Volkswagen's Jari-Matti Latvala charged to the front on Friday afternoon to end the opening day of Rally Australia on top.
Latvala finished the morning loop in fifth, 10.7s off the lead, but stormed through the repeats, winning SS5, SS6 and SS7 to close in on Kris Meeke, before finally overhauling the Citroen man in SS8. Latvala will now go into the second day 2 seconds up on the Ulsterman, while team-mate and Champion-elect Sebastien Ogier is third, 2.6s further back.
“I knew I was going to lose a bit of time to Ogier [in that final test],” Latvala remarked after Newry Long 2. “I attacked earlier so my rear tyres weren't in a great state. To lose five seconds is fine though – I am happy with this.”
“A good opening day of the rally!” Latvala added back in service. “The priority in the morning was to restrict the amount of tyre wear. The grip levels were surprisingly high, although the dust on the surface did make it slippery at first. That meant the tyre wear was also quite high with the soft tyres. Furthermore, the first cars onto the route had to sweep the roads clean, which had a negative effect on the times.
“I was able to claw back the deficit in the afternoon and we are obviously in a good position now, but we still have some challenges ahead of us. The two runs of 'Nambucca' see us take on the longest stages of the rally tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, Meeke complained of visibility problems at the end of SS8, although he was still third quickest – albeit 11.2s off Ogier and 6.5s shy of Latvala.
“The dust is hanging in the air – and with low daylight you can't see,” he complained. “If the stages are like this tomorrow the organisers will have to cancel them. You simply can't see the end of the bonnet – especially when you are in sixth gear.”
“I'm pleased with my day though,” he continued. “We took advantage of our starting position this morning to make a good start to the rally. We lost first place on the final stage of the day, but, [as I said] I couldn't do much more to defend the position, given the dust clouds that reduced our visibility.
“There will be more sweeping tomorrow. We'll see how the rally goes, bearing in mind that the most important thing is to make it to the finish and be consistent. If the opportunity presents itself, then we'll try to fight for the win.”
Despite having to run first on the road and act as the main road sweeper, Ogier remains very much in victory contention and in addition to winning the final test of the day, was also second in SS4 and third in SS5.
“We can be extremely happy with the opening day Down Under,” said Ogier, who is of course on the verge of securing his third WRC Drivers' title this weekend. Julien [Ingrassia – my co-driver] and I pushed hard and were at the very limit. The routes here in Australia are incredibly beautiful, but also extremely difficult. There is a lot of loose gravel on the stages, which makes it very slippery for the first cars onto the road. We were often so close to the limit that we nearly came unstuck a few times. Despite this, I am really happy with our position at the end of the day.
“My goal remains to win here. It will not be easy, but we are still in with a chance. Another very tough challenge awaits us tomorrow, in the form of the 50-kilometre 'Nambucca' stage – but it is also one of the most spectacular stages.”
Behind, VW Motorsport II driver Andreas Mikkelsen is fourth, 12.9s off the lead and 8.3s adrift of Ogier. He reported possible transmission problems in the final test of the day.
“We had some problems just after the start line of the stage and it just snaked everywhere. So many scary moments in there as I didn't know what the car would do and how it would react when I pushed it. Not a very fun stage. We will have to look at the problem in service,” he explained.
Early leader, Dani Sordo has now slipped to fifth for Hyundai, ahead of team-mates Hayden Paddon and Thierry Neuville.
“I am very pleased with how this first day has gone,” said Sordo, who was quickest in the first three tests. “This is my first time on this version of Rally Australia because I did not compete last year but many of the stages today were new for everybody. The car has been perfect for most of the day and the team has been working well.
“The only issue we had was at the end of the morning loop, in SS4 (Newry Long 1 - 29.51km), when I experienced a downshift problem and stalled the engine at a hairpin, which cost us time. The afternoon was a bit trickier and there was a lot of dust in the final stage so we couldn't take too many risks. Overall, to be in the top-five is a good position heading into Saturday.”
“It's been a day of two halves really,” added Paddon. “Our morning went well and we had a little advantage from those road-sweeping ahead of us. However, because of that the roads were wearing the tyres a lot more, so we had to manage them and drive quite carefully.
“In the afternoon, the balance of the car felt more inconsistent, almost as if we had a puncture. We'll be looking at that this evening because something felt strange, even if there was nothing obviously wrong. The stages today have been new so everyone's had some learning. Tomorrow, we're back on familiar stages so we'll be looking to push a bit more.”
Further back, M-Sport's Ott Tanak lies eighth, losing time with a spin in SS6 and technical problems in SS7 and SS8: “The car was really, really bad in this stage [SS8]. It was pulling left and was really hard to drive. It feels like a differential problem. We will go get it checked in service,” he noted.
Team-mate Elfyn Evans also had a tough day in the sister car and although he is ninth, he is over a 1.5 minutes back: “It's fair to say that we have really struggled today. The spin and the puncture [on SS4] obviously didn't help, but I've mainly been lacking the confidence and the feeling to drive like we know we can,” the Welshman said.
“If you have the confidence, then the times rocket up. Unfortunately it's going in the opposite direction for us at the moment. I'm not 100 percent happy, that's affecting the level of confidence and that's affecting the times in turn. We just need to look at everything for tomorrow and try again. I know that I can be better than this so we need to go out there, give it all we've got, and see what happens.”
Lorenzo Bertelli completes the top-ten in his FWRT SRL Fiesta RS WRC, bumped up a place at the end of the leg when Citroen stand-in Stephane Lefebvre hit a rock and broke the front-right suspension. Lefebvre will now re-start on Saturday under Rally 2.
In WRC2, Nasser Al-Attiyah has been dominant in his Ford Fiesta RRC, winning seven of the day's eight stages to build a 50.3s margin over Yuriy Protasov. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari is third.
Rally Australia now continues on Saturday with two stages on the bill – both to be run twice – including the very long 50.80 km Nambucca test. SS9, Nambucca 1, is due to start tomorrow at 10.18 hours local time [01.42 hours UK time]. Full itinerary for round ten in WRC 2015 available - HERE
2015 Rally Australia: Overall standings after Stage 8 (Top 10):
1. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 1h 15m 29.1s
2. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +0m 02.0s
3. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +0m 04.6s
4. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +0m 12.9s
5. Dani Sordo
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +0m 15.9s
6. Hayden Paddon
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +0m 25.5s
7. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +0m 37.2s
8. Ott Tanak
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +0m 40.2s
9. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +2m 21.8s
10. Lorenzo Bertelli
FWRT SRL Ford Fiesta RS WRC +3m 37.9s
11. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC +4m 09.3s
12. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta RRC +4m 59.6s
13. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari
Ford Fiesta RRC +5m 30.1s
14. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC +6m 47.8s
15. Nathan Quinn
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +7m 32.4s
WRC2 standings after Stage 8 (Top 3):
1. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC 1h 19m 38.4s
2. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta RRC +0m 50.3s
3. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari
Ford Fiesta RRC +1m 20.8s
SS8. Stephane Lefebvre
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC Hit a rock
*Will re-start on Saturday under Rally 2
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial