Telstra Rally Australia is the thirteenth and penultimate round of the 2002 FIA World Rally Championship.

The main challenge of this smooth gravel event is the rapidly cleaning road surfaces, covered by unique bauxite stones, which have the characteristic of ball bearings.

Both FIA World Rally Championships for Manufacturers and for Drivers were settled at the Propecia Rally New Zealand, leaving the FIA Production Car World Championship to be settled in Australia.

The attention now focuses on the championship race between the smaller three teams, Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Skoda, currently separated by only one point.

Peugeot will enter three cars, with Marcus Gronholm and Richard Burns being joined by Harri Rovanpera.

Life has been very busy for the new World Champion Gronholm since New Zealand with appearances in Paris as well as testing in Britain, between moments enjoying home life. He told journalists at a press conference in Finland: "My name isn't Michael Schumacher. I am not going to let my team-mate Richard Burns win in Australia just because I am now the champion again. He will have to fight for himself!"

During pre-event testing on Thursday October 24th, Burns crashed into a tree and badly damaged the 206 WRC test car. The crew were unhurt, but original plans to re-prepare the same car for Gilles Panizzi to drive on the event have been cancelled. Panizzi will therefore not take part.

Ford will have four cars competing in Oz, with a non-nominated entry driven by Francois Duval linking up with regulars Carlos Sainz, Markko Martin and Colin McRae.

McRae will also a have a new co-driver. Out goes Nicky Grist and in comes Derek Ringer. Ringer returns as co-driver to McRae following their success in 1995 together when they won the world championship.

Ford will also - fortunately considering the team's series of mishaps in New Zealand - have a different set of cars.

At Mitsubishi Alister McRae is again absence following his mountain biking accident prior to Rally Sanremo. Team Director John Easton noted: "This problem could not have come at a worse time for Alister. This event had always been one of his favourites."

Jani Paasonen, who will have a new car for this event following his accident in NZ, will thus join Francois Delecour.

Mitsubishi have the unenviable distinction of being the only team in which its drivers have still not scored World Championship drivers' points. Something Delecour and Paasonen will be hoping to do something about this weekend.

Subaru will have no third entry. Petter Solberg's sudden engine failure near the end of Rally New Zealand has been assigned to piston failure by the team.

Since New Zealand Prodrive has been active in Spain with test drivers Paolo Andreucci and Pasi Hagstrom carrying out initial development work on the 2003 version car. Tommi Makinen meanwhile has been carrying out road car development work on the new car at Nurburgring, Germany. Both Makinen and Solberg though will have to make do with the 2002 version this weekend.

At Skoda both Kenneth Eriksson and Toni Gardemister will be keen to do well. There will be few changes to the Octavia but Rally Australia is a very important occasion for the team. The Australian national VAG importers have started a new initiative for their domestic production car sales activities, which is to be based around World Rally Championship activities, and this event is a focal point for the launch of this campaign.

This is one of Eriksson's favourite events and seems he was outright winner in 1995 with Mitsubishi and Formula 2 winner for Hyundai in 1999, it all bodes well for a good result.

Hyundai will have three cars in action, driven by Armin Schwarz, Freddy Loix and Juha Kankkunen.

Detailed electronic development continues even since NZ, particularly in differential work. Together with engine development aimed at improving bottom end performance, the team has seen noticeable improvement especially in traction in the second half of the year.

Citreon will not be competing in this event, however the Spanish dealer team Piedrafita Sport has entered Sebastien Loeb in an Xsara World Rally Car (car no 25), which is the official Citroen team's gravel test car.

In the Production Car World Championship one of three drivers will be crowned champion at the end of this event. Malaysian driver Karamjit Singh leads the series by just two points. His healthy lead before New Zealand was eroded when he retired. Chris Mellors, the team's chief engineer noted: "A new unit was fitted before the event started, and we discovered the gearbox output shaft had been manufactured with the wrong material."

Singh meanwhile has been competing in China, the penultimate event in the FIA Asia Pacific Championship series where he gained an unbeatable lead in the series. Championship success in Australia will make Karamjit only the second driver ever to win two major FIA rally titles the same year (previously it was Carlos Sainz in 1990).

Kristian Sohlberg is also in with a chance of the title. He commented: "Our car had to be completely re-prepared after New Zealand. It is still on the boat, and we will only have five days after the boat arrives to get ready for the rally."

The third contender is Peruvian Ramon Ferreyros. He said: "Having had engine failures on the last two events, I am praying for better luck. My only hope to be champion is to win the category and that also depends on bad luck for both of the other two."

Back again in Australia is Ferreyros' Italian teammate Alex Fiorio, the only European driver on the 2002 event who also competed on the first Rally Australia, in 1988: "I will never forget the welcome we got," noted Fiorio. "Half of Italy seemed to live in Western Australia!"

Top Run will be running no fewer than six cars including Marcos Ligato in a Evo VII, and also the ex-New Zealand car run by Ligato, which has now been sold to Australian driver Martin Lintott. All 14 drivers still eligible for the championship are due to take part in this event - and all of them have scored at least two points in the series so far this year.

Of the other top runners in Oz Polish driver Tomasz Kuchar's Toyota is the only entry in the 'manufacturer supported' category.

Australia's national rally championship is run to Group N rules, and this event is the last round for the series. Notwithstanding that the title has already been won, Australia's top drivers have all entered this event, headed by the now-seven times Australian champion Possum Bourne, who is in fact a New Zealander!

Unlike New Zealand, Group N cars are very popular in Australia. Group N is expected to be a hard fought category, notwithstanding the additional presence for the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship drivers. Official Subaru drivers Bourne and Cody Crocker will vie with their counterpart Mitsubishi drivers Ed Ordynski and Spencer Lowndes, with privateers Simon Evans and Dean Herridge challenging them. Ordynski has already won the Group N category on Rally Australia eight times, Crocker has been Australia Group N champion for the last four years.

So who will take the outright win this year? Peugeot will obviously be favourites but it's a long event and anything could and probably will happen... Can Marcus Gronholm take his third win in Australia in succession? Watch this space for complete coverage of the Telstra Rally Australia.