Friday in Australia:
Masterful Mikkelsen dominates

Andreas Mikkelsen showed a clean pair of heels to his Kennards Hire Rally Australia rivals to dominate Friday’s opening leg.

He won five of the six dusty gravel speed tests which formed the majority of today’s action to lead the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship by 20.1sec in a Hyundai i20.

A similar margin covered the next six drivers, emphasising the Norwegian’s ascendancy on forest roads in New South Wales. 

Mikkelsen won the first four special stages before Thierry Neuville halted his winning run. The Norwegian was back on top in the next and controlled the lead through two short tests on Coffs Harbour waterfront.

“It’s been amazing, the car feels like home now,” said Mikkelsen, starting only his third rally for the Korean manufacturer in a bit-part season. “We have driven clean stages, with no mistakes, and we have a good lead to take into tomorrow.”

His limited points-scoring opportunities this year, in which he has also driven for Skoda and Citroën, translated to a low start position. In dry conditions, the early starters swept loose gravel from the tracks to provide Mikkelsen with a cleaner and faster line behind.

Neuville, bidding to secure the championship runner-up spot, snatched second place from Kris Meeke in the final stage. The Belgian headed Meeke by 0.7sec despite uncertainty in this morning’s inconsistent grip.

Neuville snatched second on Friday's final stage

Meeke benefited in the same manner as Mikkelsen, but the Citroën C3 driver had a lucky escape in this morning’s Sherwood test. “I knew we were too quick for a corner. We ran wide off the road and into bushes. I had to stop, reverse, turn and go,” he explained. 

Jari-Matti Latvala was fourth, the Toyota Yaris driver one of many to fall foul of rough roads which damaged their aerodynamic diffusers. A late afternoon brush with a post smashed his windscreen.

Craig Breen ran third in his Citroën C3 but tyre troubles demoted the Irishman to fifth, 0.9sec behind. He headed Ott Tänak, who coped with wayward handling in his Ford Fiesta after losing the rear diffuser in the morning and afternoon loops.

Hayden Paddon was a frustrated seventh, the Kiwi struggling with his i20’s balance and another to shed his diffuser.

Road opener Sébastien Ogier endured the worst of the loose gravel. An electronic glitch meant his Fiesta’s paddle shift gearchange system worked intermittently and he resorted to the manual system for much of the day. The Frenchman was eighth.  

Two punctures kept Stéphane Lefebvre down in ninth with Elfyn Evans completing the leaderboard. The Welshman’s tyres were unsuited to the dry conditions and his day was not helped when his Fiesta leaked water into the cockpit in a watersplash.

Broken power steering slowed Esapekka Lappi who was 11th.

Saturday’s toughest leg opens with the marathon near-50km Nambucca test. Drivers face eight stages covering 140.27km.

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