Rally Australia is over for another year, and the Network Q Rally of Great Britain awaits. What it does not have is a championship to decide. All the FIA World Rally Championships were decided here in Australia this weekend, with a new winner of the event, 28 year old Englishman Richard Burns, together with Scotsman Robert Reid and their Prodrive prepared Subaru Impreza WRC99.
The Subaru driver chose to start the final leg of the rally eighth on the road for the famous Bunnings stages, which meant that his closest rival, Spanish combination Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya in one of the last two Corolla WRC's to be built by TTE would start immediately ahead on the road. The satges woudl be dry and dusty, and they are longish and fast, with soem sectiosn with trees right beside the road, and some open sections. Sainz immediately took the advantage this morning with a fastest time over the 35.29km Bunnings East stage, but had to give second best to Burns over the next one - Bunnings North. The pair had been separated by all of one second overnight, but the flying Burns had taken ten seconds off Sainz on the next one. Sainz realised early on in the stage that the diff setting switch was disconnected, causing a handling drama, and he said later that he felt that 'any small problem during a WRC event these days really puts you behind quickly.' The battle was won, but was the war?
Sainz set the fastest time over the next stage, the 25.16km Bunnings South, but the British team set a time all of 0.1 of a sec slower! So with only the 2.73km Michelin TV stage to go, the war was to go to Burns and Reid, as they set another stage time 0.1 secs slower than Sainz, and entertained the crowd down the famous jumps and through the watersplash that sits all of a couple of hundred metres away from the finish of the event. 'We are really happy to win here' said co driver Reid later. 'You have to be so committed to everything in Australia and we did it this year.'
Harri Rovanpera was putting his case forward for a drive somewhere at least next year by setting a string of third fastest times today, as he looked towards the one point place that was being ably held by fellow Finn Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen in the sensational Peugeot 206WRC, on their first Rally Australia. However, Gronholm would remain in front, but this did not mean that Rovanpera would not win a point, as Swede Thomas Radstrom dropped back to seventh in the remaining Ford Focus WRC.
The Mitsubishi team had a quiet day on the stages, with Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets taking the day as it came, consolidating their fourth place and playing rear gunner to Tommi Makinen and Risto Mannisenmaki's title bid. And it worked. The quiet Finn clinched his fourth straight world title by putting the Driver's Championship in his pocket before the final round.Tommi related later that the title meant a lot to him, however he believed that the most satisfying one was the one he clinched here by winning Rally Australia emphatically in 1996. Tommi now heads into the Rally GB 'confident that I can drive to my capabilities and not have any championship pressures on my head. I might then be able to do something about these guys that go so fast there.'
The Group N and F2 leaders were squabbling for most of the day over seconds, looking for the advantage over the other. Toshihiro Arai and Roger Freeman in their Impreza were chasing Kenneth Eriksson and Staffan Parmander in their Hyundai Coupe Kit Car. They ended up winning their respective classes and were seperated by near on nine seconds, with the Japanese Subaru driver in front, in an impressive eighth outright. However, the F2 title appears to have gone to Renault as the VW Golf GTi Mk4 of Mark Higgins and Brian Thomas held out the second Hyundai Coupe Kit Car of Alister McRae and David Senior by a minute and a half. This means that they cannot beat Renault for the title, as Martin Rowe and Derek Ringer made sure of second F2 today. He lost a little time to Eriksson today, but it made little difference. Eriksson and Parmander ended the rally a little over thirty seconds in front of Ordynski. Third was the overnight Group N leader, Owe Nittel and Klaus Wicha in their Evo 5 Lancer. The pair hit a rock on SS21 and stopped to check for damage, but all seemed well apart from a steering problem. But he damage was done time wise.
Following the spectacular and consistent Arai and Freeman home in Group N was the Aussie Group N master, Ed Ordynski and Iain Stewart in their Lancer Evo 5. Ed had a puncture on day that cost him around a minute and a half, and they were only seperated by 40 seconds at the finish. 'I am quite happy with the fact that we were on the top Group N pace for the whole event.' said Ed after the finish. 'We seemed to have Cody's measure, and we had the speed, if not the luck after our puncture to win.' Third in Group N was the overnight leader, Owe Nittel and Klaus Wicha, who hit a rock in thier Lancer Evo 5 on SS22. 'We had to stop and check the damage, which wasn't too bad, but the steering was not right' advised Nittel later. However, the damage had been done on the timesheets.
The World Rally circus now moves back to the northern hemisphere for the fourteenth round of the WRC, the Network Q Rally of Great Britain, in two weeks time.