Coffs Harbour - Sebastien Ogier edged towards a sixth world
title at the championship-deciding Rally Australia after his main threat
Thierry Neuville dropped almost 45 seconds in the final speed test on Friday.
Only three points separate the two drivers after 12 rounds
and thousands of kilometres in one of the closest seasons in years, and it was
the Frenchman who came out on top on the opening day of the last race of 2018
in Coffs Harbour.
Hyundai's Neuville was seventh, three places and almost 10
seconds clear of Ogier, when his left rear tyre punctured following a jump, and
shortly after he slid into a chicane and stalled the engine.
It left him in 10th place, three behind Ogier in his Ford
Fiesta who was helped by team-mates Teemu Suninen and Elfyn Evans deliberately
slowing before the finish to bump him up the leaderboard.
"I pushed like crazy in the final stage, the conditions
were worse than this morning. I was on the limit, I could not have done
more," said Ogier, who won in Australia in 2014 and 2015.
"That was some good news Neuville has dropped
The Belgian, who won in Australia last year and is gunning
for his first world drivers' title, said he was disappointed with the puncture
but remained confident.
"The car is okay. The stage was okay. A different tyre
strategy to Ogier. I cannot do much more," he said.
Both of them suffered from starting first on a dry day,
struggling for grip as they brushed aside a top-coating of loose gravel to
leave a cleaner line and more traction for those behind.
Norway's Mads Ostberg lead a Citroen one-two after day one,
ending 6.8 seconds clear of Ireland's Craig Breen who overcame brake problems.
Estonian Ott Tanak, who has an outside shot at the title, 23
points behind Ogier, came fifth after an error-strewn day in his Toyota.
Andreas Mikkelsen was the only major retirement with the
Norwegian parking his i20 with suspected radiator damage after crashing into a