Hyundai driver Thierry Neuville put in an electrifying run to dominate Day 2 of the FIA World Rally Championship finale at Kennards Hire Rally Australia today.
The Belgian won three of five stages south of the Coffs Harbour event base, ending the daytime section 19sec in front with two more runs on the harbourside Destination NSW Super Special Stage scheduled this evening before an overnight halt.
Tomorrow’s final day comprises five more stages in State forestry to the north – two televised live worldwide – and a ceremonial finish wrapping up the 13-round season at 3.30pm in the city centre.
Typifying the competitiveness that has made 2017 the most unpredictable season in more than a decade, four different car makes filled the top four places today.
Jari-Matti Latvala held second although he dropped 13sec in his Toyota Yaris despite winning stage 10. The 31-year-old Finn has finished runner-up three times at Coffs Harbour but is yet to break through.
M-Sport’s Ott Tanak took stage 11 and third place in a Ford Fiesta from Citroen C3 driver Kris Meeke, who then dropped out with suspension failure after stage 12, handing fourth to team-mate Craig Breen.
The day’s main casualty was overnight leader Andreas Mikkelsen, who retired on the second morning stage after two punctures. Mikkelsen is expected to rejoin for tomorrow’s final leg, but has lost the chance to successfully defend his 2016 Australian crown.
With a season-fourth victory in sight at the end of tomorrow’s 65kms of competition, Neuville appeared aware of the need to balance speed with caution.
“This one was a bit more slippy,” he said after the 12km SS13, Argents Hill. “I struggled a bit with the oversteer. Not so much fun but the stage time is still good.
“We have to keep on the good rhythm and keep pushing, but don’t go too hard.”
Finnish teenager Kalle Rovanpera performed impeccably in WRC2. The 17-year-old dominated in an M-Sport prepared Ford Fiesta R5 to hold 10th outright.
Skoda driver Richie Dalton in 11th is the first Australian-based entrant, one spot ahead of Coffs Harbour’s Nathan Quinn in a 10-year-old Mitsubishi.
Quinn is entered simultaneously in the final of the CAMS Australian Rally Championship, where he holds a 2min43.1s lead over the defending titleholder Subaru’s Molly Taylor. However, second at the finish would be sufficient for Taylor to retain the title.
Today’s contest was scheduled for six stages, but the afternoon’s final pass on the 21km Newry17 stage was cancelled for World and Australian championship competitors because of damage to a wooden bridge.
The stage remained open for NSW and Queensland championship competitors, but under triple-caution conditions.
Tomorrow will see a 9.83km run through Pilbara Reserve, Bucca16 (31.90km) and Wedding Bells (6.44km) before a repeat of Pilbara and Wedding Bells to complete the 21 competitive stages.
Closing Rally Australia and the 2017 WRC season, Wedding Bells II will start at 1.18pm and will be televised to a live audience in more than 150 countries.