Ford World Rally Team drivers Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila led Rally Australia after a tight day's competition in New South Wales today. The Finns took full advantage of favourable road conditions to win six speed tests in their Ford Focus RS WRC and take an overnight advantage
of 2.2sec at the end of Day One on this 10th round of the World Rally Championship.
Teammates and championship leaders Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen (who is celebrating his 100th World Rally start) lie fifth in another Focus RS WRC.
After 19 years in Western Australia, the rally has made the 3600km journey to the east coast for the country's first World Rally Championship round since 2006. Its new home at Kingscliff, in northern New South Wales, is close to the Queensland border and just south of the Gold Coast holiday area and Brisbane.
After two asphalt tests through the streets of Murwillumbah last night, today's action comprised two loops of special stages on gravel roads in the Tweed and Kyogle shires to the southwest. The day ended with another double pass through the street tests.
Two stages were cancelled for safety reasons due to demonstrators, so competitors tackled 13 predominantly short tests covering 84.13km in all during this opening leg of the four-day event, and spent more than 14 hours behind the wheel today.
The day was a battle of the youngsters. 24-year-old Latvala, fifth after last night's tests, took the lead on this morning's second stage from 25-year-old Sebastien Ogier, and traded tenths of a second with the Frenchman throughout the rest of the morning. He won three stages to return to the Kingscliff service park with a slender 1.1sec advantage. Latvala then won all three country tests this afternoon to extend his lead to 7.4sec, before Ogier pegged him back in Murwillumbah's streets.
"I enjoyed the advantage of a good start position, which meant much of the slippery gravel on the road surface had been swept away, but I'm still quite surprised to be leading," admitted Latvala.
"I drove at 95 percent this morning and stepped that up to about 98 percent this afternoon," he said. "That was fast enough because any quicker and the car would have slid too sideways and cost me time. The grip level has changed constantly because after this morning's rain, some corners remained damp this afternoon.
"I hit a hole in the fourth stage which bent the steering on the left. I tried not to think about it, drove normally and it worked. The team replaced the cross-member at the lunchtime service.
"I didn't want to play tactics and sacrifice time this afternoon for a better road position tomorrow," he explained.
"It didn't make sense to give away time because the stages are so short that it would be hard to regain it again. I think it's possible for a driver to win this rally from starting first on the road but it wouldn't be easy."
Hirvonen was first in the start order and enjoyed less favourable conditions. The slippery stones presented few problems on fast sections but were a disadvantage on the twisty stretches, as his Focus RS WRC swept away the gravel to leave a cleaner and faster line for those behind.
Tellingly, he was quickest on this morning's second test at an average of more than 128kph, but dropped time on the final three stages of the loop, which were the slowest of the day. He ended the morning fifth, having been third after his stage victory. Although he regained third this afternoon, he eventually ended the day in fifth position just 0.1sec behind fourth-placed Dani Sordo and 0.9sec behind title rival Sebastien Loeb
"There was so much loose gravel this morning that even on the straights the car was spinning wheels in places," said 29-year-old Hirvonen. "Considering how incredibly slippery it was, I'm pleased with my position and the time I've lost isn't so bad.
"My fight is with Loeb and nobody else and I kept my sights firmly on him all day," he continued. "It was tough being the road sweeper but today is the most difficult of the three legs and the roads will be less slippery now. My goal was not to lose too much time and I don't think I did too badly."
Al Qassimi and Michael Orr held 10th in their Focus RS WRC until retiring in the seventh stage after striking a rock and breaking the car's steering. They will restart tomorrow under SupeRally rules. "Of course it is disappointing to withdraw now. I lost an afternoon on the new Australian surfaces, but will continue to compete tomorrow and do my best to recover from this early setback," said Al Qassimi.
The second leg offers more than 15 hours behind the wheel. After leaving Kingscliff at 05:30, drivers journey southwest for a loop of four tests near Kyogle before returning to the rally base for midday service.
Another loop of four stages near Kyogle precedes a third and final visit to Murwillumbah for two more passes through the street stage. Drivers return to Kingscliff for the final overnight halt at 20:55 after 10 stages covering 113.45km.