Sebastien Ogier has taken the lead on Rally Australia moving to the fore after the two runs through the 1.56 km Hyundai super special stage this evening.
Ogier ended the morning loop in fourth in his Volkswagen Polo R WRC, having lost out in SS2 and SS3 as he was first on the road. However, he hauled himself up to third in the afternoon, before winning both super specials to go top.
He will now go into Saturday with a slender 0.4 seconds cushion over team-mate and championship rival, Jari-Matti Latvala.
“I am obviously very happy with the start here in Australia,” said Ogier after seizing the lead in SS8. “I did not expect a result like this. Julien [Ingrassia – my co-drover] and I did a great job, and the Polo R WRC is also running perfectly.
“Only in the afternoon did we have a little moment of concern, as the radiator was hit by a stone and damaged, resulting in it leaking a bit of liquid. Fortunately today's stages were only short, so it did not really pose a problem.
"Julien and I have definitely put ourselves in a good position for tomorrow, but it was by no means easy. I am particularly looking forward to the 50 kilometres that await us on the 'Nambucca' stage. It is like a rollercoaster in the jungle. There may be some rain on Saturday, which would make the conditions very slippery. The fans are in for an exciting day, that much is certain.”
“I struggled on the first stage today and was driving badly," Latvala added, "but then we bled the brakes between the stages and I got my confidence with the car back and it's been great after that.”
“We can be more than happy with day one of the Rally Australia,” the Finn added back in service. “The afternoon went particularly well for me. We were able to gradually improve from fifth place in the morning, and eat into the gap to the leaders. However, we have not won anything yet: it is very close at the top, we still have a long way to go, and the unsettled weather could make life difficult for us in the cockpit tomorrow.”
Andreas Mikkelsen meanwhile is third, giving Volkswagen a clean sweep of the provisional podium: “It has been very good today. I happy with my driving, no big mistakes and no big risks either,” he remarked.
“It could hardly have started better,” Mikkelsen continued. “We have put ourselves in a good position for the next two days, although it is very close in the top five. I am more than happy with third place, as this is better than I expected at the start of the day. It was definitely a disadvantage for me and my team-mates to have to open the route. We made the best of the situation. I am right in the thick of the battle for a place on the podium. It is going to be exciting.”
Kris Meeke, who had led for most of the day, slipped back to fourth in his Citroen DS3 WRC after the super specials, albeit only 0.6 seconds off third and only 4.1 seconds off the lead.
“We really had to push all day,” said Meeke. “Starting from eighth position on the road meant that the grip was better in some sections during the first loop. But this afternoon, the conditions were more or less the same for everyone. In fact, it was pretty rough in places.
“We'll need to keep the same level of consistency for the rest of the rally now. The aim is not to win at all costs. We're up against guys who are fighting for the world championship. I have to just keep running my own race. Being in the lead after SS6 was important as it means we'll have a good starting position tomorrow.”
Behind, Mikko Hirvonen is fifth for M-Sport and the Finn is also right up there, just 3.8 seconds further back: “It's really close between the top five at the moment, and that's great! It's been a good day for us and we're right in the battle. Everything has been working well and I'm really happy with the car,” he remarked.
“Unfortunately we couldn't do anything to keep Sebastian and Jari-Matti behind us, but they're not so far ahead and hopefully we can have another good day and continue to fight for the podium positions tomorrow.”
Hayden Paddon rounds out the top six for Hyundai, a long way off P5, but in a relatively close scrap with Mads Ostberg and Robert Kubica - just over 11 seconds separates the three.
“We've had a pretty decent day,” said Paddon. “The car has been faultless in all stages and, although we've had a few distractions at times, we've been in good shape. It's been my first time on these stages today so there has been a lot to learn.
“This morning, the conditions were a bit softer and sandier than expected but we eased ourselves into the rally. We tried to gain more confidence on the afternoon loop but we'll be able to up the pace tomorrow on stages that I am familiar with.
“It's great to have so much support from the Kiwi fans here, I hope to give them something to cheer about.”
“It was a difficult day,” Ostberg added. “I made a few mistakes and I had a minor technical issue this morning. We think we have found source of the problem. I hope tomorrow will be a better day. We'll need to improve.”
Elfyn Evans is ninth, unable to get into a good rhythm, while Rallye Deutschland winner, Thierry Neuville holds tenth. Neuville had been sixth, and up with the top five, but he hit a stone in Bellingen 2 this afternoon and broke the rear suspension. He was able to fix his Hyundai but it cost him almost two minutes.
“We had a difficult first stage this morning,” Neuville reflected. “I landed on the nose of the car and after that I got distracted checking the water temperature and went straight at a junction; I lost a few seconds as a result of that. I was quite angry with myself because we then got into a really good rhythm and we could set some quick stage times. We were definitely on the pace of the front runners, which was encouraging for the afternoon.
“Unfortunately, in SS5, I went wide in a mid-speed corner and we must have hit a rock or a stone because we damaged the rear suspension. It was a shame because it was only a small impact but it is part of our learning curve. We fixed the damage and we were immediately back on the pace in the next stage.
“We have to keep our motivation up because the potential is there and we have a long way still to go in this rally.”
Home star Chris Atkinson is eleventh, with WRC2 class leader Yazeed Al-Rajhi twelfth, 7.1 seconds up on Nasser Al-Attiyah.
“We've had a bit of a difficult first day,” said Atkinson, “but it's great to be taking part in my home rally with the team. The first stage went well and I was up there with the regulars but I lost time in the second stage and struggled with a lack of confidence in the third, which is crucial on these stages. I was reasonably happy with the balance of the car but I took the sensible approach to make sure we got to the end.
“In the afternoon loop, my sump guard came loose on the first stage (SS4) and we lost a bit of time. We tried to fix it in between the stages but there was a risk of not getting it back on so we just strapped it up. It was a strange feeling and difficult to keep the car on the road. We'll see what tomorrow brings and keep an eye on the weather.”
Rally Australia now continues on Saturday, with six stages on the bill, covering a competitive distance of 118.88 kilometres. SS9, the 48.92 km Nambucca 1 test – the longest of the event, is scheduled to start at 08.18 hours local time.
Rally Australia: Overall standings after Stage 8 (Top 10):
1. Sebastien Ogier Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 58m 05.8s M
2. Jari-Matti Latvala Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +00m 00.4s M
3. Andreas Mikkelsen Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +00m 03.5s M
4. Kris Meeke Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 04.1s M
5. Mikko Hirvonen M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 07.9s M
6. Hayden Paddon Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +00m 46.4s M
7. Mads Ostberg Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS3 WRC +00m 50.3s M
8. Robert Kubica RK M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +00m 57.6s M
9. Elfyn Evans M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +01m 30.5s M
10. Thierry Neuville Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +02m 08.4s M
11. Chris Aktinson Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +02m 49.4s M
12. Yazeed Al-Rajhi Ford Fiesta RRC +02m 58.6s WRC2
13. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta RRC +03m 05.7s WRC2
14. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta R5 +03m 21.7s WRC2
WRC2 standings after Stage 8 (Top 3):
1. Yazeed Al-Rajhi Ford Fiesta RRC 1hr 01m 04.4s WRC2
2. Nasser Al-Attiyah Ford Fiesta RRC +00m 07.1s WRC2
3. Jari Ketomaa Ford Fiesta R5 +00m 23.1s WRC2
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial