The World Rally Championship makes its hotly-anticipated return to Australia for the first time since 2006 this week.
With a new Gold Coast venue 4000 kilometres east of its previous home in Perth, the revamped rally will provide a new challenge for all of the 44 entered crews, with a staggering 35 stages, more than any other rally this season, included on the itinerary.
The new-look event will be based around the Tweed and Kyogle Shires in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.
A beach-front Service Park in the town of Kingscliff will act as the base for the teams, while the 344.72kms of competitive stages will take place on the loose gravel roads of the region producing a high-speed spectacle for the Australian fans.
The new format includes an exciting sealed-surface Super Special Stage where three cars at a time will run on the 2.55km course bringing the thrilling spectacle of night time rallying to the town of Murwillumbah on three nights of the rally. With two passes over the stage on the opening night it will be the first time that a rally has run two stages on a Thursday evening this season.
Drivers will only begin to develop an understanding of the characteristics of the gravel roads once the recce begins on Tuesday. However the average special stage length is the shortest in the series, reflecting the rally's proximity to populated areas where gravel roads are less frequent.
The tests vary greatly, ranging from narrow and twisty routes among trees near Kingscliff that are used during the first leg, to quick, wide and smooth roads further west where speeds are expected to be close to those experienced in Finland, the championship's fastest round. The most westerly roads, used during the final leg, incorporate narrow rainforest tracks.
Each loop of stages has a mix of roads so selecting the best compromise set-up will be important.
FIA World Rally Championship:
Pre-event quotes from the drivers':
Citroen Total WRT:
[Sebastien Loeb, car #1 and Daniel Sordo, car #2]
"Our goal is to win, or at least finish ahead of Mikko Hirvonen. As the situation stands at the moment, the way the championship finishes is in my hands. If I win the last three rallies, I will be the World Champion. My mission will become somewhat more complex, however, if Mikko beats me just once! This weekend's event promises to be extremely close because Mikko is particularly strong on fast gravel, especially when the stages are new to everyone. The way recce goes will be vital, not only in terms of the precision of our pacenotes but also regarding the quality of the information we are able to provide the team in order to decide on the best set-up for the start. I feel rested after the recent four-week break and I have nothing against this sort of relaxed rhythm, but it is always a little bit harder to get back into the swing after a month without driving competitively."
"I always enjoy discovering new places. Australia is a dream for many because there are few destinations which are further away from Europe. I can't wait to get back behind the wheel of my car. Even though I've been enjoying myself since Rally Finland, I never tire of driving my C4! I only contested Rally Australia once when it was based in Perth, and I don't have a particularly fond memory of that because my gearbox broke on the first stage. I really don't know what to expect this time round, although I do know that the stages won't be carpeted with the small round stones which used to make the Perth-based event so difficult. As usual, I will try to go as quickly as possible! Citroën has a lead of 14 points in the Manufacturers' World Championship standings and my objective in Australia will be to keep the same sort of gap in order to ease the pressure going into the last two rounds. Obviously, if the situation arises, I will also do all I can to help Seb in his bid to win the Driver's title."
BP Ford Abu Dhabi WRT:
[Mikko Hirvonen, car #3 and Jari-Matti Latvala, car #4 and Khalid Al Qassimi, car #15]
"This is a brand new rally so I don't know what to expect. The roads in the west where I won in 2006 are different to those we will experience here. The tracks were covered in slippery marble-like stones but I understand these roads are more traditional gravel, which should suit me. I love Australia, the people are friendly and easy going - like me! It's a crucial rally for the championship. I will try to win but if I can't, then I must score as many points as possible. Zero points and the title fight could be over for me this year. I have a good record on new rallies, although I don't feel I do anything differently in either the recce or the rally itself. But I'll be happy if I can maintain that record."
"They are long days and it will be important to adapt quickly to the time difference after the flight there and sleep a lot to be ready for this rally. Maintaining concentration will be harder than usual. In most rallies the stages are held in groups of three, but it's different here. The opening section on the first leg includes seven tests so it will be important to remain focused during the long liaison sections. Shorter stages usually mean the competition is close because it's more difficult to open big time gaps on short tests than it is on longer sections. The drivers' championship is looking set for an exciting finish and my job in Australia will be to score solid points to help Mikko maintain his challenge for the title."
Khalid Al Qassimi: