Stobart M-Sport Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson are optimistic about their chances of gaining ground on the rally leaders tomorrow after consolidating their strong points-scoring positions at the end of Day One of Rally Australia, round 10 of the World Rally Championship.
The teammates are lying in sixth and seventh places overall going into Day Two of the rally.
The 40 starting crews headed to Kyogle, west of Rally HQ in Kingscliff, to tackle seven stages this morning, although SS6 was cancelled before any crews had the chance to finish it due to demonstrators.
Weather conditions had changed overnight but the small amount of rain that fell in the morning made little difference to the roads with the dusty gravel tracks proving a tough challenge for the leading drivers.
After their stunning display in Thursday night's super special stages, Solberg and co-driver Cato Menkerud started Day One in second place overall. They struggled with the set-up of their Ford Focus RS WRC on the opening stages on Friday, slipping back down the field to sixth. But a strong performance and a fourth place on SS9, Castrol Edge East, kept them in contact with the leading crews going into the midday service.
The Norwegian made some changes to the set-up of his car during the break and was happier with his second pass over the four-stage loop, mixing it with the leaders and grabbing a fourth fastest time on the 5.74km SS13 Kidney Health 2 stage.
Solberg put on another impressive display in the super special stages under the street lights in Murwillumbah to end a difficult day on a high note, setting the third-fastest time on SS14 and SS15 to remain well in touch with the top five crews.
Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin had a difficult day as they struggled to find their rhythm on the short Australian stages. A spin in the opening kilometre of SS4, Repco 1, saw Wilson lose ground on his Stobart teammate Solberg just ahead of him.
A fast time on SS5, which saw him match championship leader Mikko Hirvonen for pace, showed promise for Day Two. But the problems continued for the British duo as they struggled for grip on the last three stages of the morning, losing assistance from power steering on the final loose gravel stage.
The power steering problem was resolved by the Stobart mechanics during the midday service and Wilson was able to attack again on the afternoon stages. But the young Brit again struggled to find a good feeling on the short, slippery stages and lost confidence as he battled to stay in touch with the leading drivers.
Day Two consists of 10 more stages which take place on fast, flowing roads around the Kyogle Shire and total 113.45km. The gravel roads are again expected to provide extra work for the early starters, giving Wilson and Solberg the chance to make up ground on cleaner roads.
The drivers face two four-stage loops before returning for their final two runs over the super special stage in Murwillumbah. Both Stobart drivers believe the stages will suit their driving style and are buoyant about their chances of building on today's solid performance.
"I've been working hard to try and get more speed. This morning the car was sliding around a lot, but it felt much better this afternoon. I have been really surprised by how much gravel there is and how slippery it has been even on the second pass of the stages. We have been getting faster and it is going well now. I am looking forward to tomorrow as the stages are faster and will be better for me. I plan on changing the damper springs tonight to give more stability to the car on the fast stages tomorrow."
"Today has been a lot more slippery than I thought it would be. There has been lots of loose gravel, even on the second pass. The last stage before the super special was the worst and it was very slippery on both passes. The first three stages this morning felt really good. They were more open and flowing and the car felt very positive. But the last few were so slippery and short that it was difficult to find any rhythm. The pacenotes are working fine but we've made a few tweaks. The stages tomorrow are much more like this morning's stages so I'm feeling positive as the open and flowing roads suit me better."
Team Principal Malcolm Wilson:
"This has been a difficult first day on this new event but both Stobart crews have gained important experience on these loose, gravel stages – which have probably been some of the most slippery conditions we've seen in the championship. They have come through the opening stages with a trouble-free day and are sitting in solid points positions for tomorrow. Today has been the shortest day of the rally so there's still a long way to go and a lot of stages to complete."