Reigning WRC champion Sebastien Ogier will take his quest for a second title to Australian this weekend, but knows that, in VW team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala, he has a worthy opponent.
The Ogier-Latvala duel has had fans on the edge of their seats since the start of the season but, going into Rally Australia, the Frenchman holds a 44-point advantage with the pair having won eight of the nine rallies held so far.
Although Ogier has won five rounds to Latvala's three in 2014, several of their battles have entered the top ten list of closest WRC decisions of all time. In 2011, Ogier beat Latvala by 0.2secs in Jordan, while Latvala came out on top of the other two entries, winning New Zealand by just 2.4secs in 2010 and Finland this year by 3.6secs.
While he has yet to triumph in Australia, the Finn admits to enjoying the annual trip 'down under'.
“Rally Australia is always something special,” he confirmed, “I like the relaxed way of life they have there, the countryside and how close this rally is to the ocean.
“From a sporting point of view, we are switching back from asphalt to gravel, which is always harder than the other way around. But we are doing a quick test in Finland before the rally to get used to the feeling once again, and in particular the different braking points.
“Finland is a good choice since the rally Down Under requires a vehicle set-up somewhere between the Rally Mexico and the Rally Finland. The first day, on which there are increasingly narrow, technical passages through the forest, is more like Mexico. The second day, with its wide, fast and drawn out passages, is more like Finland. So we need two different set-ups: a softer one and a harder one. It helps that the shakedown will be held on one of the special stages this time, just driving in the opposite direction. That will give us a feel for the actual track.”
Throwing away a chance to eat into Ogier's lead at the last round puts Latvala in a tougher spot heading to Australia, but the Finn remains confident of making inroads this time.
“Unfortunately we didn't manage to close the gap on my team-mate in the championship in Germany, so we're starting [Australia] in the same position,” he acknowledged, “I hope that I can fight for the win, but we also need to keep an eye on the competition outside of our team. I think that Citroën and Hyundai also have a good chance of winning.”
While Rally Australia, based around Coffs Harbour in the state of New South Wales, presents itself as a compact challenge, the special stages are all of varying character. Ultra-fast country roads alternate with narrow, twisted routes through dense forests, while blind entry points make life difficult for the drivers and their co-drivers. The event organisers have saved the most typical special stage of the Rally Australia for Sunday, when the rally action will take place to the north of Coffs Harbour on a test known fetchingly as 'Wedding Bells' despite being a demanding 9.23 kilometres in length. A second pass will be the power stage, where the top three are awarded bonus points.
“The Rally Australia suits me perfectly,” Ogier warned, “I love the layout of the special stages and always feel good 'down under'. 2013 was almost perfect for Julien and I, with 19 best times on 22 special stages, and the three bonus points for winning the power stage.
“Naturally, we want to repeat that this year, but that will be far from easy: We will be the first to take to the special stages on day one, and the competition is close and alert – Hyundai proved this with the win and second place in Germany. Mistakes are punished, we experienced that – but that's rallying for you. Rally Germany is behind us and we are looking ahead.
“Fortunately, Julien and I are totally fine after the accident. We had a few tests done to make sure, and the results were all positive. We secured the drivers' title for Volkswagen in Germany, but not the manufacturers' championship. That's definitely the goal for Australia.”