The world's top rally drivers will all have an eye on the weather when the 13th round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship, the Telstra Rally Australia, starts in host city Perth this evening. Although the rally starts with the spectacular...
The world's top rally drivers will all have an eye on the weather when the 13th round of this year's FIA World Rally Championship, the Telstra Rally Australia, starts in host city Perth this evening. Although the rally starts with the spectacular Langley Park superspecial, based on the banks of the Swan River, the bulk of its action is concentrated in the Western Australia forests.
The road surface there is coated with fine, ball bearing-like gravel, punishing those running at the front of the field as they sweep it clear to reveal a more grippy surface for later crews. If it rains, however, the gravel will be packed down to form a more consistent surface, so the championship frontrunners will all be praying for rain tomorrow.
Marcus Grönholm effectively secured his second drivers' title in New Zealand earlier this month, but the Finn has already publicly stated that he expects his motivation to return as soon as he puts on his crash helmet. He and his Peugeot team-mate Richard Burns will start as two of the favourites but if the roads do stay dry, they can expect stern challenges from later runners like Ford's Markko Martin, Citroen driver Sebastien Loeb and the Hyundais of Freddy Loix, Armin Schwarz and Juha Kankkunen. With the top 15 cars at the end of each leg reversed on the running order for the second and third days, the fate of the rally could hinge on who gets the best run through tomorrow's eight stages.
Peugeot (1st - 147 points)
Technical: Peugeot has made no significant changes to its 206 WRCs for this event. The team's test car was damaged beyond repair in a pre-event accident involving Richard Burns, however, so it is not available for Peugeot's fourth driver, Gilles Panizzi.
Sporting: Peugeot originally entered four cars on this event, nominating Marcus Grönholm, Richard Burns and Harri Rovanperä for manufacturers' points and also offering fourth driver Gilles Panizzi the chance to use the test car to gain more experience of the specialised conditions. However, Burns crashed heavily during Peugeot's pre-event running and the damage to the car was sufficient to rule out Panizzi's planned start. The Frenchman then tried to complete the reconnaissance but that was halted when he damaged his car in an accident between two stages. Peugeot has confirmed, meanwhile, that Rovanperä will be reunited with his regular co-driver Risto Pietilainen (who has been recovering from an operation) on next month's Rally of Great Britain.
Marcus Grönholm said: "Road position will be the usual problem here for me. On the recce we could see some places where there were already some clean lines in the gravel that I'll be able to use, but there aren't that many so I'm sure we'll lose time. It could depend, though, on the weather -if it stays dry, it'll be bad for us but if it rains, then I don't think we'll have such a big disadvantage. It hasn't been easy to keep motivation after winning the title but I'm sure once I get into the car and put my crash helmet back on, I'll be ready to fight and win."
Richard Burns said: "The car feels as good here as it did in New Zealand and before our accident I think we were looking strong so yes, I'm optimistic here. A bit of rain tomorrow would make matters even better. But I don't expect Marcus to back off in any way - he's going to be just as strong a competitor as usual."
Ford (2nd - 89 points)
Technical: Ford's Focus RS WRC02s will run in essentially the same specification here as they did in Finland, although all three cars will use the slightly revised engine specification that featured on Markko Martin's car in Sanremo last month.
Sporting: Ford sends its three usual drivers - Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz and Markko Martin - to New Zealand, and all three will be registered for manufacturers' points. The team has also entered a fourth Focus RS WRC02 for the young Belgian François Duval. McRae will have a change of navigator for this event, since he and Nicky Grist agreed to end their partnership after Rally New Zealand.
The Scot's new co-driver is Derek Ringer, who partnered him for many of his early seasons and was alongside him when he won his only world title in 1995.
Carlos Sainz said: "If it stays quite dry here then we have a better chance to fight because if it rains, the Peugeots will have the same conditions and I'm sure they'll be strong. But all we can do is try our best to find as much speed as possible."
Colin McRae said: "Nicky brought a lot to the partnership but ultimately, it wasn't working out as well as it could have done so we decided to end it. I'm confident that I can be straight onto the button with Derek - it's certainly worked well during the recce and the shakedown this morning as ell."
Subaru (3rd - 50 points)
Technical: Subaru is reporting encouraging progress with the Impreza WRC2002's high-speed stability, after changes to its differential settings and tweaks to the suspension. That aside, the cars will run in a specification largely unchanged from that used in New Zealand.
Sporting: Subaru has entered two Impreza WRC2002s for this event, to be driven by four-times world champion Tommi Mäkinen and young Norwegian Petter Solberg.
Petter Solberg said: "I didn't have the most straightforward test for here - we did have a few problems with the gearbox and the propshaft - but it's better that they happened during testing and not the rally. This morning at shakedown, the car felt very strong and we've found a few things since New Zealand that will help. It's hard to say whether we can really fight with the Peugeots here but I'm hoping that we'll certainly be closer."
Tommi Mäkinen said: "This is a rally that I usually look forward to and I've done well here in the past, so I feel very relaxed. The car's very comfortable to drive now - I've got more confidence with it than I had earlier in the season."
