Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke completed the daytime stages with a mere 2.4 second lead on day two of Coates Hire Rally Australia today but was being stalked by Sebastien Ogier as the Frenchman targeted a potential third straight world drivers championship.
Meeke (Citroen) displaced overnight leader Jari-Matti Latvala (Volkswagen) on the first of the three daylight stages, but faces a challenge to keep the lead when the field in the FIA World Rally Championship 10th round tackles the Valla stage in darkness and potentially heavy dust tonight.
By being first or second on the road since the 17-stage rally started yesterday, Ogier has had the disadvantage of being at the front of the field and sweeping away loose gravel for following drivers, but tonight he’ll be favoured if dust hangs among the trees.
It should help the Volkswagen hero’s quest for victory and the third world title that would follow on the podium in Coffs Harbour tomorrow night.
But he will not win without a determined fight from Meeke – who needs to deliver his Citroen team a good result after a series of disappointing events – Latvala, or young guns Andreas Mikkelsen and Kiwi Hayden Paddon, who are chasing their maiden WRC victories.
Paddon, boosted by a cheering party of around 100 home supporters, starred today by claiming both stages of the morning loop.
These included the 50.8 km 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 to bring his Hyundai i20 coming 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 behind Meeke, Ogier, Latvala and Mikkelsen.
“If we can stay within 10 to 15 seconds of the lead (for the remainder of Saturday), it sets us up nicely for tomorrow,” Paddon said.
“I was trying and pushing this morning and I can do that now I have confidence in the car.”
Meeke ran soft-compound rubber and finished the two morning stages with a reduced 2.3 second advantage over Latvala, plus severely degraded tyres.
“It wasn’t the right tyre choice this morning, especially when we had the advantage of road position, but it wasn’t a complete disaster as we are leading,” Meeke said.
“My only option to win this rally was to make the right tyre choice this morning so to be honest it hasn’t been perfect – I was expecting to take off more time.
“When you come to a rally like this with the advantage of road position we should be 30-40sec ahead. We have a lot of concerns for the Valla stage tonight with dust – and we know what the VW’s can do, so we will see what can happen.”
Ogier also struggled for grip.
“On the front the grip was low and soft tyres should have given me grip – I was happy with the balance of the car, though,” the defending champion said.
“If I had to do it again I would choose the same tyre. Having Stéphane (Lefebvre) up front is helping a little bit.
“I really hope he will help me even more in the second loop. Nambucca second pass will be interesting and be hard on tyres. I like the situation so really hope the championship will work out for me this afternoon.
“If I can maintain the gap to the lead tomorrow I can really start the fight.”
Australia’s Scott Pedder, who is contesting the second-tier WRC2 category, had a slow run through the morning’s first stage, but recovered to pump out the second-quickest WRC2 time – and 12th outright – in the second stage aboard a Ford Fiesta R5.
However, he’s still the lowest-placed of the WRC2 cars due to retiring after a crash yesterday.
WRC2 championship leader Nasser Al-Attiyah is quickest in the category, ahead of Yurii Protasov and Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari. Coffs Coast local Nathan Quinn is fifth and the highest-placed Australian.
Today’s four stages total 117.48km. After a further 69kms tomorrow, the rally closes with a ceremonial podium finish in the centre of Coffs Harbour at 3pm.