Citroen's Kris Meeke has regained the lead on Rally Australia on Saturday's opening loop, while Hayden Paddon won both SS9 and SS10 in his Hyundai to move up to P5 and close to within 9.3s of top spot – making it a five-way fight for victory.
Meeke slipped back to second on Friday's final test, but got ahead of Jari-Matti Latvala this morning in the long 50.80 km Nambucca 1 test (SS9).
The Ulsterman, however, was only fourth quickest – 12.2s off stage winner Paddon – and was left ruing the decision to go with the soft tyres.
Meeke then went fifth in Valla 1 and now heads back to the mid-day service in his DS 3 WRC with a 2.3s advantage.
“It wasn't the right tyre choice this morning – especially when we had the advantage of road position. But it wasn't a complete disaster as we are leading,” Meeke said.
“My only option to win this rally though was to make the right tyre choice this morning so to be honest it hasn't been perfect – I was expecting to take off more time. When you come to a rally like this with the advantage of road position we should be 30-40sec ahead. We have a lot of concerns for the Valla stage tonight with the dust [too].”
“Now, in my position, it's like being chased by a pack of wolves,” he added. “I'm being realistic. We know the speed of those guys when it's a level playing field.”
Meanwhile, Latvala, in contrast to Meeke, felt his tyre choice was fine – he went for hard tyres - although he did struggle mid-way through Nambucca.
“The tyres were right; absolutely happy with choice. First 20km of Nambucca went well, then after that I don't know which mode I went in to – I had no push, and then I came back 10km before the end. I didn't have the spark to fight – I don't know why – I didn't have the best feeling,” explained the Volkswagen pilot.
2015 WRC Champion-elect Sebastien Ogier completes the top-three and unlike Meeke and Latvala he opted for a mix of hard and soft tyres.
Ogier also now has Citroen stand-in Stephane Lefebvre running ahead and 'sweeping' the roads a bit, after the youngster re-joined under Rally 2.
“On the front the grip was low and soft tyres should have given me grip, but I was happy with the balance of the car. If I had to do it again I would choose the same tyres,” Ogier noted. “Having Stephane up front is helping a little bit [too]. I really hope he will help me even more in the second loop.
“The second pass through Nambucca will be interesting and [we will] be hard on tyres. I like the situation so really hope the championship will work out for me this afternoon. If I can maintain the gap to the lead tomorrow I can really start the fight.”
VW Motorsport II pilot Andreas Mikkelsen is next up in fourth, 1.3s off Ogier and 4.1 up on the flying i20 WRC of Paddon. Mikkelsen also closed on the lead in SS9, going second quickest, but then dropped back behind Ogier in SS10 when he was only seventh fastest.
“We pushed really hard this morning and knew we had to do something after yesterday,” Mikkelsen said. “It was pretty much a perfect run to be honest and I am back in the fight.
“I said this year I wanted to be good on this morning's stages. Now Hayden is coming but the second loop when the conditions are more equal we will see. There are small places where we made mistakes so we expect to do better this afternoon. We expect the grip to be much, much better now [as well].”
Paddon was similarly pleased and from being 25.5s off the lead last night is now right up there: “Much more comfortable and confident in the car today,” he said. “Solved the issues from yesterday [after the team changed the diff] and we made set-up changes and can drive the car like I want to.
“When I woke up this morning and saw the blue sky there was only one tyre choice for me – plus we have an advantage of road position. So we are going to have to find a lot more pace this afternoon now. This afternoon the objective is to stay in touch, as the VW's will be much quicker - if we can stay within 10-15sec of the lead it sets it up nicely for tomorrow.
“I was trying and pushing this morning and can now have confidence in the car. A lot of tidying up to do but it is a big improvement.”
Further back, M-Sport's Ott Tanak has moved up to sixth and ahead of the other Hyundai's of Dani Sordo and Thierry Neuville in seventh and eighth.
“Not so bad this morning,” said Tanak, who was third in SS9 and second in SS10. “We changed the gearbox overnight so feeling with the car is much better. Of course though, it was difficult to be 100% confident as we haven't been on these stages in this type of car.”
“I struggled a bit with the conditions in the first stage,” Neuville admitted. “The car wasn't working properly in some sections so didn't have the speed and lost nearly 10 seconds in the areas where I pulled back a lot. The guys behind had the better conditions though. In Valla I pushed and conditions were okay, although of course it will be difficult for us to better in there later.”
Behind, Elfyn Evans is ninth with WRC2 class leader Nasser Al-Attiyah now up to tenth after Lorenzo Bertelli was sidelined in SS9 with engine problems.
Al-Attiyah, however, had his own technical issues and as a result his lead over Yuriy Protasov in WRC2 is now down from 50.3s last night to just 10.3s. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari remains third.
“I think we only have rear-wheel drive - something is wrong with the front drive shaft,” Al-Attiyah said post-SS10. “We also had a misfire for the long one and will get that fixed too [in service].”
Rally Australia now continues with repeat runs through Nambucca and Valla. SS11, the second run through the long 50.80 km Nambucca test, is due to start at 15.41 hours local time [06.41 hours UK time]. Full itinerary for round ten in WRC 2015 available - HERE
2015 Rally Australia: Overall standings after Stage 10 (Top 10):
1. Kris Meeke
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC 1h 48m 35.2s
2. Jari-Matti Latvala
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC 00m 02.3s
3. Sebastien Ogier
Volkswagen Motorsport Polo R WRC +0m 03.9s
4. Andreas Mikkelsen
Volkswagen Motorsport II Polo R WRC +0m 05.2s
5. Hayden Paddon
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +0m 09.3s
6. Ott Tanak
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +0m 29.5s
7. Dani Sordo
Hyundai Motorsport N i20 WRC +0m 43.0s
8. Thierry Neuville
Hyundai Motorsport i20 WRC +0m 50.2s
9. Elfyn Evans
M-Sport WRT Ford Fiesta RS WRC +2m 33.6s
10. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC +6m 33.3s
11. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta RRC +6m 43.6s
12. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari
Ford Fiesta RRC +7m 26.3s
13. Yazeed Al-Rajhi
Ford Fiesta RRC +8m 27.1s
14. Nathan Quinn
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX +10m 28.6s
15. Stephane Lefebvre
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC +13m 04.6s
WRC2 standings after Stage 10 (Top 3):
1. Nasser Al-Attiyah
Ford Fiesta RRC 1h 55m 08.5s
2. Yuriy Protasov
Ford Fiesta RRC +0m 10.3s
3. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari
Ford Fiesta RRC +0m 53.0s
SS8. Stephane Lefebvre
Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT DS 3 WRC Hit a rock
SS9. Lorenzo Bertelli
FWRT SRL Ford Fiesta RS WRC Engine
*Re-started on Saturday under Rally 2.
M denotes Manufacturer entry
all times unofficial