nambucca opens the morning and afternoon loops and is followed by the 7.94km Valla, which will be tackled in darkness as the final test – a first for Rally Australia.
The four stages comprise 117.48km. After a further 69kms on Sunday, the rally closes with a ceremonial podium finish in the centre of Coffs Harbour at 3pm.
Overall Classification after Day One
J-M Latvala / M. Anttila (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) 1:15:29.1
K. Meeke / P. Nagle (Citroën DS3 WRC) +2.0
S. Ogier / J. Ingrassia (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +4.6
Mikkelsen / O. Floene (Volkswagen Polo R WRC) +12.9
D. Sordo / M. Martí (Hyundai i20 WRC) +15.9
H. Paddon / J. Kennard (Hyundai i20 WRC) +25.5
T. Neuville / N. Gilsoul (Hyundai i20 WRC) +37.2
O. Tanak / R. Molder (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +40.2
E. Evans / D. Barritt (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +2:21.8
L. Bertelli / L. Granai (Ford Fiesta RS WRC) +3:37.9