Andreas Mikkelsen continued to boss his rivals at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on Friday afternoon to retain his mid-leg advantage.
Stage info: SS6 - SS8
SS6: Utungun 2, 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.
SS7: Bakers Creek 2, 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.
SS8: Northbank 2, 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.
Drivers returned for a second pass over the fast shire roads south-west of Coffs Harbour and the Volkswagen Polo R pilot eked out a few more seconds to lead by 17.4sec with three speed tests remaining in the opening leg.
The Norwegian edged team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Sébastien Ogier through Utungun. He had to give best to Thierry Neuville in the following Bakers Creek before Ogier completed a trio of different winners in Northbank.
It wasn’t all plain-sailing for Mikkelsen though. “It felt really bad in there to be honest,” he said at the Northbank finish. “Oversteer and understeer in every corner and then a water bottle became stuck between my feet. I managed to catch it in a corner but it was a bit scary.”
Grip was much better as the thick gravel had been swept away during the first pass and it allowed the early starters to finally make their mark. Second in the order Neuville was almost a second clear of Latvala in Bakers Creek before road opener Ogier distanced the Belgian by 1.7sec in Northbank in his Polo R.
“The road is cleaning and the car is working better now there is more grip,” said Neuville. But with road temperatures reaching 44˚C, tyre wear was an issue for many.
Ogier’s advantage over the Hyundai i20 of Neuville in third was 2.3sec but, more importantly for the world champion, he closed the gap on second-placed Hayden Paddon to 1.8sec. The Kiwi struggled badly with his i20’s handling.
“The tyres are really bad. I was driving too hard in the last stage and half. It was my normal style but it’s too aggressive,” he said.
M-Sport team-mates Mads Østberg and Eric Camilli completed the top six with Dani Sordo next up. The Spaniard was finally handed a 20sec penalty for arriving late at the start of SS4 which dropped him out of the podium battle.