Bianchi: Upgrades working well in Barcelona

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Marussia driver Jules Bianchi is pleased with the progress that the team has made over the three week break, with the Frenchman keen on re-establishing his dominance over Caterham at this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix.

Bianchi has been the stand-out driver at the back of the grid so far this season, but in Bahrain he finished well behind Charles Pic which caused many to question Marussia’s chances for the rest of the year. However, the young Frenchman is pleased with the upgrades that have been brought to Barcelona.

“The car feels quite different to when I last drove here and the improvements we have made are clear to see, which is good,” Bianchi explained in a team statement. “The developments we have brought here seem to be working well so far.”

Like many, Bianchi was unwilling to exaggerate the impact of the upgrades, only implying that there was still room for improvement.

“Extracting the most from the new components will take a little more time but once again we seem to have followed a good path and I hope we can be where we want to be this weekend.”

FP1 saw Bianchi’s teammate, Max Chilton, sit out in order to give reserve driver Rodolfo Gonzalez some track time, and the Venezuelan driver finished in P21 with the slowest official time. Chilton returned for FP2, finishing P21, and Bianchi finished 18th and 20th in the respective sessions, which will give him some encouragement heading into qualifying tomorrow.

Sebastien Ogier in driver’s seat for sixth straight World Rally Championship title

Sebastien Ogier leads the way in the WRC title chase. Photo: Getty Images
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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) — Thierry Neuville finished the sixth stage of Rally Australia on Friday without a rear left tire, damaging his chances of catching five-time defending champion Sebastien Ogier for the World Rally Championship title.

The Belgian driver entered the rally just three points behind Ogier in the closest title fight in 15 years.

He held the upper hand on his French rival, building a near-10 second gap through the first five stages at Coffs Harbour before hitting a chicane and finishing the stage with only three tires on his Hyundai.

Neuville was fortunate the puncture occurred late enough in the day to finish all six forestry stages and avoid a retirement. But the mistake cost him 40 seconds and gave Ogier, who is 33 seconds ahead of him, a clear run at his sixth straight championship.

In his last start with Ford before a move to Citroen next year, Ogier struggled as the first to drive the dusty, slippery forest routes.

“I pushed like crazy, I was on the limit over the jump and everywhere, I can’t do (any) more,” Ogier said. “I was on the limit.”

With Ogier on sweeping duties the back markers flourished, and Mads Ostberg took the lead in his return to the series.

Ostberg was forced to miss the previous round in Spain to make way for rally winner and nine-time world champion Sebastien Loeb, who was making the last of his three guest appearances for Citroen.

Now back in the seat, Ostberg leads Jari-Matti Latvala by 6.8 seconds in the Australian rally, with sixth-stage winner Craig Breen in third.

Ogier was seventh, 38.2 seconds off the pace, but only needs to finish ahead of Neuville to claim the championship title. Neuville is in 10th place after six stages.

Roles will reverse on Saturday, with Ogier to start further back in the field and do his best on cleaner roads to make up the day-one deficit before Sunday’s final stages.

Andreas Mikkelsen, the 2016 Rally Australia champion, was an early dropout after rolling into a ditch in his Hyundai. Mikkelsen had only just avoided a tractor that had found its way onto the course.

Former winner Molly Taylor and co-driver Malcolm Read were also forced out of their event when their Subaru hit a hay bale at high speed on the morning’s second stage. Both reported soreness but suffered no serious injuries.

The 24-stage rally totals 319 kilometers (197 miles). Ten stages are scheduled Saturday with the final six on Sunday, most of them through forests on the New South Wales state’s north coast about 530 kilometers (325 miles) north of Sydney.