Fresh start in Rally Australia for Ford Abu Dhabi drivers
[This] week's new-look Rally Australia (8 - 11 September) offers a step into the unknown for Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team's drivers. A new base at Coffs Harbour, on the northern coast of New South Wales, means Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila must quickly get to grips with roads never seen before in the FIA World Rally Championship.
The pre-event recce on Tuesday and Wednesday will be key to their preparations for this 10th round of the series. The crews will have just two limited-speed passes over the gravel special stages, a mix of forest tracks and public roads in the countryside near Coffs Harbour, in which to make and refine their pace notes.
In June tyre engineer George Black visited the area, almost halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, on a fact-finding trip to ensure the team is as well-prepared as possible before its arrival on Australia's eastern coast.
"There is a mix of hard base roads, some tight and twisty and others that are fast and flowing," he said. "Some parts closely resemble the countryside in which the rally used to be held in Western Australia. Other areas are similar to the famous Whaanga Coast stage in New Zealand, with dense rainforest vegetation.
"The public (shire) roads are well-maintained, with trees close the edge of the road in many places. If drivers put a wheel off-line it will be easy to hit one. Most stages travel through dense forest, so the low angle of the sun in mornings and evenings could be tricky. It creates a 'strobe-like' effect as it flashes through the branches and it could be hard to read the road," added Black.
Coffs Harbour is the hub of a thriving banana industry and the home of Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe. It is a fast-growing holiday city, nestled between the Great Dividing Range, Australia's largest mountain region, and the golden beaches of the Pacific Ocean. But the scenery will be the last thing on Hirvonen's mind when he takes to the wheel of his Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car.
"When competing on a new rally it's essential to learn quickly," said the 31-year-old Finn. "Accuracy when making pace notes is important because we only have one run in which to make them and a second pass to check them. But getting a feel for the characteristics of the roads is equally vital.
Hirvonen won Rally Australia's last two appearances in the championship in 2006, his maiden WRC success, and 2009. "A hat-trick would be a welcome conclusion to the weekend. I'm looking forward to being back on gravel after the asphalt in Germany. I enjoy Australia and the rally usually has a relaxed feel which helps with the preparation," added Hirvonen, who is third in the drivers' standings.
Latvala lies fourth in the points table and has three previous starts in Australia to his name. Fourth place in 2009 is his best result. The 26-year-old Finn also relishes a return to gravel and believes he can relieve the frustrations of a disappointing weekend at Rallye Deutschland last month.
"I enjoy fast gravel rallies and I want to be fighting for victory next weekend," he said. "There have been some frustrating times this year because we've lost rallies by small margins, but we know the Fiesta RS WRC is competitive and I'm confident we can turn that around. Australia would be the perfect place to start.
"We're going to a new location and that means the preparations must be slightly different. After the recce we'll take a close look at our videos of the stages. When I've competed on stages several times before, the roads are fixed in my memory, so there's not so much to learn from watching the videos. But on new roads there's always a benefit to watching them. It helps develop an understanding of the characteristics of the stages," added Latvala.
Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team's other Fiesta RS WRC and the duo are nominated to score for Team Abu Dhabi. This will be Al Qassimi's third Rally Australia and he is aware that a sensible approach will be required over new roads.
"I understand the stages will be of a different nature to those we drove in 2009. The weather forecast indicates showers during the rally and on hard-based roads conditions could be slippery. The key is to find a balance of good pace in the dry, and a compromise of speed and safety if it's wet. Missing a braking point on slippery roads can lead to an overshoot or worse," said Al Qassimi.
- Michelin's Latitude Cross gravel tyre will be used by the Ford Abu Dhabi drivers and will be available in hard compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the tyres and each car can carry two spare wheels.
- Four privately-entered Fiesta RS WRCs are also entered. Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin and Evgeny Novikov / Denis Giraudet are nominated by the M-Sport Stobart Ford team, which has also entered Henning Solberg / Ilka Minor. Monster World Rally Team's Ken Block / Alex Gelsomino will also be at the wheel of a Fiesta RS WRC.
- The Ford Abu Dhabi Fiesta RS WRCs will carry roof liveries voted for by Ford fans on the team's Facebook page. The drivers were asked to describe their driving style and approach to rallies, which generated the image of a predator. An associated theme was developed for each driver, with Latvala adopting a bear, Hirvonen taking on a wolf and Al Qassimi assuming a falcon. Ford's Facebook users then selected their favourite artwork for each driver to be displayed on the cars.
- Mikko Hirvonen will visit Ford's stand at Frankfurt Motor Show later this month. Hirvonen will give driving demonstrations in a Fiesta RS WRC around the Blue Oval's outdoor display area as well as meeting fans and signing autographs on the stand on Friday 16 and Saturday 17 September.
The rally is based around the single service park at Coffs Harbour Airport. It begins with two passes over a mixed surface super special stage at the city's Jetty Precinct on Thursday evening, stages which are repeated at the end of both Friday and Saturday. The first full day on Friday heads west for tests around the small town of Ulong. Saturday is the longest day of the rally, journeying south of Coffs Harbour for stages in the Nambucca and Bellingen shires. Sunday's final leg heads north to the Clarence Valley shire before the finish in the heart of Coffs Harbour. Drivers tackle 26 stages covering 368.96km in a route of 1246.78km.