SYDNEY (Reuters) - Belgian Thierry Neuville's hopes of winning a maiden world title at Rally Australia this weekend suffered a hammer blow after a calamitous sixth stage on the opening day, when he damaged his car landing from a jump and then stalled in a chicane.
The Hyundai driver trailed world champion Sebastien Ogier by three points coming into the final round of the championship and was hoping to make them up around the coastal city of Coffs Harbour.
Neuville finished the first of the three days of the rally in 10th place, one minute, 11.9 seconds behind Norwegian leader Mads Ostberg and, more importantly, more than half a minute behind the M-Sport Ford of Ogier.
"Our chances are a lot smaller now but it's not over till it's over, so we will keep pushing as much as we can and we will see where it takes us," Neuville tweeted.
Ogier was expected to struggle on day one as he had to go out first, sweeping the gravel tracks to improve conditions for the drivers behind him.
The Frenchman finished in seventh place, 38.2 seconds off the pace, with two M-Sport Fords having slowed to drop below him in the standings and allow the five-times world champion a better starting position on day two.
Ostberg led by 6.8 seconds overall from Irish Citroen team mate Craig Breen after the first eight stages, with Finn Jari-Matti Latvala third for Toyota and New Zealander Hayden Paddon fourth in his Hyundai.
Fifth, 16.9 seconds behind Ostberg, was Toyota's Ott Tanak, who remains in mathematical contention for the title, 23 points behind Ogier in the drivers' standings.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by John O'Brien)