Although much of this test is new, there are sections used on the last visit here in 2011. It is fast and flowing, with plenty of loose gravel on the surface. There are narrow sections between the trees that will catch out anyone who makes a mistake.
How the action unfolded:
A clean sweep of fastest times on Friday morning’s three stages has given Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier a rally lead of 8.8sec as crews return to Coffs Harbour for the 30-minute midday service.
Citroen’s guest driver Kris Meeke continues to impress in second, with his team-mate Mikko Hirvonen third in another DS3.
As expected, road position proved to be an important factor on the opening loop of gravel tests, and drivers running down the start order benefited from roads swept by the cars ahead.
But the sweeping effect on today’s new stages proved less pronounced than many drivers had expected, with the soft base roads remaining slippery for just about everyone.
Running ninth in the start order, Ogier, who can wrap up the drivers’ championship this weekend, rounded off a drama-free morning in his Polo R with a fastest time through the 24km Newry test. But despite his running order advantage, he was only 0.5sec quicker than Hirvonen who was fifth car through. “The road just doesn’t get very clean so it’s very difficult to find the line,” he said.
Meeke, driving here in place of Dani Sordo, was in the top-three stage times all morning and had the benefit of the best possible start position of 10th. At the end of the SS5, however, Meeke revealed that following nine World Rally Cars through also had its disadvantages.
“Sometimes it’s not so great - we hit a massive stone pulled out in the middle of the road and the impact wrenched the steering wheel out of my hands,” he explained. “Thankfully it’s a strong car and I’m still here. In the second half of the stage I struggled to commit in case something else had been pulled out on the line.”
Hirvonen has been the other consistently good performer this morning. Despite admitting to ‘a few hairy moments’ on SS5, the Finn ended the loop third, just 0.2sec behind Meeke.
With 47.7 stage kilometres completed, the lead trio have pulled 16.6sec ahead of the chasing pack, led by a less than comfortable Thierry Neuville in a Ford Fiesta RS. “I’m not enjoying it at all for the moment - I have no rhythm or confidence. I’m here for the first time and it’s completely different to what I was expecting. I’m a bit lost,” the Belgian acknowledged.
Fellow Fiesta RS driver Mads Ostberg is 2.1sec back in fifth, and also struggling to get to grips with a rally that to him is brand new. “I’m finding it difficult to find the rhythm,” he said. “My pace notes have been far too fast in some sections, and then, when I try to adapt my driving, they’re too slow. I don’t know why, but they’re not right.”
Thursday’s overnight leader Andreas Mikkelsen is 9.3sec further back in sixth, having dropped three places with an overshoot on SS5. “We came across a left-hander after a crest a little too fast and I drove down an escape road,” the Norwegian explained. “It was so dusty we had to stop and wait for 20 seconds to see where we were – I didn’t have a clue.”
Evgeny Novikov is seventh, but unhappy with the set-up of his Ford Fiesta RS, which he carried across from his last gravel outing at Rally Finland.
Jari-Matti Latvala is eighth, and paying the price for his poor performance at Thursday’s qualifying. Running a disadvantageous third in today’s start order, the Finn had a spin on Friday’s opening test and adopted a more cautious approach for the other two.
“A clear run with no mistakes, that’s the main thing, but if you want to win this rally you have to do well in qualifying – so that’s not the plan for us,” he said after SS5.
WRC 2 leader Yazeed Al Rajhi is eighth, with local hero Nathan Quinn ninth, clearly enjoying himself on his first rally at the wheel of a Mini World Rally Car. “Yeah, it was alright, I’m just trying to keep the bloody thing on the road,” said Quinn. “I’m throwing it around the corners, learning more about it all the time. We had a frigging blast!”
Abu Dhabi Citroen team driver Khalid Al Qassimi is eleventh and the last of the WRC runners.
Yazeed Al Rajhi heads the WRC 2 category, the Saudi Arabian building a 19.6sec advantage in his Ford Fiesta RRC. Ukraine's Yuriy Protasov lies second in a Fiesta R5, with Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari holidng third, the Qatari a further 18.1sec behind in his Fiesta RRC.
Hayden Paddon retired his Skoda Fabia S2000 en route to the opening stage with electrical problems while Subhan Aksa failed to restart. The Indonesian's engine issues yesterday were diagnosed as a broken cylinder head stud and he has retired from the rally.