Tough Times at Rally Australia Final Finale.. Most rally fans always knew that the final Rally Australia, after 19 years, would go out with a bang but we never quite expected the bang, crash, roll over and small fire supplied,...
Tough Times at Rally Australia Final Finale..
Most rally fans always knew that the final Rally Australia, after 19 years, would go out with a bang but we never quite expected the bang, crash, roll over and small fire supplied, one of which has virtually decided the 2006 World Rally Championship. For Xu Lang and Dale Moscatt it was the chance to compete at the highest level and starting as car 63, the weekend saw the team finish in 20th place - a respectable feat on the ferocious roads of Western Australia.
The 2006 Telstra Rally Australia was 348 kilometres of slippery, dusty tracks and with an average speed, for the likes of Mikko Hirvonen, of over 100 kilometres per hour, it was no wonder things got interesting for all 56 crews entered right from the first "GO!".
For Xu Lang and Dale, the Perth City Super Special at Gloucester Park provided an instant rush as they raced against local rally veteran Tolley Challis. On the first night stage the pair skipped up to =27th. Five more places were gained on the second run as they again took on Challis around the two kilometre stage.
The first forest stage also looked promising for the team with an 18th quickest stage time in their Group N Lancer Evo VIII, moving the lads to 18th outright but a puncture, the first of three for the gruelling event, was to see a 50th place time for stage four. The duo then set about making short work of the climb back form 40th place.
"To be fair it was a driver related puncture. We just went into a junction too quickly and hit the bank on the exit quite hard, instantly popping the tyre of the rim. We pulled over in a safe spot two corners later and changed it as we still had far too much of the stage to complete to risk trying to drive out on a flat," said Dale.
Stage six saw an allocated time given to most crews after a fire under Chris Atkinson's bogged Subaru saw the cancellation of the stage. With Australia in the grip of a severe drought, crews following stopped to assist with fire extinguishers, possibly averting a disaster in the dry conditions.
For stage seven Xu Lang and Dale were already back to 31st outright and stages 8 and 9 saw them finish 16th fastest, to return to Perth back up in 25th position. The team then took 25th and 18th fastest over the two runs of the now familiar Perth City Super Stage and headed into Saturday's nine tests in 24th outright.
Dust proved a major problem, costing Petter Solberg 27 seconds at one point, and possibly an eventual win, because he simply could not see the road ahead. "In some places the dust at the junctions was so bad that even if you stopped, you couldn't see which way to turn," said Petter's brother, fellow competitor, Henning.
"For us it was even worse in that as we were a fair way down the order after the previous day's puncture and had to compete in the final forest stage just on dark," explained Dale. "It was seriously dangerous even driving down some of the straights in that stage and we had a couple of little excursions because you could literally only see to the end of the bonnet."
Saturday dawned over the Bannister set of stages and another fine day. These famous jumps are hugely popular with fans and drivers alike. The experienced Petter Solberg truly wowed fans with his big air approach but for first timers, the large launch can be a little daunting. "We had had a number of discussions about how to approach the famous down hill jumps but in the end I think all the people out spectating probably influenced Xu Lang's decision the most. So undaunted and in his typical flamboyant style he pretty much took them both flat out."
"Xu Lang actually got the line over the first crest a little too much to the left, which was as entertaining for me inside the car as it was for all the spectators there, as some of the photographers were sent scurrying from their positions right up next to the road. We got some serious hang time I can assure you and then down over the second jump and into the water. We lived to tell the tale and were eager to repeat the feat when the stage was repeated later in the day," said Dale.
Xu Lang and Dale were 20th on Bannister North I, an effort they matched on Bannister Central I, to move up to 23rd outright. The clear blue skies of today were later punctuated with spots of occasional rain but it would take a small flood to dampen down the dust of Rally Oz! "Conditions were extremely tough in Bannister. The roads always rut up quite badly in the plantations there and expose some huge rocks which you never manage to see early enough. It was also very hot out there too."
"We didn't have a roof vent in the car and knowing the stats of how much the temperature increases in a closed up car during the stages I think it would have been around the 50-55 degree mark in there. I had been a little sick leading into the rally and actually had a nose bleed in the car which made things interesting", said Dale. "It was actually quite funny when I think back because I reckon I sounded like Nanny Fine calling the notes with all the tissues!"
A refuel preceded the Bannister Loop stage, before a regroup at Wespine Village and re-runs of Bannister's North and Central stages. Xu Lang and Dale managed a steady pace all morning to go into the afternoon service back in Perth in 23rd place. Stage 16 saw the team equal times with Tolley Challis, one of only two drivers to have done all 19 Rally Australia events. South Australian, Bob Whyatt is the second to hold this honour and both looked set for a proud finish come Sunday.
