SYDNEY, September 4 – Environmental protestors who threw rocks at cars racing in Rally Australia could have killed somebody, police said on Friday.Police have launched an investigation into the protests, which forced the cancellation of the sixth and 11th stages in northern New South Wales.
Boulders were placed on the roadway near the Byrill Creek stage and police said that the first car to drive along the stage, with Ford’s world championship leader Mikko Hirvonen behind the wheel, was hit by a number of rocks.
"While the driver of the car was not injured, organisers of the rally stopped the stage due to concerns for the safety of the drivers and spectators," the police statement said.
A police helicopter was called in but the protesters disappeared into the surrounding bushland.
"The protesters involved in this rock throwing incident have shown total disregard for the safety of competitors and officials involved in today’s stage of the event," a police spokesman said.
"Their behaviour had the potential to seriously injure or kill someone."
In the race itself, Finland’s Jari-Matti Latvala held a 2.2 second advantage at the end of the day.
Latvala, in his Ford Focus, dominated the day with a total of six stage wins.
The young Finn will start Saturday’s second leg with a lead of 2.2 seconds over Frenchman Sebastien Ogier in a Citroen.
Ogier made up five seconds during two runs on the 2.5km circuit in the township of Murwillumbah on Friday.
Those short sprints also affected the world championship battle between five-time world champion Sebastian Loeb and current points leader Hirvonen of Finland.
Loeb finished the night sessions third overall in his Citroen, 22.7sec from the leader, having replaced Ford driver Hirvonen, who dropped to fifth.
The Finn leads Loeb by three points in the championship.
In fourth place overall was the Citroen of Spaniard Dani Sordo, at 22.8sec, with Hirvonen at 23.6sec.
Latvala began the day with a win in the opening stage and finished no lower than third in the following eight sectors.
"It’s been surprisingly good," Latvala said. "Stage four was not so good for me when I hit a hole and made a little damage to one of the steering track rods so it bent about 15 or 20 degrees to the left.
"But since then, I finished the stage and checked that it was not too dangerous to drive and after that I just got a good relaxed feeling.
"I would say I’ve been driving at 95 percent but I’ve been clean and tidy, that’s been the key."
Loeb suffered engine power problems on SS6 but had it quickly solved.
"It was because the throttle pedal wasn’t going flat to the floor," Loeb said.
"But that’s fixed now so everything is good. It has been a tough day, I will need to hold position tomorrow, and hopefully it will be different."
Saturday’s second day consists of 10 competitive stages totalling 113km.