WRC

Rally Australia preview

The FIA World Rally Championship returns to the southern hemisphere for the penultimate gravel round of this year's series. Telstra Rally Australia is one of the fastest loose-surface events in the calendar, and can be on of the most difficult.

The FIA World Rally Championship returns to the southern hemisphere for the penultimate gravel round of this year's series. Telstra Rally Australia is one of the fastest loose-surface events in the calendar, and can be on of the most difficult. Based in Perth, Western Australia, the roads used for the competitive sections are coated with ball-bearing-type rocks which make running first on the road a bigger disadvantage than on most rallies. British driver Richard Burns continues to lead the drivers' championship, so it will be the Peugeot man who has to sweep the leg one stages clean for his following competitors. Burns has yet to win a round of the FIA World Rally Championship, but increased his lead in the series with a third-place finish on the last round in Finland. Citroen driver Carlos Sainz is second in the race for this year's title, while Burns' fellow 206 WRC driver Marcus Gronholm, is joint third with Petter Solberg (Subaru). Peugeot remains at the head of the manufacturers' standings, closely followed by Citroen.

Numerous changes have been made to this year's Telstra Rally Australia, including the use of one central service area, rather than each leg having its own service park. This year all of the mechanical work on the car will be done at Jarrahdale, in the middle of the forest. The most significant change, however, is the switch from Langley Park to Gloucester Park for the event's super special stage.

Marlboro Peugeot Total (1st -- 101 points)
Technical: The wheel bearing problems experienced by the team on the last round in Finland have been put down to a bad batch of parts. The three 206 WRCs used in Australia will be run in largely the same specification as they were on round nine.

Sporting: Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm have both won this event before, but it is the Finn who had the more enviable recent results, having won the event for the last three years in succession. Burns knows that running first on the road is going to make his job difficult through the first leg and is hoping the early spring weather turns wet for the opening leg of this event. Gronholm has put the disappointment of his home rally retirement behind him now and is focused on closing the gap to his team-mate. Harri Rovanpera finished second on Telstra Rally Australia, making it hard to discount any of the three 206 WRC drivers for this rally.

Quotes: Richard Burns said: "Rain would help to bind the surface of the stages together, making it less slippery. Although as we saw last year, too much rain can cause other problems."

Marcus Gronholm said: I have always gone well on this rally and hopefully I can win it again. The fact that I was forced to retire in Finland was a huge disappointment and was very costly in championship terms, but I have no intention of giving up the fight. I will be giving it everything in Australia."

Harri Rovanpera said: "I will approach this rally in the way I wanted to approach Finland: doing the best I can without thinking too much about any particular strategy. I would be delighted to have a good run here and come away with a result to help the team."

Citroen Total (2nd -- 97 points)
Technical: The team will be running the three Xsara WRCs in the same specification that they were used on the last round in Finland.

Sporting: Colin McRae arrives in Perth with the strongest record of the three Citroen drivers on Telstra Rally Australia. The Scot has won the rally twice previously, while Carlos Sainz has not managed better than second. Sebastien Loeb placed his Xsara seventh overall on his first attempt at the rally in a World Rally Car last season. While McRae knows what is required to get the best out of this event, he arrives on the back of a big accident in Finland. Sainz took fourth last time out, one place ahead of Loeb.

Quotes: Carlos Sainz said: "I have no tactics in mind for this rally, except to go as fast as I can on the first day to try and minimise the amount that I am penalised for the rest of the rally. The stages here are quite good fun to drive, but at the same time, given how slippery they are, they can give you a bit of a scare."

Colin McRae said: "I don't know too many drivers who really enjoy these stages, they are very difficult and demand a big effort and lots of concentration. These stages have their own character, they may not be as fast as Finland, but they are still very quick."

Sebastien Loeb said: "I came away from last year's rally with mixed feelings. I had gained valuable experience, but at the same time I didn't feel like I was on the pace. Even on the second run at the stages I didn't feel I was getting the best out of myself. I will do what I can to keep close to my team-mates this time around."

Ford Motor Company (3rd -- 60 points)
Technical: The Focus RS WRC03 of Markko Martin and Francois Duval will run in the same specification as they did in Finland. The team's third driver, Mikko Hirvonen, remains at the wheel of a 2002-specification Focus.

