Torrential rain threatened to provide a dramatic finale at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on Sunday morning.
Stage info: SS17-19
SS17: Pilbara Reverse 1, 9.93km
As the name suggests this is Friday’s Pilbara stage but driven in the opposite direction. It is extremely fast with long straights and corners and hardly a junction to mention. The surface is smooth clay and there are three watersplashes in the final section.
SS18: Bucca 16, 31.90km
Bucca means long and winding in the indigenous language and that sums up this stage. Disused tracks have been opened up and it features a chicane ahead of a tight right bend following a flat-out straight. The surface is good and fast throughout and this one of the few stages used in the same format as 2016.
SS19: Wedding Bells 16 1, 6.44km
Wedding Bells is so named because a gold miner took his new bride there for their honeymoon. It is fast but narrow in places and the surface is clay, with little loose gravel for the early starters to worry about. It is best known for a popular spectator area which features a water splash and right bend, followed by a jump on a second visit to the same zone.
Monsoon-like conditions made driving treacherous and the time gaps between the top three crews were slashed as they splashed through the muddy forest special stages.
Jari-Matti Latvala halved Thierry Neuville’s overnight 20.1sec, while third-placed Ott Tänak emerged as a surprise late contender for a win as he closed on both drivers ahead.
The rain began in the opening Pilbara Reverse test and Elfyn Evans capitalised in conditions suited to his tyres to set fastest time.
It worsened in Bucca and Tänak fared best of the leading trio in his Ford Fiesta. The Estonian was only fifth fastest, but importantly 12.3sec quicker than Latvala’s Toyota Yaris, with Neuville a further 9.1sec adrift.
The rain stopped going into the short Wedding Bells and Neuville regained some of his lost advantage. Fastest time, almost 5sec quicker than his rivals, sent the Belgian towards the mid-leg service in Coffs Harbour with a 14.7sec lead.
“That was a hell of a ride! Really, really tricky conditions. I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever. You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn’t respond to your input,” said Neuville (pictured above).
Latvala was fourth fastest and with two tests remaining until the finish, the Finn was prepared for more drama if the bad weather returns. “The pressure is all on Thierry, Tänak and ourselves now,” he said.
Tänak is a further 11.3sec behind. The Estonian said: “Conditions are so changeable that you can’t make any plans.”
It was a disastrous morning for Citroën. Fourth-placed Craig Breen rolled his C3 into retirement early in Bucca 16.
Team-mate Stéphane Lefebvre exited seventh after hitting a tree in Pilbara Reverse and shattering his C3’s rear left suspension (below). The frustrated Frenchman punched his car at the finish when he saw the extent of the damage.
Breen’s demise promoted Hayden Paddon to fourth, with Sébastien Ogier fifth in a Fiesta. Ogier had a recurrence of his rally-long gearshift problem and in the confusion of trying to make repairs, he checked in early at the start of Bucca. It cost a 60sec penalty but no positions.