Mads Østberg shrugged off early glitches to lead Kennards Hire Rally Australia following Friday morning’s opening speed tests.
Stage info: SS1-3
SS1: Orara East 1, 8.77km
Friday morning’s opener is new for 2018 but the roads remain familiar. Some were used in Thursday’s shakedown and others form part of Sunday’s Power Stage. It’s narrow at the start where the surface is very loose, but the roads are generally fast and a chicane has been inserted midway through to reduce speeds. Most of the test is forested.
SS2: Coldwater 1, 14.12km
These roads have not been used for four years and on that occasion they were driven in the opposite direction. Coldwater starts on a wide road and climbs for the opening 5km, with a series of ‘kickers’ to keep drivers alert. The surface becomes smoother after the climbing stops, just as the roads become narrower and more technical.
SS3: Sherwood 1, 26.68km
Sherwood begins on a wide uphill road and the opening few kilometres are fast and flowing with plenty of corners requiring full commitment. After 10km the stage narrows and the second half contains the corner where Kris Meeke went off the road 12 months ago. The only stage of the event that is identical to 2017.
The Norwegian struggled for rhythm and complained of understeer in his Citroën C3 in the first two special stages. He hit top form to win the final Sherwood test and led by 5.4sec as competitors returned to the Coffs Harbour service park.
“It was a beautiful stage and I had a good rhythm in there. I’ve never done this stage and all the other drivers did it last year, but the car felt great and it was a good morning all,” he said.
Toyota Yaris team-mates Esapekka Lappi and Jari-Matti Latvala were split by 0.4sec in second and third. Lappi won the opening Orara East and Latvala topped the times in the following Coldwater to leave the pair tied at the front ahead of Sherwood.
Craig Breen was fourth in another C3, 1.2sec behind Latvala. The Irishman was second in both Coldwater and Sherwood, despite complaining of ‘soft’ brakes in the latter.
Hayden Paddon and Ott Tänak completed the top six, both less than a second adrift of Breen. Tänak counted himself fortunate after a big escape towards the finish of Sherwood when a kicker launched his Yaris onto two wheels and into a bank. The impact pulled the rear left tyre off the rim.
M-Sport Ford team-mates Temmu Suninen and Elfyn Evans were seventh and eighth in their Fiestas, but what of championship leading duo Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville?
The forecast overnight rain did not materialise and as the first two cars into the stages they had the worst of the slippery conditions, brushing aside the top-coating of loose gravel to leave a cleaner line and more grip for those behind.
Neuville was ninth, despite almost rolling when a bump kicked the rear of his Hyundai i20 into the air. The Belgian was 8.4sec clear of Ogier who completed the top 10 in his Fiesta.
“We were hoping for a bit of dampness but unfortunately it was not. It was the normal condition here to open the road. I was pushing hard, I had a good feeling but the road is getting faster and faster with every car. There’s not much I can do,” admitted Ogier.
Andreas Mikkelsen was the first major retirement. The Norwegian stopped with suspected radiator damage after crashing into a ditch.