For its swansong, the 2004 World Rally Championship travels to Western Australia and the pleasant city of Perth which is located on the banks of the Swan River. With the Manufacturers' title sewn up since Corsica, Citroen has despatched two Xsara WRCs to the southern hemisphere event for 2004 champions Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena and Carlos Sainz/Marc Marti.

For Sainz, who announced his decision to retire at the end of the year, Rally Australia will be his 195th and final World Championship start.

Promoted to the rank of final round of the season and consequently organised two and a half months after its usual early-September slot, Rally Australia has innovated by setting up its single service park in Gloucester Park, Perth, which last year hosted the event's super-special, due to be run on no fewer than five occasions this time round!

The route also exploits the opportunities offered by the RTFZ mini-service park system (remote tyre fitting zones) during each of the three legs to enable it, as in previous years, to visit the Stirling Reservoir and Dwelling up regions (Leg 1), the territory east of Perth near Mundaring (Legs 2 and 3) and finally the Sotico Complex (Leg 3).

Only one stage is new: 'Flynns' which was used in the opposite direction in 2001 and 2002.

Meanwhile, in addition to those stages run either last year ('Stirling West', 'Helena South') or in previous years ('Atkins'), the organisers have mixed and matched portions of other tests which means that co-drivers face the complex task of re-organising numerous sections of existing notes to prepare for this year's recce. The 2004 version of 'Stirling Long', for example, comprises sixteen sections that are either new or were used in one direction or another in 2002!

The main characteristics of the Australian round are well documented: fast, narrow stages lined with trees that the cars brush past at high speed, not forgetting the celebrated top-coating of small, ball bearing-like, ochre-coloured stones that the first cars through tend to sweep aside for the benefit of competitors following further down the start order. Rain tends to cancel out the phenomenon by anchoring these marbles in the ground but adverse weather seems less likely this time round given the event's new early-summer date.

In 2002, after an on-site test session (the last opportunity to test outside of Europe before the regulations were modified), Loeb took the start at the wheel of the re-built test car. The data acquired back then has since been complemented by the information brought back from the 2003 event which saw Loeb lead for a long time before finishing second, while Colin McRae and Sainz were fourth and fifth respectively. For its second outing in Australia, the Xsara had clearly evolved at least as much as its fastest rivals...

One year on, Citroen will obviously be able to call on the same basic set-up that proved so competitive last year with which it will combine the latest evolutions that have seen the Xsara progress since its last visit to Perth. As in Catalonia, the drivers will be free to adopt the pace they see fit and the wish of everyone at Versailles-Satory is to see the 2004 season end in a good fight and, if possible, win it!

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