Volkswagen’s Sebastien Ogier has pounced at the end of day two of Rally Australia on the NSW north coast, taking the lead as he targets a third straight world drivers’ championship.
Coming into Saturday’s final stage, Citroen’s Kris Meeke led Ogier by 2.4 seconds after three stages in daylight. But he knew he faced a challenge when the field in the 10th round of the World Rally Championship (WRC) tackled the 8km Valla stage in darkness and dust – a first for Rally Australia.
By being first or second on the road since the 17-stage rally started on Friday, Ogier was at the front of the field, sweeping away loose gravel for drivers behind him, but on Saturday night, he had the advantage with no dust hanging in front of him.
“I’m very happy to end the day with the lead and I will have the best starting position tomorrow. Today, the road position was bad with the sweeping while the guys behind me had a lot of dust. I still have to do the work tomorrow but the anticipation for the championship is great.”
A determined fight is expected from Meeke, who needs a good result for Citroen after a series of disappointing events.
“Everything is excellent – I want every stage to be at night,” said Meeke, who had been highly critical of the night stage before it started.
“I said enough before the stage. Here we are after day two just 0.3s behind. We made a little mistake with the tyres and 15s went missing this morning but I’m happy with today. Tomorrow, we all know what it’s like when it is a level playing field. I have done my best with the road position I had.”
Ogier’s teammate Jari-Matti Latvala is still in the hunt, just 2.3s behind Meeke, with the third Volkswagen of Andreas Mikkelsen fourth, and Hyundai’s Kiwi driver Hayden Paddon fifth. Less than 20 seconds separates the top five with 69km to run before the finish.
Paddon, cheered by several hundred home supporters, starred on Saturday by claiming both stages of the morning loop.
These included the 51km Nambucca stage, one of the longest tests on the WRC calendar and a favourite of the world’s fastest rally drivers.
Tyre choice was key and Paddon called it right with hard rubber, bringing his Hyundai i20 home 4.6s ahead of Mikkelsen.
He won again on the first pass through the 8km Valla, moving up to fifth and holding that place through the night stage.
WRC2 championship leader Nasser Al-Attiyah is quickest in the second-tier category, ahead of Yurii Protasov and Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari. Coffs Coast local Nathan Quinn is fourth and the highest-placed Australian.
The rally closes at 3pm (AEST) on Sunday with a ceremonial podium finish in Coffs Harbour.