McRae and Ford face up to challenge Down Under
After a gruelling year of round the globe travel, the Ford Martini World Rally team makes its final overseas journey of the season to one of the most difficult events in the FIA World Rally Championship. The Rally Australia (4-7 November), penultimate event in the 14-round series, is a firm favourite with all involved but offers one of the toughest technical challenges of the campaign for Ford drivers Colin McRae and Thomas Rådström in their Focus World Rally Cars.
McRae and co-driver Nicky Grist have plenty of experience 'down under' but Rådström and co-driver Fred Gallagher will be tackling the four-day rally for the first time together and sampling the hazards so prevalent on the dusty gravel tracks in the Western Australian countryside.
The difficulties centre on the road surface. Millions of tiny ball-bearing stones cover the tracks, making conditions very slippery. Added to this, unforgiving trees lie close to the edge of the roads, with few ditches separating track and trees to provide a safety net for those who err.
"It can be very difficult on that type of surface because once the car starts to slip and slide on the stones, it's very hard to stop it before hitting something solid," said 31-year-old McRae. "Many of the stages are quite narrow so there's not a lot of room to sort things out if you do make a mistake and slide off the driving line. The roads put a lot of emphasis on driving ability.
"I'm looking forward to the rally for several reasons. I always enjoy Australia and I think the Ford Focus should be quite suited to those stages. It has proved very stable on the fast sections during the year and in Australia there are many sections like that," added the Scot, winner of the rally in 1994 and 1997.
McRae has a reputation for being the most spectacular driver over the famous jumps in Bunnings Forest during the final leg, where the cars fly higher than at any other point in the world championship season. "It's dramatic from both the outside and the inside of the car," he said. "We're actually in fifth gear doing about 70 miles per hour when we take off and there's always a lot of air between the car and the ground.
Although Rådström has never competed on the rally, its reputation has certainly reached him. "Everyone I speak to tells me what a good rally it is on which to drive. After the disappointment of our early retirement in China, I'm keen to get back in the Focus and see for myself how tricky the stages are. The team has a full test scheduled before the rally so that should help me to become acclimatised to the car on stages similar to those used in the rally," said the Swede.
Team director Malcolm Wilson's hopes of a good run in Australia will be boosted by a revised engine in McRae's Focus. "We'll have a new specification engine for Colin which we had planned to run in Sanremo. We weren't happy with various aspects in Italy so we chose not to go ahead but since then we've addressed those matters and feel confident about using the new unit in Australia. Thomas' car will retain the same specification engine as was used in Italy," he said.
The Rally Australia features the introduction of an intriguing system designed to allow the top drivers to choose their restart position to gain the best of the road conditions for the stages. At the end of both the first and second legs the leading drivers will be invited to select their running position for the following day, the first choice going to the rally leader, followed by the second-placed driver and so on.
The small stones which cover the gravel tracks hinder the early cars who unwittingly sweep the road clear to the benefit of those running further back. By allowing the drivers to choose their restart position, it will enable them to run lower down the order and enjoy the better conditions.
Furthermore, the higher a driver's position in the overall classification, the more he is rewarded by the system. The temptation to slow down on the final stage of a leg or deliberately incur additional time penalties to drop down the leaderboard and gain a better restart position is removed under the new idea.
Based a few kilometres from the warming influence of the Indian Ocean, the rally heads into the Western Australian outback for the bulk of its stages. The opening leg travels east of Perth for stages around the historic town of York and Mundaring. The event heads south for the other two days, the second leg for tests around the small towns of Harvey and Collie with the final leg based in Bunnings Forest, where the finish will be held.
The spectacular Langley Park super special, nestling in downtown Perth on the banks of the Swan River, provides a dramatic opening to the event on the Thursday evening. Cars race each other around a purpose-built floodlit track with huge crowds roaring on their favourites around the twists and over the jumps. The stage is repeated at the end of the legs on both Friday and Saturday. Drivers face 23 stages in all, covering almost 400km in a total route of 1424km. Leg 2, containing more than 160km of stages, is the longest and most difficult of the rally, including the fearsome 45km Wellington Dam, the longest of the event. The rally ends with a short stage in Bunnings Forest, which is televised live across the Australia and which incorporates the famous jumps and watersplash.
ROUND 13 FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP, 4 - 7 NOVEMBER 1999
Thursday 4 November: Superspecial Langley Park
Start Langley Park 18.30 SS1 Langley Park 2.20km 18.42 Finish Langley Park 18.58 Total 2.20km
Friday 5 November: Leg 1 cont. Perth - Perth
Start Perth 07.00 SS2 York Railway 5.30km 08.42 SS3 Muresk 1 6.81km 09.17 SS4 Muresk 2 6.81km 09.28 SS5 Beraking 28.59km 11.21 SS6 Atkins 1 4.42km 12.17 SS7 Kevs 10.18km 13.40 SS8 Flynns 34.01km 14.04 SS9 Helena 30.05km 15.43 SS10 Atkins 2 4.42km 16.20 SS11 Langley Park 2 2.20km 19.22 Finish Perth 20.13 Total 132.79km
Saturday 6 November: Leg 2 Perth - Perth
Start Perth 06.00 SS12 Murray Pines 1 18.53km 07.46 SS13 Harvey Weir 8.19km 09.04 SS14 Stirling West 15.89km 10.04 SS15 Stirling East 35.48km 10.27 SS16 Wellington Dam 45.42km 12.41 SS17 Brunswick 16.63km 14.29 SS18 Murray Pines 2 18.53km 16.16 SS19 Langley Park 3 2.20km 19.29 Finish Perth 20.20 Total 160.87km
Sunday 7 November: Leg 3 Perth - Perth
Start Perth 05.45 SS20 Bunnings West 35.29km 07.32 SS21 Bunnings North 36.84km 08.52 SS22 Bunnings South 25.16km 10.42 SS23 Live TV Stage 2.73km 12.30 Finish Bunnings 13.44 Total 102.75km
Rally total 398.61km