Andreas Mikkelsen led Kennards Hire Rally Australia on Friday night after heading the leaderboard for most of a hot and dusty day in New South Wales.
Spurred on by the knowledge that he must win this final round of the FIA World Rally Championship to stand a realistic chance of securing the runners-up spot, Mikkelsen was 15.4sec ahead of Volkswagen Polo R team-mate Sébastien Ogier.
The Norwegian was quickly out of the blocks to win five of the opening six speed tests south of Coffs Harbour. He was 14.2sec clear at mid-leg service and eked out a few extra tenths when the roads were driven again.
It wasn’t all plain sailing as his charge was almost derailed in a bizarre incident. “A water bottle became stuck between my feet. I managed to catch it in a corner but it was a bit scary. I’m happy how the day turned out. We want to be second in the championship so we have to give it everything,” said Mikkelsen.
Thick gravel on the shire roads hampered the early starters, who swept the dirt away to leave a cleaner line for those behind. Third in the order was not ideal for Mikkelsen but he fared better than Ogier, who opened the road.
The world champion trailed in eighth initially, but climbed the order as rivals hit problems. Cleaner roads when the stages were repeated enabled the Frenchman to bounce back and claim second after four stage wins.
Thierry Neuville, Mikkelsen’s main rival for second in the standings, was third in a Hyundai i20. The Belgian struggled with wheelspin on the loose gravel but claimed a stage victory to end 7.1sec behind Ogier.
Hayden Paddon gambled by fitting hard compound tyres to the front of his i20 this morning. It looked a shrewd move when the Kiwi led after the second stage, but it backfired when their performance tailed off. Over-aggressive driving in this afternoon’s heat caused similar problems and he slipped from second to fourth.
Mads Østberg was fifth, despite stalling at the start of SS5, ahead of Ford Fiesta RS team-mate Eric Camilli. Dani Sordo led the chase of Mikkelsen initially but started a stage late after getting lost on the liaison section and a 20sec penalty relegated him to eighth.
Ott Tänak was third until a sticking throttle and a spin in his Fiesta RS relegated him. A 40sec penalty for arriving late at the penultimate stage after being stopped by police completed an unhappy day in eighth. Lorenzo Bertelli and WRC 2 leader Esapekka Lappi finished the leaderboard.
Jari-Matti Latvala was the day’s major victim. He clipped a bridge in the opening stage and broke his Polo R’s rear suspension. He conceded nearly eight minutes limping through the next four tests before repairs could be made.
Saturday’s second leg is the longest and returns to the same area, inland from Nambucca Heads. The highlight is two runs through the monster 50.80km Nambucca test and the seven stages cover 135.19km.
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