Early lead for Ogier in Australia
Championship leader is fastest through the opening test
Both tests were identical to 2013. Bellingen threaded through forests on narrow roads, with trees close to the edge. It was undulating with plenty of dips and jumps. Newry was fast and flowing but rough in places, with narrow sections in the forests.
Two consecutive fastest times for Kris Meeke promoted the Citroen DS3 driver into the lead of Coates Hire Rally Australia midway through Friday’s opening leg.
He climbed from third to first after winning the Bellingen and Newry tests, returning to service in Coffs Harbour with a 2.4sec advantage over Andreas Mikkelsen’s Volkswagen Polo R.
Meeke, eighth in the start order, made the most of roads swept clean of gravel by those ahead and said: “I did the best job I could. When you are eighth on the road you like to think you can lead. We’ll soldier on and see what happens in the second pass.”
Tyre selection was the big talking point. Mud in the opening stage gave way to drier conditions and the choices were varied as drivers searched for the best mix of Michelin’s hard and soft compounds for the inconsistent grip.
Mikkelsen was unsure whether hard rubber was the best choice but the Norwegian was 0.9sec clear of Mikko Hirvonen’s similarly-shod Ford Fiesta RS overall. Hirvonen was edged out of fastest time by just 0.3sec by Meeke through Newry.
Early leader Sébastien Ogier found the drier conditions more difficult as road opener and the Frenchman dropped more than 10sec in Newry to slide to fourth in his Polo R, 8.4sec off the lead.
He was 0.6sec ahead of team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, who bled the brakes before Bellingen to fix his opening stage issue. Thierry Neuville climbed to sixth after his earlier overshoot with top four times in both stages, with Hayden Paddon, an out-of-sorts Mads Østberg, Robert Kubica and Chris Atkinson completing the leaderboard.
Elfyn Evans dropped 15sec after stalling his Fiesta RS at a Bellingen hairpin, the Welshman admitting he was struggling for confidence.
Yazeed Al Rajhi leads WRC 2, despite a second stage stall. He is 7.3sec clear of Nasser Al-Attiyah with Jari Ketomaa third, the Finn going off briefly in Newry after pushing too hard to compensate for a turbo boost issue. Ott Tänak is more than three minutes back after a front differential problem.