Mikkelsen leads after first daytime stages at WRC Rally Australia
FIGHTING a win or bust battle for second place in the 2016 FIA World Rally Championship, Norway's Andreas Mikkelsen has finished in the lead after the opening daytime stages of Kennards Hire Rally Australia today.
The young Volkswagen star returned to the Coffs Harbour service headquarters with a 16.8 second advantage after nine stages and 88.41 kilometres in the Macksville district, south of Coffs Harbour.
With only two 1.27km sprints around the Destination NSW Super Special Stage remaining early this evening to complete day one of the WRC's closing round, Mikkelsen is in a strong early position to lift himself from second to third in the championship standings by Sunday afternoon's finish.
Teammate and four-time champion Sébastien Ogier finished second today, while Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville of Belgium is in third place. Neuville is second in the championship and will be determined to defend his position over the next two days against Mikkelsen, his friend and Monaco co-resident.
Hayden Paddon of New Zealand finished fourth today in another Hyundai, ahead of Norway's Mads Østberg, the first Ford runner for Britain's M-Sport team.
"We had a good morning and a good run, although it is very loose so I expected to lose more time,” Mikkelsen said.
"I think we are doing a really good job being third on the road so we will have to keep to this.
"We have to push if we want the win and so far it is looking good. The car is really perfect and I am feeling very comfortable in there.”
Mikkelsen won five stages, but it wasn't all plain-sailing.
"It felt really bad in there to be honest,” he said at the finish of the Northbank stage this afternoon.
"Oversteer and understeer in every corner and then a water bottle became stuck between my feet. I managed to catch it in a corner but it was a bit scary.”
Four stages this morning were repeated in the afternoon and with thick gravel swept away during the first pass - especially by road-opener Ogier - the early starters began to make their mark.
Tellingly, Ogier won the final two stages on the faster surfaces and was pleased with his second position.
"Our position does not reflect the struggle we had this morning and I think maybe others are not making the best of their advantage being behind us. It's certainly better than I expected, but it is a struggle to clean the roads and I think it will be difficult to keep this position.”
Under WRC rules, Ogier will start first again on fresh stages tomorrow, but Sunday's running order will be set on Saturday's results.
In perfect cloudless weather, road temperatures reached 44˚C and tyre wear became an issue for many.
Hayden Paddon struggled badly with his Hyundai's handling, despite winning the second stage.
"The tyres are really bad. I was driving too hard in the last stage and half. It was my normal style, but it's too aggressive,” he said.
M-Sport teammates Østberg and Eric Camilli completed the top six with Ott Tänak next up for the DMACK Fiesta team, ahead of Hyundai's Dani Sordo, Lorenzo Bertelli (Fiesta) and the first WRC2 runner, Esapekka Lappi.
"Flying Finn” Jari-Matti Latvala - favoured to win by teammate Ogier - made a shocking start, clipping a bridge and damaging his Volkswagen's suspension on the first stage.
He patched the damage and nursed the car back to the lunchtime service break, but the outcome was a series of heartbreakingly slow stage times that left him 16th, just behind Australians Harry Bates and Molly Taylor, at the end of the day.
After tonight's short runs on the harbourside Destination NSW Super Special Stage - televised worldwide - Kennards Hire Rally Australia resumes at 8.28am tomorrow with the event's longest stage, Nambucca, a 51km blast through forest and open country renowned as one of the most exiting and challenging tests of the WRC season.
Overall standings to end of Special Stage 9:
1. Andreas Mikkelsen/Anders Jaeger (Volkswagen) Total time 55min 10.9sec
2. Sébastien Ogier/Julien Ingrassia (Volkswagen) Behind first +16.8sec
3. Thierry Neuville/Nicolas Gilsoul (Hyundai) +21.5
4. Hayden Paddon/John Kennard (Hyundai) +22.2
5. Mads Østberg/Ola Fløene (M-Sport Ford) +37.1
6. Eric Camilli/Benjamin Veillas + 40.4
7. Ott Tänak/Raigo Mõlder (DMACK Ford) +46.5
8. Dani Sordo/Marc Martí (Hyundai) +47.9
9. Lorenzo Bertelli/Simone Scattolin +2:.00.0
10. Esapekka Lappi/Janne Ferm (Škoda) +2:15.1