Top Kiwi rally pairing Hayden Paddon and John Kennard hold a one minute, 22 second lead in the production category at Rally Australia today.
Paddon is still on track to win the 2011 FIA Production Car World Rally Championship title if he secures the maximum 25 points available on Rally Australia at the wheel of his CR Properties/Placemakers Subaru STI.
Rain on Thursday night and more showers throughout Friday morning over the rural route inland of Coffs Harbour, New South Wales where the rally is based, made conditions challenging for the Kiwis and fellow competitors.
"The clay-based roads were treacherously slippery, particularly on the repeat run," said Paddon.
Paddon, from Geraldine, and Kennard, from Blenheim, finished Friday's repeated loop of three rural stages and two further sprints round the Coffs Harbour tarmac super special stage with a margin of one minute, 22.3 seconds over fellow Production World Rally Championship competitor Polish driver Michel Kosciuszko.
With top-running WRC Citroen drivers Sebastién Loeb and Sebastién Ogier, and others out of Friday's standings and Paddon's own pace despite the conditions, the 24-year-old Kiwi holds seventh place overall, just 30 seconds behind Ford Abu Dhabi team driver Khalid Al Qassimi in a WRC-spec Ford Fiesta RS.
Paddon reported: "On the morning loop we were able to set some good times, despite losing time when catching a WRC car [the John Cooper Works WRC Mini of Brazilian driver Daniel Oliveira] in front of us on the first stage. We always knew the afternoon was going to be hard, so the plan was to take it easier and consolidate our lead.
"It was the most slippery road I have been on for a long time which resulted in a few altercations with banks and a detour into a paddock. Nevertheless our last two splits of that stage were the fourth fastest overall against all the WRC cars."
Earlier, during Thursday's official FIA pre-event press conference, Paddon had commented: ""In all honesty, we're treating this like any other rally. We've still got two PWRC rounds left in Spain and Great Britain so we've got a good buffer. The first two days are flat out. The challenges are going to be to find the top times but I'm going to try and go a bit quicker and get into to the top ten and get championship points. We've got to keep aiming high. I need to show more speed. I know there's more speed to come."
Rain obviously affected Paddon's plans for flat-out speed with the Friday's stages being described as slime-covered gravel roads. From the seventh stage, a repeated run of 'Brooklana', he said: "This afternoon it's a matter of getting to the end of the day. We elected to run a softer setup in the CR Properties/Placemakers Subaru than this morning."
Saturday's action gets underway at 8:30am (Australian Eastern Standard Time) and Paddon and Kennard face 146.54km of competitive stages they describe as being very similar to New Zealand.
"The main difference here is the lack of camber in the road and the gravel is very different. There is not quite as much grip on offer so it's about as close as you'll get to roads like in New Zealand, outside of New Zealand," says Paddon. "Even if the wet weather continues, the roads shouldn't be affected as much, but having said that, the weather is forecasted to clear up over the weekend."
Saturday's route is the longest of the weekend. Drivers face two identical loops of four stages, split by service back in the town before finishing the day with two further passes through the short seafront super special stage in the heart of Coffs Harbour.
With the fallen WRC competitors all restarting on Saturday, Paddon starts first of the PWRC competitors and 12th on the road.
"All in all we are very happy with Friday's results and the team and car are doing a perfect job. The plan is to attack on Saturday and set some more good stage times. It has also been great seeing all the Kiwi fans and our big group of supporters on the side of the road!"
- HERALD ONLINE