Rally Australia - Preview
1 September 2009
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:
"I am very much looking forward to the Australian east coast rally experience. The stages will be new to everyone, so we are all in the same position to give it our best shot and get the most out of the challenge. I have great confidence in my car and the team, so I just need to prove that I can perform on the unknown stages."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally team:
[Matthew Wilson, car #5 and Henning Solberg, car #6]
"It's a completely new rally so it's going to be really exciting but with 35 stages it's going to be a pretty challenging weekend for us. We haven't seen a rally with that many stages for a while so it's definitely going to be different. I have done Rally Australia before, but it will be a new experience for Scott [Martin] and being in a new venue it will be a great challenge for us both as a team. From what we have heard that are some great, flowing stages, with wide, fast roads so I'm really looking forward to seeing them on the recce."
"I really enjoy the fast gravel rallies and from competing in Australia before I know that I enjoy it there. I had an accident there last time so I really don't want a repeat of that. I hope that I can achieve another top-five finish as, with Petter not competing in Australia, that would help my position in the drivers' standings; so I need to make the most of his absence and score good points. I have had a lot of bad luck recently, and I know that anything can happen, but I hope that it is my turn to have some good luck."
Citroen Junior Team:
[Conrad Rautenbach, car #8, and Sebastien Ogier, car #12]
"We really don't know what will be waiting for us as we head off to the recce. We've never rallied in this part of Australia before and it seems that the conditions will be very different from how they were in Perth. On the east coast, the stages are likely to be wider and quicker, a bit like they are in New Zealand or Finland. It's the sort of thing that I think I will like. There are several stages and the long final day could be tricky. I can't wait to get there now because Australia is a place I absolutely love!"
"Myself, Julien [Ingrassia] and the rest of the team are now reaping the rewards of all the hard work we have put in since the start of the season. I'm feeling more and more comfortable with the C4 WRC and I can't wait to get back into it for my first Rally Australia. For once we do not begin with a lack of experience compared to the other drivers. It's just an event like any other for us. And the main objective is also the same as we have on all the other rallies: we need to be there at the finish."
Munchi's Ford WRT:
[Federico Villagra, car #9]
"Rally Finland was tough because we did not have much experience of racing there, but everyone will be in the same situation in Australia as it is a brand new rally. The car has been working well so it should be very exciting and I am looking forward to the challenge. We have not seen the stages yet, but I hear that the stages are very good, with hard, fast gravel roads which I enjoy driving on. Our road position is very good for the first day and I think this will be a big help for us. We only have two rallies left in the WRC this year so I hope that we can score points in both of them and end our season on a high note."
Production Car WRC:
Round 7 of 8 – Title fight heads to Australia.
The battle for this year's Production Car World Rally Championship will reach an intriguing stage on the Rally Australia this weekend with six drivers still in with a chance of winning the title.
However, the standings will remain provisional regardless of the result in Australia pending a hearing at the FIA International Court of Appeal regarding the result of round six (at a date to be confirmed).
Championship leader Armindo Araujo has made a strategic switch, using a different entry which enables him to contest Rally Australia instead of Rally GB, whilst his main rival Nasser Al-Attiyah has to pass this event owing to other motorsport commitments with the Volkswagen off-road team.
Araujo has provisionally taken the lead in the P-WRC after Al-Attiyah was excluded from the results of the Acropolis Rally of Greece [June 12-14] - a decision which Al-Attiyah's team has subsequently appealed.
Knowing that Al-Attiyah could not compete in Australia, Araujo is using the Errani Team Group [car #39] entry in an attempt to score points whilst his nearest rival is absent. If Araujo wins in Australia and Al-Attiyah loses his appeal, Araujo will be FIA Production Car World Rally Champion - but if Araujo wins and Al-Attiyah's appeal is successful, Al-Attiyah can finish second on the final round, Rally GB, and still win the title. Rally Australia is Araujo's sixth and final points-scoring opportunity and so he is ineligible to score further points in GB.
The tactic of competing under more than one team entry during a season is perfectly within the rules and is one that several drivers have taken advantage of this year - including Al Attiyah, who competed under the Autotek JM Enginnering [car #44] team entry in Cyprus, when the Qatari driver recognised a new VW off-road contract, signed after pre-season PWRC event nominations had been lodged, meant he couldn't take up his Barwa Rally Team [car #50] entry in Australia.
Eyvind Brynildsen, Martin Prokop and Toshi Arai, who are fourth, fifth and sixth respectively in the P-WRC, can still win the title and will be aiming for nothing less than victory in Australia.
Third placed Patrik Sandell, who won the opening two rounds of this year's P-WRC, will not contest Rally Australia, but will be hoping that a favourable result will keep him in the title hunt, come the final round of the series.
In addition to the Championship contenders, there will also be five new faces on this year's P WRC start list in Australia. Three times FIA Asia-Pacific Rally champion Cody Crocker and four times Australian Rally champion Neil Bates will both be 'guest' drivers, while double New Zealand Rally champion Richard Mason, Pirelli Star Driver hopeful Chao-dong Liu and former P-WRC points-scorer Stewart Taylor will all compete. Bates will give the new Toyota Auris Super 2000 (a model known as Corolla in Europe) its global debut in Australia, subject to an FIA homologation inspection prior to the event.
The rally organisers have also elevated local drivers Brendan Reeves (car #53), Steven Shepheard (car# 54) and Nathan Quinn (car #55) to priority status running amidst the P-WRC start numbers, but these competitors are ineligible for P-WRC points.
Other significant entries:
44 crews due to start.
A field of around 44 cars is set to take part, including 27 international entries. In total the drivers' will represent 16 countries and drive seven different brands of car.
Rally Australia chairman Alan Evans is confident the event will be a success: “Repco Rally Australia is going to showcase the world's best rally drivers and cars and the magnificent natural beauty and attractions of the Tweed and Kyogle shires,” he stated. “It will be an unforgettable experience for spectators and a major boost for the local economy, which has never experienced an event of this significance. Tens of millions of people around the world will follow it on nightly television.”
The rally is based in Kingscliff, on the Tweed Coast, which will also host the service park. The stages will all be based in the Tweed and Kyogle shires to the south-west. Two passes of an asphalt super special stage around the streets of Murwillumbah begin the action on Thursday and will also end the competition on Friday and Saturday.
The opening leg is the shortest, with much of the action based close to Murwillumbah, before Saturday's route takes competitors further west for stages clustered around Kyogle. The final leg is the longest, journeying west of Kyogle with a remote service based in the town's main street. A live TV stage ends the action before the finish back in Kingscliff. Drivers tackle 35 stages covering 344.72km of competition in a route of 1733.75km.
Mikko Hirvonen won the last Rally Australia, 37.1 seconds up on Petter Solberg, however that was back in 2006 and then of course the event was based in Perth. Manfred Stohl completed the top three in '06, followed by Xavier Pons, Marcus Gronholm and Jari-Matti Latvala. Sebastien Loeb did not compete in the event as he was out injured following a mountain bike accident.