Defending FIA World Rally Champion Sebastien Ogier came close to tipping his 2015 title bid on its head when he nearly rolled on the very first corner of his Coates Hire Rally Australia campaign today.
Ogier was heading into the first corner on his first run over the 4.98km Shakedown test stage when he tipped his Volkswagen Polo R WRC high onto two wheels.
He managed to recover from what could have been a nasty start to the weekend, to post the quickest time of the drivers contesting the 10th round of the WRC season.
If Ogier wins the event – as he has in the past two years – he will secure his third straight driver’s crown, co-driver Julien Ingrassia will win his third title and Volkswagen should become Manufacturers Championship for the third time.
Competition in the 24th Rally Australia starts tomorrow at 8.18am on the Utungun stage near Taylors Arm, south of the Coffs Harbour rally base.
Crews will complete 311 kms over 17 stages before the finish in the centre of Coffs Harbour on Sunday afternoon.
The Shakedown session gave drivers from 14 countries their first opportunity to test and tune their cars for the demanding Australian road conditions.
“Shakedown was good, although we had a little stunt moment on the first corner, on two wheels,” Ogier said after his near-roll.
“It was actually like a hairpin and so it was a bit slow but it could have been a roll. Luckily the right reflexes cut in at the last moment, to open steering in the other direction, like a spin, but after that, I am happy with everything. I’m very happy with the car and ready to go.”
The two-time champion posted a time of 2m:49.4s during the session, while
Volkswagen Motorsport teammates Andreas Mikkelsen and Jari-Matti Latvala were second and third fastest, Mikkelsen 1.1 second slower than the champion and Latvala a further .5 adrift.
Citroën’s Kris Meeke (+2.1s behind Ogier) and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville (+ 2.2s) rounded out the top five.
Taking it fairly steadily over the stage was Citroën protégé Stéphane Lefebvre, 23, who posted the 10th fastest run, four seconds slower than Ogier.
The young Frenchman, who is being mentored by nine-time world champion Sébastien Loeb, has found himself in the hot seat – the Citroën DS3 WRC – because of the withdrawal of Mads Ostberg.
The Citroën star from Norway suffered two cracked ribs in an accident during route reconnaissance earlier in the week and will fly home tomorrow to recover, before the next round in France in early October.
It will be Lefebvre’s gravel debut in a full WRC car. His very first full WRC event was last month’s round in Germany, which is run on tarmac. The reigning Junior World Rally Champion finished 10th outright.
It was after his success there that Citroën decided to bring him to Australia, simply as an opportunity to do some preparation for next year. Now he is being thrown in at the deep end and looking for a solid finish to give the team some points towards the manufacturer’s title.
The rally began with a spectacular ceremonial start in the main street of Coffs Harbour, attended by several thousand fans tonight.
The Australian contingent in the WRC category includes defending Australian champion Scott Pedder, who is feeling confident after finishing fourth in WRC2 in a Ford Fiesta R5 on the infamous Rally Finland.
“The car feels good but we had a few dramas so the times are not really indicative of the pace,” the Victorian said.
“Obviously you feel more confident at home because you’ve been on the roads before and you don’t have jet lag to worry about. In theory our car probably shouldn’t beat the others, but hopefully a bit of local knowledge will go a long way.
“If we have a clean run and we go as well as we can, we’ll go for the win – but definitely top three.”