Thierry Neuville capitalised on team-mate Andreas Mikkelsen’s error to lead Kennards Hire Rally Australia on Saturday night.
Going into Sunday’s final leg, Neuville headed Jari-Matti Latvala by 20.1sec and is on course to seal the runners-up position in the FIA World Rally Championship for the third time in five years.
He moved ahead when Hyundai i20 colleague Mikkelsen, who dominated Friday’s opening leg on gravel roads in east coast New South Wales, hit a bank in a rainforest speed test.
Mikkelsen’s hopes of repeating his victory 12 months ago were shattered when the impact punctured his front and rear left tyres. The Norwegian had only one spare wheel onboard and retired.
“It happened about 2km after the start on a right-hander over a crest, third or fourth gear. I touched the bank on the outside quite hard. Sometimes you get away with it and sometimes you don’t. This time we didn’t. It’s devastating,” he explained.
Neuville took the lead but came close to disaster himself in the same special stage at a deceptive corner that trapped several others.
“I went straight on at a junction. I was following lines in the road, braked too late and had to reverse. It was a tricky bend, I knew it was tightening but didn’t know when,” said the Belgian, who damaged the gearbox in his haste to regain the road.
Latvala [below] exploited Neuville’s misfortune to move within a handful of seconds in his Toyota Yaris, but Neuville hammered in two stage wins to pull clear and leave the Finn frustrated.
“If Thierry is keeping that speed, I have no chance. When I’m on mixed tyres the balance of the car isn’t great and I’m not as confident as this morning. I haven’t been running so much in this car with the mixed tyre package and it seems a bit of an issue for me now,” he said.
Kris Meeke’s podium hopes evaporated when the Briton swiped a bridge and broke his Citroën C3’s rear right suspension. It promoted Ott Tänak, Neuville’s only rival for second in the championship, into third in a Ford Fiesta, 20.5sec behind Latvala.
Craig Breen was fourth in another C3, 15.9sec clear of Hayden Paddon. Kiwi Paddon had a lucky escape when a branch pierced his i20’s front grille and came perilously close to holing the radiator.
Sébastien Ogier was sixth, the now five-time champion ripping the bumper and front splitter from his Fiesta after clipping a bank and spinning. The Frenchman was comfortably clear of Stéphane Lefebvre, who survived two spins in his C3.
Elfyn Evans, Esapekka Lappi and leading home driver Nathan Quinn completed the leaderboard.
Sunday’s finale comprises five more tests covering 64.64km in the same area as yesterday’s opening leg. The final Wedding Bells test forms the live TV Power Stage, with bonus points for the fastest five drivers.
Head to WRC+ to see the latest onboard and video reports from Kennards Hire Rally Australia