Mitsubishi (4th - 9 points)
Technical: Mitsubishi has made no major changes to the Lancer for this event.
Sporting: Mitsubishi Ralliart had entered all three of its drivers - regulars François Delecour and Alister McRae, and occasional third pilot Jani Paasonen. But even though McRae was given the all-clear to fly to Australia from England, a pre-event medical test revealed that the injury to his liver (sustained in a mountain biking accident in September) has still not healed sufficiently for him to compete with risking long-term damage. The Scot has thus been forced to withdraw from the second event in succession - he will undergo further tests on Monday before deciding whether to fly back to Britain for his home round of the championship next month. Unlike New Zealand, Paasonen did not have to be 'drafted in' at the last minute for this event - he had always been scheduled to compete in Australia. He and Delecour will be registered for manufacturers' points.
François Delecour said: "This isn't my favourite rally in the championship - I crashed out badly last year and the roads here are difficult - slippery and very narrow, with trees very close to the road."
Jani Paasonen said: "It won't be easy to set fastest times on stages like we managed once in New Zealand but of course I'll be trying to do that. I had a couple of days testing before here and some before that in Wales, and it all helps. I feel much more confident with the car every time I get some more kilometres."
Hyundai (5th - 9 points)
Technical: Hyundai has introduced no major changes to its Accent WRC3s for Australia.
Sporting: Hyundai sends three Accent WRC3s to New Zealand - for regular drivers Armin Schwarz and Freddy Loix, and four-times world champion Juha Kankkunen.
Armin Schwarz said: "This is one of the most difficult events in the championship, because of the surface and how hard it can be to read the road with the thick forests and the sunlight coming through the trees. We could have good road conditions on the opening day and if we do, we'll have to capitalise on that."
Freddy Loix said: "The potential is there again for us to go very well here and get a good result, especially if the conditions stay dry on the first day and give us a good start. We know that the car is quick enough but what we need is luck and a good, clean run. If we get those and the right conditions, then I know we can be fighting for points again."
Skoda (6th - 8 points)
Technical: Skoda's Octavia WRCs are unchanged from the specification that was used in New Zealand.
Sporting: Skoda has entered two Octavia WRCs for this event, for regular drivers Toni Gardemeister and Kenneth Eriksson. The team confirmed late last week that 1994 World Champion Didier Auriol will drive an Octavia in the 2003 season.
Toni Gardemeister said: "We didn't have a test here in Australia with the car so I'm being realistic here. It would be a good result for us if we get near the points, especially if it rains on the first day because that will mean we don't have such an advantage of road conditions over the front cars."
Skoda Team Principal Pavel Janeba said: "Didier will bring valuable experience of the other teams and cars to us next year, allowing us to really push forward with the current car. It's a very important move for our team."
Citroen is not officially contesting the Rally Australia but the French manufacturer has been testing in the country recently as part of its build-up to a full FIA World Rally Championship assault in 2003. Spanish private team Piedrafita will run the same test car on this event for Citroen works driver Sebastien Loeb, allowing the Frenchman to gain valuable experience of how a World Rally Car behaves on the event's notoriously slippery road surfaces.
Rally Australia is the final round of the FIA World Production Car Championship, and three drivers can lift the title. Malaysian Proton driver Karamjit Singh has a lead of just two points from Finn Kristian Sohlberg's Mitsubishi, while Ramon Ferreyros still has an outside chance of denying them both.
EVENT: The 15th Rally Australia is the 13th of 14 events in the 2002 FIA World Rally Championship.
ENTRIES: 75 (30 Group A and 45 Group N)
DRIVERS: Argentina 1, Australia 22, Austria 2, Belgium 4, Bulgaria 1, Estonia 1, Finland 11, France 3, Germany 2, Great Britain 5, Italy 6, Japan 7, Latvia 1, Malaysia 1, Norway 2, New Zealand 1, Peru 1, Poland 1, Sweden 2, Spain 1.
MANUFACTURERS TEAMS: Ford, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Skoda, Subaru.
CARS (including the manufacturers cars): Citroen 1, Daihatsu 2, Ford 4, Hyundai 6, Mitsubishi 37, Peugeot 4, Proton 1, Skoda 2, Subaru 17, Toyota 1.
Total - The rally covers 1571.98km, including 388.64km on 24 special stages (including three run twice and one used three times). All stages are on gravel roads closed to other traffic.
Thursday 31 October - The first part of Leg 1 starts in Perth at 18h30 and covers 5.40km, including 2.20km on one special stage. The first car is expected to arrive in parc ferme in Perth, Langley Park, at 19h10.
Friday 1 November - The second part of Leg 1 starts from Perth at 07h00 and covers 673.64km, including 133.48km on eight special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Perth, Langley Park, at 20h21.
Saturday 2 November - Leg 2 starts from Perth at 07h00 and covers 539.15km, including 147.27km on 11 special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in Perth, Langley Park, at 20h41.
Sunday 3 November - Leg 3 starts from Perth at 07h00 and covers 353.79km, including 105.69km on four special stages. The first car is expected to arrive in at the finish control in Perth, Forrest Place, at 16h00.
WEATHER FORECAST: Cloudy, with a strong chance of showers