Five-time World Rally champion Sebastien Loeb has defended Rally Australia in the face of increasingly hostile environmental protests against the event.
"The people are not so happy to see us," Loeb said. "They don't have to be angry at the drivers. We are just doing our jobs. Sometimes, people don't like us in front of their houses, but I didn't ask to come here. I can understand why some people don't like the rally, but I have to do my job."
Stages six and 11 were canceled today after rocks were thrown at the course-opening car and the stage was blocked when protesters against the event pulled a fence across the road. Championship leader Mikko Hirvonen was first on the scene in SS6, but the Finn drove straight through the fence. The stage was stopped by marshals at the next radio communication point. Stage 11, a repeat of that test, was canceled to allow the police investigation to get underway.
Hirvonen also spoke of being blocked on the road sections.
"We come to a junction and a car will just pull out in front of us," he said. "Then they drive really slowly, like six miles an hour. When there's a broken white line and I try to pull out to overtake, they move to the side and don't let us pass. Sebastien [Loeb] came behind, but they blocked him as well. What can we do? We are here to drive, we have to do our job."
Stobart Ford driver Matthew Wilson admitted there was intimidation from the crowds.
"When we were coming down to stage six, there were about 50 of them shouting at us and telling us to go home," he said. "It's not nice and it is pretty intimidating.
Northern Rivers protester Graeme Dunstan explained the protesters' side: "Byrrill Creek is a close-knit community and its residents are angry. The Repco Rally juggernaut – 90 racing cars plus support vehicles, helicopters and sirens to scare away wildlife – will be going past their properties and denying them access to their road for the day. Stop the rally there on the first day and we will win the battle for the rally media."
A heavy police presence has been sent to the Byrrill Creek area, with police officials promising to take a hard line against unlawful actions by protesters.
Some of the protesters' tactics were revealed earlier in the week, when area police commander Michael Kenny admitted there had been rumors of road kill being frozen in preparation for the start of the rally.
"There are a lot of stories going around about this sort of madness that may or may not occur. There are stories that road kill is being put in freezers that is to be thrown onto the road during the event," he said.
Rally chairman Garry Connelly added: "Other rallies have had threats from time to time, but I don't think they've ever had the threat of a frozen koala being thrown on a road before. This is really bizarre, but you have to expect the unexpected."