Norwegian Andreas Mikkelsen powered into the early lead of Rally Australia, the final round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The i20 Coupe WRC driver won all three stages Friday morning and heads back to the mid-leg service with an impressive 16.6-second advantage over Kris Meeke. The Briton dropped some time in the final stage of the loop and is now in the thick of a battle with teammate Craig Breen, the pair split by just 1.1 seconds.
Friday’s route takes in two identical loops of three stages, split by service, before returning to Coffs Harbour for two runs through the harbourside super special stage. Mikkelsen, in only his third event with Hyundai, was on the pace from the outset and has taken maximum advantage of his road position as he sets his sights on a second consecutive victory Down Under.
Behind him, Meeke has not had an entirely trouble-free run; he touched a bank in the second stage resulting in a gash out of the left-front tire and then ran wide into the bushes in the last one which saw him drop nearly 13 seconds. Nevertheless, the Citroen driver is happy with his morning and will be fighting hard to keep ahead of Breen, who makes his debut competitive outing on the event. The Irish driver set a blistering pace in the final stage to move from fifth to third, loving the Rally Australia stages.
Behind the leading trio the battle is intense and just tenths of a second separate the crews. Thierry Neuville, fighting to secure second in the championship, has been a bit hesitant over the morning stages but is importantly ahead of Ott Tanak, who is also battling to clinch second in the series. The Estonian lost the rear diffuser in the morning’s opener which has resulted in a mix of under and oversteer and the pair go into the afternoon stages with just two-tenths of second between them.
Jari-Matti Latvala dropped time in the first stage with a broken intercom but bounced from eighth to fourth in the second one after fixing a faulty helmet cable. The intensity of the competition around him meant he dropped back in the final stage and he now sits sixth behind Tanak, but again by only two-tenths of a second. Hayden Paddon, in seventh, has felt like he has been down on power but is still in the fight with those ahead, the Kiwi less than five seconds adrift of third position.
Newly crowned FIA World Rally champion Sebastien Ogier has had the worst of the conditions at the head of the field but the Frenchman also had an electrical problem that forced him to use the manual gearshift. As a consequence, he is nearly 30 seconds adrift of the lead. Stephane Lefebvre holds ninth with Elfyn Evans 10th, the Welshman’s tires not suited to the conditions.
Kalle Rovanpera, who is the only FIA WRC 2 Championship contender in Australia, is 11th overall and nearly a minute ahead of Esapekka Lappi, the Toyota driver losing minutes with a lack of power steering.