Neuville leads Rally Australia after Mikkelsen crashes out

ADDS INSTRUCTION - Belgian's Thierry Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul race through water during the Rally of Australia, near Coffs Harbour, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. (Jeremy Rogers/Rally Australia via AP)

Thierry Neuville leads Rally Australia after defending champ Andreas Mikkelsen crashes

COFFS HARBOUR, Australia — Belgium's Thierry Neuville took over the lead of the season-ending Rally Australia on Saturday when his Hyundai teammate, the defending champion and overnight leader Andreas Mikkelsen, crashed on the second stage of day two.

Mikkelsen started the day with a 20.9 second lead after winning five of six special stages on Friday. But the Norwegian's title defense ended abruptly when he struck a bank and suffered a double puncture on the 20.87 kilometer (13 miles) Newry stage and was forced to retire.

Neuville opened up a commanding 19 second lead by the end of a shortened day to remain on target to finish second behind Sebastien Ogier in the 2017 world rally drivers' standings.

Ogier, who had already clinched his fifth world title before the Rally of Australia, was in sixth place at the end of the second day.

Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland, driving a Toyota, finished the day in second spot, while Ott Tanak of Estonia was third, 40.2 seconds behind the leader. Kris Meeke, who was second overall after day one, was forced out with suspension problems.

Saturday's scheduled second running of the Newry stage was cancelled due to a damaged bridge, shortening the day and strengthening Neuville's grip on the event despite the forecast of heavy rain for Australia's east coast on Sunday.

"It's a good lead," he said. "But we have to be careful now because tomorrow, if the rain is coming, it's going to be really, really difficult. It's not easy and the rally is still long."

Carrying only one spare tire and with two punctures, Mikkelsen had little choice but to retire after his crash. His Hyundai team has recovered the car and will repair it in the hope he can rejoin the rally Sunday but Mikkelsen conceded his title defense was over.

"It's devastating, but what can you do?" Mikkelsen said. "We are trying to push as hard as we can, sometimes you get away with it, but not today."

About 65 kilometers (40 miles) of racing remains across five short stages Sunday.

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