Kris Meeke cleans up in Oz
It may just have been the preliminary skirmishes but Kris Meeke laid down a marker as Rally Australia got under way.
Making his debut for the official Abu Dhabi Citroen Sport team, the former Intercontinental Challenge champion from Dungannon showed that he is at home at rallying's top table when he set fastest time in qualifying yesterday and went on to slot into second place overall after the first two superspecial stages.
Citroen's main test driver, Meeke was drafted in to replace Spaniard Dani Sordo and was only too aware that he was auditioning for a place in the 2014 team as he and co-driver Chris Patterson began the Australian round of the World championship.
And he made a perfect start by taking "pole position" during qualifying where he outpaced not just his Citroen team-mates Mikko Hirvonen (fifth) and Khalid Al Qassimi (ninth) but runaway World championship leader Sebastien Ogier as well.
Taking top place allowed Meeke to pick his starting spot, important on a gravel rally where the first cars through the stages have the task of sweeping the loose gravel off the top of the forest roads.
He picked 10th place, just behind the Volkswagen of Ogier and the Ford of Thierry Neuville.
And he followed up by setting second fastest times on the two sprint stages which kicked off the rally in Coffs Harbour on Australia's Gold Coast, taking second place overall less than a second behind the VW Polo of overnight leader Andreas Mikkelsen who is partnered for the first time by Meeke's IRC championship-winning co-driver Paul Nagle.
The VWs of Jari-Matti Latvala and Ogier were third and fourth with Citroen team leader Hirvonen, a three-time Australian winner, fifth.
The top five were covered by just two seconds.
Water had been sprayed on the dry earth sections of the superspecial to keep the dust clouds down but made conditions unexpectedly slippery.
"Some corners are like ice," reported Meeke.
"We put on a good show for the crowds but took absolutely no risks."
He said he had made a big push on the qualifying stage, but was prepared to adopt a more measured approach during the rally in a bid to ensure he scores manufacturer points for Citroen.
"I knew qualifying would be important because of the road conditions," he explained afterwards. "I had to try to get the best road position possible, but now I don't have the mindset to go out and demonstrate my speed.
"It's more important to show I can finish and do the jon the team expects of me."
Meeke acknowledged this weekend could prove one of the most important of his life.
"I have no rallies confirmed beyond Australia, so everything depends on my result here," he added.
"There comes pressure with that, but I'll not deny it's where I want to be.
"I want to be part of a factory team and you have to take the pressure when it comes."
Ukrainian Yuriy Protasov headed the WRC2 standings in 11th place overall, half-a-second ahead of Saudi Yazeed Al Rajhi and Ulster co-driver Michael Orr in a Ford one-two.
The rally resumed overnight for three long days in the New South Wales forests, the route including two massive 50 kilometre stages tomorrow.