Wet and wild start to final rally day
HEAVY rain threatened to provide a dramatic finale to the Kennards Haire Rally Australia this morning.
Monsoon-like conditions made driving treacherous and the time gaps between the top three crews were slashed as they splashed through the muddy forest special stages.
Jari-Matti Latvala halved Thierry Neuville's overnight 20.1 seconds while third-placed Ott Tänak emerged as a surprise late contender for a win as he closed on both drivers ahead.
The rain began in the opening Pilbara Reverse test and Elfyn Evans capitalised in conditions suited to his tyres to set fastest time.
It worsened in Bucca and Tänak fared best of the leading trio in his Ford Fiesta. The Estonian was only fifth fastest, but importantly 12.3 seconds quicker than Latvala's Toyota Yaris, with Neuville a further 9.1sec adrift.
The rain stopped going into the short Wedding Bells and Neuville regained some of his lost advantage.
Fastest time, almost five seconds quicker than his rivals, sent the Belgian towards the mid-leg service in Coffs Harbour with a 14.7 second lead.
"That was a hell of a ride! Really, really tricky conditions," Neuville said.
"I kept the car on the road but it was close sometimes. I knew I could make a difference but I had to be clever.
"You lose grip, you lose control and the car doesn't respond to your input."
Latvala was fourth fastest and with two tests remaining until the finish, the Finn was prepared for more drama if the bad weather returns.
"The pressure is all on Thierry, Tänak and ourselves now," he said.
Tänak is a further 11.3 seconds behind.
"Conditions are so changeable that you can't make any plans," the Estonian said
The frustrated Frenchman punched his car at the finish when he saw the extent of the damage.
Breen's demise promoted Hayden Paddon to fourth with Sébastien Ogier fifth in a Fiesta.
Ogier had a recurrence of his rally-long gearshift problem and in the confusion of trying to make repairs, he checked in early at the start of Bucca.
It cost the world champion a 60 second penalty but no positions.
In the Australian Rally Championship, Coffs Harbour driver Nathan Quinn simply has to finish the final two stages and return to the Service Park to claim the driver's title.
His main rival for the ARC crown, Molly Taylor, failed to get to the start line this morning with yesterday's engine problems continuing to cause issues.