Ford flies Down Under for Outback title battle The yearlong fight for the drivers and manufacturers' titles in the FIA World Rally Championship will reach a new level of intensity on the Rally Australia (1 - 4 November), the penultimate event in...
Ford flies Down Under for Outback title battle
The yearlong fight for the drivers and manufacturers' titles in the FIA World Rally Championship will reach a new level of intensity on the Rally Australia (1 - 4 November), the penultimate event in the 14-round series. While six drivers and four teams are still capable of claiming the respective titles, the outcome of both could be decided Down Under in Australia - one of the highlights of the rally season.
The Ford Martini team takes a seven point lead to Perth, base for the four-day gravel rally, and although the permutations are many, the title could be secured. Similarly in the drivers' battle, victory for Colin McRae and Nicky Grist's Focus RS World Rally Car could ensure a second world crown for the 33-year-old Scot and a first for Grist, who celebrates his 40th birthday on the day of the start.
However, team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya, fourth in the championship and seven points behind McRae, can still win the title. The Spaniards, who confirmed this week they will stay with Ford for 2002, will hope to celebrate Sainz's 150th world rally with victory in Australia, one of three world rallies he has not won before.
It is a favourite of virtually everyone. The warm welcome in Perth, the sunshine which usually blesses the rally and the organisers' determination to make it an entertaining spectacle as well as a fierce sporting event finds favour everywhere.
"We're in the best position we've ever been at this time of the year and the Rally Australia is one of my favourites," said McRae. "The last two rounds on asphalt were not good for us but thankfully none of the other drivers scored highly and Ford maintained their lead so it could have been worse.
"But I'm happy to be back on gravel, a surface on which we know the Focus goes well and on which we've won three times this year. I won't be driving for a mid-order points finish. I want to go for a win from the start and then look at the situation as the rally develops," added McRae, twice a winner in Australia.
Sainz, who has three second place and two third place finishes to his credit on the rally, has two clear targets. "Firstly, we need to score points for Ford and it's important that Colin and myself finish in front of Peugeot's drivers to extend our lead. From a personal viewpoint, I need to try to win the rally to improve my own title chances," said the 39-year-old Madrid-based driver.
"Retiring so early in Corsica was disappointing but we'll put that behind us in Australia. I enjoy the rally although the stages are quite tricky. The roads are narrow in places and because there are no ditches trees grow very close to the edge of the road," he added.
François Delecour and Daniel Grataloup will drive a third Focus RS, the French duo making their fifth start in Australia. "The rally is one of the best in the championship and I always look forward to competing there," said 39-year-old Delecour. "Supporting Carlos and Colin will be my main role there and I'll try to help their world title hopes."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson was not downhearted after his squad's zero points score in Corsica. "We still lead the championship and the destiny of the title is in our own hands. If we perform well in Australia and on the final round in Britain then we should win the title. They're both gravel rallies, the Focus RS is a proven package on that surface and I'm feeling confident," he said.
Challenge of the Rally Australia
The surface on the gravel roads of Western Australia presents a unique challenge. They are covered by millions of tiny ball-bearing like stones which hide a more solid base underneath but which give the impression of driving on marbles for the first competitors. They are swept away by passing cars to give a clearer, and therefore faster, run to those behind but with running order dictated by overall positions, the fastest cars are, paradoxically, at a disadvantage by running at the head of the field.
To combat this, teams have deliberately slowed drivers the evening before to ensure a lower overall position and a better running position the next day - a tactic which has seen cars climb from fourth or fifth into a winning position during the final leg.
Organisers in Australia have introduced a system this year allowing manufacturer-entered drivers to select their re-start position each day based on the fastest driver having first choice and so on. The dilemma for drivers then is to select a position low enough to ensure the roads are stone-free but not so low that the road surface becomes rough and rutted.
"People assume the lower the better but with 14 manufacturer cars entered it needs some thought," said McRae. "There's probably going to be a mid-point somewhere that's best but that will depend on weather conditions and which leg we are selecting for. It adds another interesting element and is better than having to slow to ensure the position you want."
The rally follows a tried and tested format beginning with the opening leg east of Perth, around the town of Mundaring. The long second leg heads south for tests around the towns of Harvey and Collie before the outcome will be decided in the famous Bunnings forest complex, now known as SOTICO, south-east of Perth. The rally's two most famous venues will again attract worldwide attention. Perth's riverside Langley Park will host the opening super special stage on Thursday evening, when around 20,000 fans will generate a tremendous atmosphere at the purpose-built floodlit circuit to watch the action. It will be repeated on Friday and Saturday evenings. Thousands more fans will gather on the hillsides in SOTICO to watch the spectacular downhill roller-coaster jumps and watersplash which are used twice during the last four stages, including the last stage which is televised live across Australia. There are 21 stages in total, covering 396.77km in a route of 1402.07km. The longest is the 45.42km Wellington Dam during the middle leg.