Coffs Harbour: Frenchman Sebastien Ogier set the fastest time in the Rally Australia pre-race shakedown Thursday as he bids to win his third consecutive world rally championship.
Following his sixth win of the season in Germany last month, Ogier leads Volkswagen teammate Jari-Matti Latvala by 93 points heading into Friday`s opening stages in the New South Wales town of Coffs Harbour.
If Ogier finishes ahead of the Finn this week, he is guaranteed the 2015 title and will become only the fourth man in history to win three or more championships behind compatriot Sebastien Loeb, who has nine, and Finnish pair Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Makinen, both with four.
Even if Latvala wins in Australia, Ogier can still win the championship if he finishes second and takes a bonus point on the power stage.
"Now I have a real chance to get it," Ogier said ahead of the race.
"I have the cards in my hand to secure it in Australia and why not?
"It is a rally I really love, a very special event."
Ogier and fellow French co-driver Julien Ingrassia have won six of the nine races held so far this year and three of the past four in their Volkswagen Polo.
"There`s no reason to change the approach I have to this rally," he told reporters earlier this week.
"It`s been working perfectly up to this point.
"Of course, I`m even more relaxed to have this lead and obviously, when you are relaxed as a sportsman, you always give a good performance, so I`ll try to fight for the victory like always.
"Every race of the championship, we are pushing the limit and it`s the same here."
Ogier has won the Australian round of the championship for the past two years and he showed his familiarity with Australian conditions on Thursday.
He almost rolled the car on the very first corner of the shakedown stage but recovered to finish 1.1 seconds faster than another teammate, Andreas Mikkelsen.
Ogier`s task of winning the title is slightly more difficult this year, as 2015 regulations force the Frenchman, as championship leader, to lead off for the first two days and sweep the road of loose gravel.
"There is quite a lot of loose gravel," he said. "I will have to try and take risks."
Twenty-seven teams will start the three-day rally on Friday but they will not include Mads Ostberg of Norway and his co-driver Jonas Andersson of Sweden.
The Citroen pair withdrew Wednesday night after Ostberg injured his ribs in an accident during route reconnaissance.
They will be replaced by young Frenchman Stephane Lefebvre and veteran Belgian co-driver Stefane Prevot.
The race starts Friday morning with three special stages around Taylors Arm, south-west of the Coffs Harbour.
Teams will cover 17 special stages over 311 kilometres of state forest and shire roads before the finish in the town of Coffs Harbour on Sunday.
The rally this year also includes a night stage on Saturday.