Ford seeks to extend reliability record Down Under. The final nine weeks of this season's FIA World Rally Championship could hardly be more gruelling with four rallies, two of which feature the longest journeys of the year, in the calendar. ...
Ford seeks to extend reliability record Down Under.
The final nine weeks of this season's FIA World Rally Championship could hardly be more gruelling with four rallies, two of which feature the longest journeys of the year, in the calendar. There has barely been time for the jet-lag to clear the system after Rally New Zealand earlier this month than Ford Rallye Sport is heading back to the far side of the world for Rally Australia (31 October - 3 November), the penultimate round of the 14-rally series.
However, there will be few complaints about the trip Down Under. The welcome in Perth is as warm as the summer sunshine which usually blesses the four-day gravel rally and organisers ensure that a mix of world class sport and top entertainment makes it a favourite with the teams.
Although both world titles were decided in New Zealand and Ford is assured of second in the manufacturers' series, there is still plenty to battle for on the final two rounds. The team is seeking to extend a remarkable reliability record with its Focus RS World Rally Car which has made it the only car to score points on every round of this year's championship. Furthermore, eight drivers can mathematically clinch the runners-up spot in the drivers' battle, including Ford's Colin McRae and team-mate Carlos Sainz.
McRae resumes his partnership with former co-driver Derek Ringer, with whom the 34-year-old won the 1995 world title. He has won twice in Australia and is keen to end his Ford career on a high by taking his personal tally of Focus wins into double figures.
"The Australian roads are similar to those in New Zealand, in that you can push to the limit without having to worry too much about large rocks," said McRae. "It's about keeping the car right for three days and driving flat out. The main differences between Australia and anywhere else are the road surface and the position of the trees. The roads have a hard base but are covered in millions of tiny stones which are slippery. This makes road position important because the early cars sweep the stones clear. The lower your position the better and anywhere higher than eight or nine isn't good.
"The trees are right on the edge of the road, with no ditch in between. If you make a mistake and run wide, it's difficult to get the car back on line on the slippery surface so it's easier to hit the trees than on other events. But it's not a problem unless you hit them!" he added.
The Rally Australia is one of the few world rallies that Sainz and co-driver Luis Moya have yet to win. However, the Spanish pair have finished second three times and third on two occasions.
"It's a high speed rally and an event where you can't really afford to make a mistake otherwise you are in the trees," said Sainz. "I learned that in 1991 when I had a big crash in Bunnings Forest. There's nothing especially difficult about the roads in that forest, and I don't think the stages there are that enjoyable to drive, but they are popular with the spectators. Although the titles are resolved, we've plenty to fight for as it's important to keep Ford's points-scoring record going."
Markko Märtin and Michael Park will bid to enhance their rising reputation in another Focus RS. In a season designated a learning year by team director Malcolm Wilson, the 26-year-old Estonian driver has been a consistent points scorer. This is his second Australian start.
"It's a unique rally because the surface is so different from anywhere else we compete during the season," said Märtin. "The roads are fast and narrow and if you step off line that's usually the end of your rally. The trees are close to the side of the track but there's no time to worry about things like that when you're driving flat out in a rally car. During the recce you sometimes think about things like that, so it's in the back of your mind before you start, but not during the stages.
"Our plan this year is to gain experience because I've only competed in Australia once before. Finishing is our main target and if we can do that in a points position, so much the better," he added.
Francois Duval and Jean-Marc Fortin will drive a fourth official Focus RS. The team will carry out a three-day test in Western Australia and the test car will then be re-built as the Belgians' entry car. "This is a good opportunity for me to gain more experience for next season," said Duval. "The more kilometres I can drive in a World Rally Car on world championship rounds, the more I will benefit in 2003."
In The Spotlight
The final day takes competitors to one of the sport's most famous locations. The SOTICO, forest complex, south-east of Perth, is more famously known by its previous name of Bunnings. Thousands of fans gather on the rugged hillsides close to the service park to watch the spectacular downhill roller-coaster jumps and watersplash which are used twice during the last four stages.
"There are certain stages during the season on which you tend to have a bit more fun and this section is certainly one of those," said McRae. "The double jump just before the river crossing is very severe. It's pretty dramatic from both the outside and the inside of the car. We're in fourth or fifth gear doing about 110kph when we take off over the first jump and the landing after the second jump can be equally dramatic because the road falls away."
If the pressure is off on the final day, McRae's Focus RS will certainly be worth watching on these jumps. In the past the daredevil Scot enjoyed a private bet with brother Alister to see who could launch their car the highest!
There are several changes to the format this year. Drivers make the long journey south of Perth on the opening leg, with a new service park at Dwellingup instead of Harvey. The traditional opening day stages east of the city now comprise leg two, the longest of the event, with a new service area at Chidlow replacing Mundaring. However, the final leg in the SOTICO forest complex remains unchanged. Before all this, the famous Langley Park super special stage, overlooking the city's Swan River, opens the competition on Thursday evening when around 20,000 fans will generate a tremendous atmosphere at the purpose-built floodlit test. It will be repeated at the end of both the first and second legs. There are 24 stages in total, covering 388.64km in a route of 1571.98km. In the absence of the 45km Wellington Dam test, this year's longest will be the 38.93km Stirling East in the first leg.