Stage 17 saw the team leap frogged in the results by a hard charging Chris Atkinson on his way back to an eventual tenth place result. The final forest stage for the day then saw Xu Lang and Dale suffer in the dust and darkness once again, dropping more time in order to ensure no mistakes were made and earn a shot at a respectable finish come Sunday.
As the sun set on the Swan River, it also set on the final runs of the Perth City stages. Western Australia has long been the front runner in the development of the city stage concept, when it was decided to bring WRC out of the forest and out to the people. Many drivers will miss the famous Langley and Gloucester Park area and it will forever retain legend status on the WRC scene.
"It will be sad to not compete over here in a WRC again and of course the super specials are actually a big part of this event. I remember my first Rally Oz when we completed special stage 1, which was the old Langley Park Super Special back then, and then promptly rolled (only lightly) on the very next right bend after the finish line. We set a very respectable time but not quite the result the service crew were looking for," remembers Dale. This year the final two super special stages saw Xu Lang and Dale equal times with ARC hot shot, John Murray Junior to finished in 23rd once again.
Sunday, and the final day of the final West Australian WRC round. While the front runners chased each other flat out around the forest, Marcus Gronholm continued his fight back from a stage three roll over and 53rd place. Gronholm required a 3rd place or better here to keep his championship hopes alive this season and he and co-driver, Timo were really giving it their best. Chris Atkinson was also busy marching back up the order after beginning Saturday's Bannister stages in 31st.
Xu Lang and Dale were probably one of the few crews for whom it was business as usual, steadily pushing ahead and up the results as well. Atkins I was the first test of the morning and saw an 18th quickest result for the team. Helena North and South I both earned them 21st fastest and up to 22nd overall.
From here it was a 40 kilometre drive back to Perth's Langley Park for service before returning to Aktins and Helena stages and the final 51 kilometres of competition. A strong run over stage 24 was followed by tyre troubles on 25 for Xu Lang and Dale, now having their third puncture for the rally. Being so close to the stage finish, the team opted to continue at a slower pace rather than again drop the average three minutes required to change a tyre.
"We tried to drive out on it," explained Dale, after the team had dropped around a minute and a half with the puncture. "However in the process it tore the guard off, part of the bumper bar and a head light. We stopped to change a tyre in a stage earlier in the rally and it just cost us too much time so we opted to continue over the last few kilometres this time."
The final Helena South II stage provided welcome relief for all entrants after 3 days of thick dust and full speed. For Xu Lang and Dale, a 20th placing was a good result for both themselves and their team, especially with this being Xu Lang's first time entered at a WRC.
"I guess we have to be happy with a finish and for Xu Lang, a very valuable 350 km of WRC experience. The roads are very tricky over in Western Australia so there was a lot to learn and hopefully Xu Lang has managed to store all that knowledge for the future," said Dale.
"It is also a big call to come to Australia to gain experience and not get carried away when you see the times of the guys competing in the PWRC. There are some of the world's best and most experienced drivers in that category at the moment and you cannot expect to be able to match their times in your first WRC rally. Overall though I think it was a good toe in the water exercise for the Chinese team and we will just have to wait and see what happens from here," added Dale.
For Marcus Gronholm, many a heart went out to him as his chance at another championship title slipped away. The flying Ford driver, managed to win 10 of the 26 stages on offer and grab back 5th place, proving what a champion he really is when the pressure is on. It may not have been quite enough to continue challenging for the championship but Marcus and Ford still celebrated, happy with their efforts and especially for Hirvonen and co- driver, Lehtinen. "I am happy for him," Marcus said of Hirvonen. "It will really improve his confidence."
While both Mikko and newly crowned 2006 WRC champion, Sebastien Loeb sprayed the champagne, Marcus also lamented on the finality of the Perth event. "It is sad it is the last rally here. It is a nice event, nice place, nice people."
For Mikko Hirvonen, who had Subaru's Petter Solberg hard on his tail for most of this rally, his face showed the exact opposite in emotion as it had held when he passed Marcus's rolled Focus on stage three. For his first WRC win, Mikko commented. "Fantastic! I just had to bring car home. Petter was pushing all the time. It's a really fantastic feeling."
"I also thoroughly enjoyed competing in another WRC event," said Dale. "I have a huge passion for what I do and the WRC is where I want to be. So I guess we will just keep working on future plans to try and make that happen. It is getting toward the silly season now so who knows what may happen."
While Australia farewell's the WRC, for the time being, Dale is already thinking ahead to next weekend's Mt Buller Sprint with Team Mini and Grant Denyer. This exciting local event is then followed by another trek overseas, where Dale will again join the WRC circus come the penultimate round in New Zealand, alongside UK driver Natalie Barratt in the OMV team's PWRC entered Lancer Evolution IX.