The penultimate round of the 2002 World Rally Championship, Telstra Rally Australia, begins this Thursday 31 October when 75 cars are expected to cross the ceremonial start ramp in the rally's host town of Perth.

Following Rally New Zealand earlier this month, it's the second time in four weeks that teams will be crossing the globe to contest a round of the WRC.

Normally contested in warm sunshine and renowned as one of the most popular rounds in the championship, the Australian Rally is notorious for its unforgiving, slippery, tree-lined gravel stages. The event's loose surfaces demand absolute accuracy from the drivers, while the FIA's current WRC starting system mean that crews will be driving flat out from the outset in order to secure an advantageous running position for legs two and three and avoid 'road-sweeping' for those running further behind.

Comprising 24 stages and 389 competitive kilometres, the four-day event starts with a 2.2km blast around Langley Park in the centre of Perth, which is widely considered to be the best Super Special Stage of the season. Legs one and two will then be contested to the south and east of the host town, before the final day takes the competitors to the famous Sotico complex, south-east of the city, for some of the most spectacular jumps in the championship.

With four service parks for this event, teams will be based around Dwellingup for leg one and Chidlow for leg two, before moving to Sotico for the final day's action. An area at Langley Park will also be used for the service after each Super Special on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Rally HQ will be based at the Sheraton Hotel in Perth.

Although Peugeot Sport mathematically wrapped up both the manufacturers and drivers titles in New Zealand, the battle is still raging for second place in the drivers championship and seven drivers remain within striking distance. Contenders include 555 Subaru World Rally drivers Tommi Makinen and Petter Solberg.

The 555 Subaru World Rally Team has entered two Subaru Impreza WRC2002's in the event, to be piloted by team regulars, Makinen and Solberg. Both are nominated to score manufacturers points for the team.

Makinen has won in Australia twice before and will therefore be looking to improve on his third-place podium position scored in New Zealand earlier this month.

"I am very much looking forward to Australia - it is one of the best events for me and in the past it has been very enjoyable," said Makinen. "I have been taking it easy since I got back from New Zealand so that I can go to Australia totally relaxed - especially as jet lag can be a problem with these kind of events.

"I have been spending time at home and have been out on my motorbike a bit. I am hoping that we can find a little more performance so that we can finish off the season well. I want to do even better than I did in New Zealand."

Solberg finished seventh last year, collecting valuable manufacturer points for Subaru. Following the disappointment of retiring in the last but one stage in NZ while running second, Solberg is hoping for better this weekend.

"After doing so well in Legs one and two of New Zealand, I can't put into words how disappointed I was after what happened, but unfortunately that is life sometimes," commented Solberg. "Since New Zealand, I have spent some time in Australia and have been testing with [my co-driver Phil [Mills]. We're working to get the set-up of the car just right for the rally, especially after our promising stage times at the last event. We want to go for a win here but I am realistic about what is possible against the performance of the Peugeots - anyway, we will go for it and see what happens!"

Subaru World Rally Team Principal David Lapworth added: "Australia is an event that suits the Impreza well so I hope that we will enjoy a more level playing field in Australia, and that there will not be so much of a gap between Peugeots and the rest of the teams. The stages are fast with a gravel surface and our road position on leg one should be advantageous - Tommi and Petter should avoid road sweeping.

"The corners are very technical, short and twisty. We showed what we could do on this kind of surface in New Zealand and I am confident we can do even better in Australia.

"There are some small performance enhancing revisions on the car for Australia but there will be no big evolutions for the remaining two events - the set up is very similar to New Zealand. The next jump forward you will see will be with the WRC2003 next year."

Between the Rallies...

After New Zealand, Makinen made a stop at Nurburgring in Germany to do some track driving in the recently unveiled 2003 Impreza road car before returning home to Finland for a well earned rest. His team-mate Solberg also went home for a few days and then travelled back across the globe to take a holiday with his family in Australia.

He joined the team for the pre-event test last Friday andclocking up some miles at the wheel of the Subaru Impreza WRC2002 test car. Makinen took over driving duties on Saturday and Sunday.

Meanwhile, the 555 Subaru World Rally Team has been busy testing the Subaru Impreza WRC2003 prototype development car in Spain. Rally driver Paolo Andreucci and test driver Pasi Hagstrom shared driving duties in the week-long test, which was the first opportunity that the 555 Subaru team had had to test the prototype since it was introduced at the Paris Motorshow in September. The team has successfully completed tests with a revised engine and cooling package, aerodynamics, set-up and tyres.

SWRT driver, Toshihiro Arai got in some extra competition practise when he participated in the Alpine Rally in Japan last weekend. Together with co-driver Tony Sircombe, the Japanese ace notched up 22 out of 24 stage wins and took overall victory for the second consecutive year on the event.