Wilson has a G’day in final Australian stages
Matthew Wilson and Henning Solberg overcame final day dramas to complete another double-points finish for the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team at Repco Rally Australia, round 10 of the FIA World Rally Championship. Both drivers took their best ever finishes in Australia finishing in sixth and seventh place to maintain the team’s lead over their Citroen Junior rivals in the Manufacturer Championship.

With 35 stages, almost double the number of some other WRC events this season, the new-look Rally Australia provided plenty of unique challenges for the 40 starting crews. Six street-lit visits to the asphalt Super Special Stage in the town of Murwillumbah proved a magnet for spectators, while the fast-paced, loose gravel roads around the Tweed and Kyogle Shires really tested all crews.

Solberg had started the rally in style on the streets of Murwillumbah on Thursday night in front of a packed crowd, grabbing a second and third place in the opening Super Special Stages. He started the first full day of the rally in second place overall, but slid down the field on the early stages of Friday morning as he struggled with the set-up of his Ford Focus RS WRC.

Day 1 was disappointing for Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin whose hopes of pushing the rally leaders were scuppered by an early spin and power steering problems on the morning loop. The young Brit struggled to find his rhythm on the afternoon stages, lacking confidence on the slippery, loose gravel roads. The Stobart crews ended the day in sixth and seventh place but still in touch with the leaders.

Heavy overnight rain added an extra element of difficulty to the stages on Day 2, and it was Solberg who was the first of the leading drivers to suffer in the damp conditions, sliding off the road on a fast, left-hand corner on SS17 Bosch 1. Solberg and co-driver Cato Menkerud were able to get back on the road with only superficial damage to the car, but had to continue through the remaining two stages of the morning without a windscreen as it got smashed in the crash.

The Stobart mechanics worked miracles in the midday service to get Solberg’s car back out with the damage repaired, but he struggled for pace in the afternoon, aggravated by a thumb injury sustained in the crash. Wilson meanwhile was growing in confidence on the fast-flowing Australian roads. Having made some changes to his pacenotes in the morning loop he reaped the benefits of a set-up change in the afternoon, steadily closing the gap on Solberg as he gunned for a top-six finish.

Wilson and Solberg started Day 3 less than a second apart with the prospect of an epic battle for team bragging rights ahead during the longest day of the rally. But when Solberg spun 1.5kms into the first stage of the day, the initiative was handed to Wilson who immediately pulled out a 20 second lead over his Norwegian team-mate.

The pair were closely matched throughout the morning, with Solberg clawing back around 15 seconds on SS30 CTEK West II as Wilson came off the road briefly in the slippery conditions damaging his rear left Pirelli Scorpion tyre. But the fight for position was effectively ended as a brake problem for Solberg caused him to arrive two minutes late for SS31. A spin on SS33 Gondwana II saw the Norwegian drop down to eighth behind Federico Villagra. But a staggering performance on the last and longest stage of the rally saw him eclipse Argentine Villagra by 23 seconds and move back up to seventh.

Other Rally News
Reigning champion Sebastien Loeb closed BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver Mikko Hirvonen’s lead at the top of the drivers’ standings to just one point after taking victory in Australia. Starting the final day in third place, Loeb used the advantage of the cleaned roads to pull ahead of the Finn and build a 12.5 second lead by the end of the day. Loeb’s team-mate Dani Sordo finished third while Sebastien Ogier rounded off a strong day for the Citroen camp. The Citroen Junior driver produced an impressive performance to finish fourth ahead of BP Ford Abu Dhabi’s Jari-Matti Latvala who lost time with a puncture on Sunday morning’s stages.

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
“We’ve had a positive rally but it was a bit of a shame that Henning had some problems this morning as it would have been great to continue the battle right to the end of the rally. It was a real mix of stages on this new event, with some really fast and others slow and twisty, and together with the short stages it meant that concentration was tough. I’m pleased to have got to the end of this new event and there were difficult conditions but great experience for us on the slippery, loose gravel roads on Friday.”

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
“I think we have made the most of a difficult weekend and come away with more points for the Stobart team and a stronger position in the drivers’ championship. It’s been a hard rally, especially on the first pass when there was lots of gravel, and unfortunately we got caught out by the slippery conditions on the second day. But we battled on and still managed to set some good times even though we spent most of the event working on improving the set-up.”

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson said:
“Matthew has put in a strong performance on this new rally, especially on the second and third days when he set some very competitive times. He’s collected another top-six after coming out on top of the team battle with Henning on the final day. Henning has made a great fight back after his problems today and it’s extremely positive for both crews to have completed all of the competitive distance on this rally and got experience of the new roads and difficult conditions.”

Stobart Group CEO Andrew Tinkler said:
“We’ve seen a great Stobart team battle over the last couple of days and the guys have performed well and benefitted from the experience of the new stages. This was always going to be a challenging event in the unknown conditions but they have taken charge of the situation and collected more important points for the championship.”

Final Leaderboard
1. S Loeb/D Elena (FRA) Citroën C4 2h52m54.0s
2. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen (FIN) Ford Focus RS +12.5s
3. D Sordo/M Marti (ESP) Citroën C4 +17.1s
4. S Ogier/J Ingrassia (FRA) Citroën C4 +1m35.8s
5. J-M Latvala/M Anttila (FIN) Ford Focus RS +2m04.5s
6. M Wilson/S Martin (GB) Ford Focus RS +5m38.8s
7. H Solberg/C Menkerud (NOR) Ford Focus RS +7m30.3s
8. F Villagra/J Perez Companc (ARG) Ford Focus RS +7m51.9s

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