Finnish ace Jari-Matti Latvala will go into Saturday’s second day of Rally Australia with a two-second lead as his Volkswagen team fights for a triple hat-trick of World Rally Championships.
Starting second on the road on Friday behind double world champion Sebastien Ogier, he struggled in his Polo R WRC in slippery, abrasive conditions with loose gravel.
In the afternoon’s second pass, Latvala surged from fifth to first on cleaner, faster surfaces, overtaking previous leaders Kris Meeke (Citroen) and Dani Sordo (Hyundai).
The first three stages were run in the Taylors Arm area, west of Macksville, and home to the famous Pub With No Beer.
Latvala hit the front only on the eighth and final stage of the day, but the advantage of clean roads will be short-lived as the same starting order applies for Saturday’s four stages.
Meeke, frequently one of the fastest non-Volkswagen drivers this season, was happy with his performance after disappointing recent rounds and holds a 4.6 second lead over Ogier.
Ogier is hoping to wrap up his third straight drivers’ championship during his Australian visit, while co-driver Julien Ingrassia and the Volkswagen Motorsport team are both aiming for their own hat-tricks.
The third Volkswagen driver, Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway, came home fourth ahead of Sordo and New Zealander Hayden Paddon.
In the WRC2 category, Australian Scott Pedder’s Ford clipped a gate and a grate and tore off a wheel on the second stage. His car was repaired and the crew will rejoin the rally on Saturday.
Latvala, recent winner at Rally Finland, admitted he’d had a soft start.
“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.”
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,” he said.
Paddon, cheered by almost 100 Kiwi supporters, held second initially but slipped to sixth after handling problems in his Hyundai i20.
Teammate Thierry Neuville was behind after demoting Ott Tänak, who suffered a differential problem in the afternoon in his Ford Fiesta RS to add to a spin and engine stall earlier.
The only major retirement was Stéphane Lefebvre who hit a rock and broke the front right wishbone in his DS 3.
The highest-placed Australian is Nathan Quinn in a Mitsubishi Lancer. The Coffs Harbour local, who finished eighth in 2013 in a WRC Mini, is 15th outright and fourth in the WRC2 category.