Sporting: Martin arrives in Perth on a high, having achieved one of his main rallying ambitions: winning Finland's round of the FIA World Rally Championship. The Estonian ended the ninth round of the series with a comfortable lead over the rest of the pack, but knows that ending this weekend in a similar place will be tough, given that he has only tackled Telstra Rally Australia twice previously. His team-mate Duval has only competed in Australia once before -- crashing out of last year's event while vying with Martin for fifth place.

Quotes: Markko Martin said: "It's important to have a good position on the first leg of this rally, and running sixth on the road, we are in quite good shape. The only thing which could spoil that would be rain, hopefully it will stay dry and we can get our event off to a good start."

Francois Duval said: "These roads are so specialised, it's going to be better for me to spend the time this year perfecting my pace notes rather than chasing a top position. It's important to stay cool and keep the driving neat and tidy here."

Mikko Hirvonen said: "Once again, I'm starting a rally which I haven't done before. So again my plan is the same -- to gain experience of the event. I've spoken to my team-mates, so I know what a difficult rally this one can be."

555 Subaru World Rally Team (3rd -- 60 points)
Technical: The Subaru Impreza WRC 2003s of Petter Solberg and Tommi Makinen will be running in similar specification to the last round in Finland. For the tenth round of the championship, however, Subaru will have a wider selection of Pirelli tyres to cope with the various conditions which are expected this week.

Sporting: Solberg came out on top of a titanic battle with Peugeot's Richard Burns to clinch the runners-up spot in Finland, elevating the Norwegian to joint third in the drivers' standings. Between the rallies, Solberg's mind has been elsewhere, however, as he married his long-time girlfriend Pernilla -- with former world champions Tommi Makinen and Colin McRae among the 250-strong guest list. This will be Makinen's final appearance in Australia (where he has won twice previously) after he announced his retirement from the sport soon after Neste Rally Finland.

Quotes: Petter Solberg said: "We will have to wait and see whether we can win this rally, I'm sure Marcus (Gronholm) and Markko (Martin) are going to be quick. I am really looking for good points from Australia. The battle with Richard (Burns) in Finland was great, but that's history now. I just can't wait to get back behind the wheel again."

Tommi Makinen said: "I'm feeling very positive about this event. My recent decision hasn't affected my determination to score points for the rest of the year. Australia is always an excellent rally -- one of my favourites -- so I'm looking forward to it. There's always little room for error with the trees so close to the side of the road on those stages, but that in itself is a good challenge."

Skoda Motorsport (5th -- 20 points)
Technical: Both Fabia WRCs will be running the paddle gear shift for the first time and Skoda has also reworked its transmission system aboard the new car.

Sporting: The last round of the championship was a mixed bag for Skoda, with Didier Auriol failing to get past the first super special stage after an old shoulder injury flared up, while Toni Gardemeister demonstrated the new car's potential on fast gravel rallies. The team is keen to see more of that pace from both drivers in Australia this weekend, although Gardemeister will be driving with protection on his left wrist after breaking a bone in his arm during a charity ice hockey match just after Rally Finland.

Quotes: Didier Auriol said: "I had an operation on my shoulder after Finland and I don't have any problems driving now. I'm looking forward to getting the Fabia onto the gravel stages."

Toni Gardemeister said: "My wrist is not causing me any pain at the moment, we will just have to wait and see whether this carries on during the rally. It's quite a big help having the paddle gear shift as this will be easier for me to use with the wrist like it is."

Hyundai World Rally Team (6th -- 6 points) Technical: The team has further revised the suspension changes it made to the Accent WRC for the last round of the championship in Finland.

Sporting: Freddy Loix has tackled this rally six times before, taking three top ten finishes and a good deal of experience of the unique terrain which makes up this event. Team-mate Armin Schwarz was back in Australia after a long gap last year, but he too has seen this rally in various conditions -- including heavy rain -- which could well make an appearance this time around.

Quotes: Armin Schwarz said: "There are a few new stages this year and a few stages which have new parts; we've seen in the past that the Accent is more competitive on new stages, so we are looking forward to this event. This is a well organised rally and I've got a good feeling about it."

Freddy Loix said: "If the weather turns wet then this could be a very slippery rally, there will be a lot of mud. It could be like a gravel version of Monte Carlo, with tyre choices being far from easy."

Other entries
FIA Production Car World Rally Championship leader Toshi Arai returns to the series after missing the last round in Germany. The Japanese Subaru man leads fellow Impreza driver Martin Rowe ahead of the start of Telstra Rally Australia.

-fia-

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Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team