Mads Østberg held onto his Kennards Hire Rally Australia lead on Saturday morning but a cluster of challengers queued up behind the Norwegian, eager to deprive him of top spot.
Stage info: SS9/10
SS9: Argents Hill Reverse 1, 13.13km
As the name suggests, Argents Hill is driven in the opposite direction to 2017 and features classic shire roads from the Nambucca stage of the past. It crosses farmland and pastures, mixing a selection of breathtakingly fast roads and twistier tracks. It has recently been resurfaced and there is plenty of loose gravel to hinder the early starters
SS10: Welshs Creek Reverse 1, 28.83km
Guess what? Welshs Creek is driven in the reverse direction to last year and, like the previous test, also features roads from Nambucca. It begins in the trees on fast but loose gravel and retains those characteristics for most of the way. Two asphalt sections, one at 5km and another at 17.5km, break up the loose surfaces. There is a short narrow section before the midpoint but in general this is one for the speed lovers.
The Citroën C3 driver’s 6.8sec advantage was cut to 3.7sec in the opening two speed tests on shire roads in the Nambucca Heads region as Jari-Matti Latvala, Hayden Paddon and Ott Tänak closed.
Paddon won the Argents Hill Reverse test in his Hyundai i20 before Tänak went quickest through the longer Welshs Creek Reverse in his Toyota Yaris.
Østberg opted for a mix of Michelin’s hard and medium compound rubber and had mixed feelings after setting fourth and fifth fastest times.
“With what we know it wasn’t an easy choice for sure. The car is working well but when you have a mix of tyres and two of them are not working it makes it difficult,” he said.
Latvala was second in both stages and climbed to second in his Yaris. The Finn held a 4.1sec advantage over Paddon, with Tänak 2.2sec further back.
It was a difficult morning for Craig Breen. The Irishman was second overnight but a sticking throttle delayed him in Welshs Creek Reverse and he dropped to the foot of the leading quintet, which was blanketed by only 12.5sec.
Once again the forecast overnight rain did not arrive. Dry roads meant the early starters were effectively high-speed road-sweepers, cleaning the surface of thick gravel to expose a faster line with more grip for those starting later.
They were conditions which title challenger Thierry Neuville dreaded. Second in the start order, the Hyundai i20 driver lost more ground on principal rival Sébastien Ogier.
“Nothing we can do. It’s very frustrating but it is like this. I try as hard as I can but there’s no line at all. We can’t do much without the rain. We’ll continue trying and hope the God of the rally exists,” said the Belgian, who remained 10th.
Ogier, three places ahead in his Ford Fiesta, was content to monitor Neuville’s progress and admitted: “We’re not at the same level of attack as yesterday. It’s going to be hard to catch positions but the main goal is to stay head of Thierry,” he said.