Andreas Mikkelsen won two of the opening three speed tests at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on Friday morning to set the pace in this final round of the FIA World Rally Championship.
Stage info: SS1 - SS3
SS1: Utungun 1, 7.88km
Utungun’s open farmland roads were driven for the first time in 2015 and are used in the same format this time around. After an initial 1.2km of asphalt, it switches to fast, flowing gravel. The first half is open but it becomes twistier for the final 4km, with long corners around the hills. There is plenty of loose gravel on the road surface, which is deep in places.
SS2: Bakers Creek 1, 16.75km
This is similar to the opener in its nature. After 2km of continuous twists and turns, it becomes more flowing. The middle section is tighter before an open run to the finish. There are several short sections of asphalt with a lot of gravel on the surface in the first 6km. Like the previous test, it is used in the same format as last year.
SS3: Northbank 1, 8.42km
This stage starts outside The Pub With No Beer, immortalised in the ballad by the same name. After 500 metres of asphalt it switches to flowing farmland gravel, although there is more asphalt dotted throughout the test. Like the previous stages, the road twists, turns, climbs and descends around banks and headlands. Another stage that is identical to 2015.
The Norwegian was quickest in the opening Utungun test in his Volkswagen Polo R. Despite yielding his advantage to Hayden Paddon in the following Bakers Creek, Mikkelsen won Northbank to regain top spot by 1.1sec from the New Zealander.
The dry and dusty shire roads were covered in thick gravel which proved a huge hindrance to the early starters. Mikkelsen, third in the running order, admitted he did all he could to offset that disadvantage in his quest to secure the series runners-up spot.
“We’re trying to cut where we can but I just tried to follow the line,” he said at the Northbank finish. “There’s so much cleaning it’s amazing. It will be difficult to fight with the guys behind. I have no other choice than to try win. I have to give it everything.”
Paddon gambled on tyre choice. All the Michelin-shod frontrunners opted for soft rubber, but Paddon elected to start with hard compounds at the front of his Hyundai i20.
“When it’s tight and twisty we struggle more with hards on the front,” he admitted. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong tyre. The softs are a bit soft and the hards are a bit hard so somewhere in between would be ideal. I wanted to try something different to everyone else.”
Ott Tänak was 4.4sec behind Paddon but unhappy with the balance of his Ford Fiesta RS. Dani Sordo was fourth in an i20, with M-Sport duo Mads Østberg and Eric Camilli completing the top half dozen.
First and second in the start order were Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville and the conditions did them no favours. Neuville was seventh, one place ahead of the Frenchman. “I think I took every risk I could possibly take. I have nothing to lose,” said Ogier.
The morning’s big loser was Jari-Matti Latvala. The Finn lost more than four minutes after a mistake towards the end of Utungun when he slid wide and clipped a bridge. The impact broke his Polo R’s rear left suspension and he limped through the next two tests.
“I managed some repairs (below) but the faster I go the more I risk losing the whole wheel. I could go faster but I have to drive smoothly,” he said.