Jari-Matti Latvala grabbed the lead of Coates Hire Rally Australia in the final stage of Friday’s opening leg after charging up from fifth during a strong afternoon attack.The Volkswagen Polo R driver ended a slippery morning in New South Wales almost 11sec behind leader Kris Meeke. But a hat-trick of wins in the repeated speed tests promoted him to second before passing Meeke in the last stage to lead by 2.0sec.
“This morning I didn’t have the spark and lacked the last two per cent to attack, but I attacked in the first three afternoon stages. In the last stage I didn’t have the best feeling because my tyres were used. I calculated if I didn’t lose more than five seconds I’d be happy. I dropped only 4.7sec to Ogier, but was faster than Meeke,” said Latvala.
Tyre management was key all day, both this morning when most drivers opted for Michelin’s soft compound rubber and this afternoon when hard compounds were the preferred option.
Meeke led for four stages in Citroën’s DS 3 but was hampered by hanging dust in the final test. “I couldn’t see the end of the bonnet. Driving in sixth gear when you can’t see anything isn’t easy,” said the Ulsterman.
The roads near Coffs Harbour disadvantaged the early starters who swept surface gravel to leave a faster line for those behind. Road opener Sébastien Ogier was worst affected and struggled in sixth before quickest time in the cleaner final stage promoted him to third, 4.6sec behind Latvala.
Andreas Mikkelsen was fourth, despite his Polo R ‘driving like a snake’ in the last stage. The Norwegian was 3.0sec clear of Dani Sordo, who took advantage of a low start position to lead after winning the opening three tests.
Hayden Paddon held second initially but slipped to sixth after handling problems in his Hyundai i20. Team-mate Thierry Neuville was behind after demoting Ott Tänak, who suffered a differential problem this afternoon in his Ford Fiesta RS to add to a spin and engine stall earlier.
Elfyn Evans struggled for confidence and dropped more time with a rear left puncture after spinning his Fiesta RS into a bank. He was ninth with Lorenzo Bertelli completing the leaderboard, despite handbrake problems in his similar car.
The only major retirement was Stéphane Lefebvre who hit a rock and broke the front right wishbone in his DS 3. Lefebvre was a last minute replacement for Mads Østberg, who was ruled out after cracking two ribs in a practice crash.
Tomorrow features two passes through the 50.80km Nambucca, one of the longest stages of the season. It opens the morning and afternoon loops and is followed by the 7.94km Valla, which will be tackled in darkness as the final test. The four stages comprise 117.48km.