Rally Australia: Round 14 preview

First included as a round of the WRC in 1989, this will be the last time the rally will be based in Western Australia, and its unforgiving mixture of slippery gravel and narrow tree-lined stages, before it moves to a new home on the east coast in...

First included as a round of the WRC in 1989, this will be the last time the rally will be based in Western Australia, and its unforgiving mixture of slippery gravel and narrow tree-lined stages, before it moves to a new home on the east coast in 2008 (Queensland).

Rally Australia in Perth is a firm favourite of most, although the gravel speed tests are among the most demanding of the season. They have a hard base which is covered by millions of tiny circular stones. Not only are they extremely slippery, but the early cars to drive the fresh roads are at a considerable disadvantage as they sweep the stones clear to leave better grip for those behind. Gronholm will have the least wanted job in the WRC on Friday's opening leg - that of being first car through the stages on the slippery stones. However, the 38-year-old Finn has a positive outlook on the difficulties of leading the field.

An additional hazard is the close proximity of trees to the side of the road, which can severely punish even the smallest deviation from the correct line. A combination of the gravely surface and the trees demands precise handling, as well as maximum traction and grip from the team's tyres.

The route is virtually identical to last year and is again based around the riverside service park in Perth's Langley Park. The action opens at the city's Gloucester Park trotting track on Thursday evening with two passes over a spectacular super special stage, which is repeated at the end of Friday and Saturday's competition. Friday's opening leg takes competitors south of Perth for a group of stages clustered around the town of Dwellingup. Saturday's route heads south-east to the Bannister stages, formerly known as Bunnings, where the famous roller coaster jumps and watersplash provide some of the season's most dramatic images. Both days end with a short loop of tests east of Perth before the Gloucester Park stages. The final leg is the shortest and comprises two loops of stages near Mundaring, east of Perth. Competitors face 26 stages in all covering 348.51km in a total route of 1334.41.

Team Previews:

Kronos Total Citroen

The Kronos Citroen Rally Team announced that, following his mountain bike accident, reigning World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb will not take part in this year's Telstra Rally Australia, which gets underway in Perth on 26 October 2006. While Loeb has an almost unassailable lead in the Driver's Championship -- he just has to finish in fourth place or higher before the end of the season to secure the title -- Kronos Citroen relinquished the lead in the manufacturers' title chase in the last round of the WRC in Turkey and the French team need to score maximum points in Australia to get back into contention for the car maker's title.

With the absence in Australia of masters Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Kronos Racing has decided to play the youth card and to nominate first time together Xevi Pons/Carlos Del Barrio and Dani Sordo/Marc The Spanish crews will both take part in the FIA WRC's fourteenth with the 2006 version of the Xsara WRC with 'passive differentials'. Kronos Total Citroen' Spanish young aces know the team counts on them and they are both extremely motivated to take part in the battle for the Manufacturers' title--

Xevi Pons/Carlos Del Barrio: "I took part in this rally twice. In 2004, with a Production car, it went really well. I finished second of the group N after a good battle with local drivers such as Chris Atkinson, Cody Crocker, and Dean Herridge. Without knowing the terrain, I set quite good times throughout the event. Actually this rally remains one of my best memories in Production category as well as New Zealand the year after. To come back to Australia, in 2005, I had a Kronos Xsara WRC. We posted quite good times on the first two 'real' stages at the level of Francois Duval and Toni Gardemeister. Unfortunately, in 'Turner Hill' we damaged the radiator going too sideways after a hairpin and we had to retire. Despite that I can say that I really like this rally."

Dani Sordo/Marc: "It's true that I will feel some pressure. Everybody keeps on warning me about the Australian terrain characteristics and its difficulty. They say it's one of the toughest challenge of the championship. I'm planning to drive as usual, which is do the best I can, choose a steady pace, especially for the start, the time for me to understand the terrain. And after that I will try to pick up some points for the team. For me being a real beginner there, it's hard to say more than this."

OMV-Peugeot Norway

The OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team departs for Australia with a luggage full of self-confidence. Mainly responsible for this is Henning Solberg's third place in Turkey where the Norwegian OMV driver reached the podium for the first time in his career. But Manfred Stohl is also confident for the last WRC-run down under so far. He hopes to repeat last year's third place. Manfred Stohl has every reason to be content with this season even three rallies ahead of the finish. The Austrian OMV driver was able to score at nine out of 13 runs to the FIA World Rally Championship so far. And he wants to keep up this series in Australia.

Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: "We have learned in Japan and Turkey that we do have problems under wet conditions. But it should be dry in Australia -- which is in our favour. Additionally, this rally suits me and is one of my absolute favourite runs." But last year's third placed still sounds a warning when looking at the starter field: "One mustn't be deceived even if only ten World Rally Cars compete. Eight of these do stand a chance to reach the top three. It is going to be a fight for each and every second."

Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud: "At the moment I'm in top form and have the perfect feeling for my Peugeot 307 WRC. But we are in Australia for the first time. Therefore we somewhat lack experience. But I am nevertheless sure that we can be fast on unknown roads, too, thanks to our self-confidence. We can reach the top 5 anytime. Henning Solberg had already knocked on the podium in Finland. In Turkey, the 33-year-old OMV driver's dream finally came true. Third place meant the best result of his career. He also overtook his younger brother Petter, World Champion in 2003, in the World Championship. Yet, the Norwegian is wary of too high expectations.


Title chasing BP-Ford aims to strengthen its advantage at the head of the FIA World Rally Championship as the series returns to Australia where the latest generation Focus RS World Rally Car made its debut a year ago. The team takes an eight-point advantage to Perth for Rally Australia (26 - 29 October), following a superb 1-2 finish in the mud of Turkey earlier this month. Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen, whose fifth victory of the season in Turkey also narrowed the gap at the top of the drivers' championship to 25 points, have an excellent record on the unique ball-bearing like roads of Western Australia. The Finns claimed a hat-trick of wins from 2000 - 2002 and went on to claim the manufacturers' world title on each occasion. BP-Ford World Rally Team colleagues Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have less experience in Australia. However, they have finished on both previous starts, claiming fourth in 2004. The Focus RS WRC broke cover for the first time in Australia last year as a key part of its test programme. Since then it has scored five WRC wins in the 2006 championship to propel BP-Ford into the lead of the manufacturers' series with three of the 16 rounds remaining.

Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: "Australia is a special rally for me and one that I really like. Sebastien Loeb will still be injured so I will be first on the road on Friday. But I have previously set good times on those roads from the front. I prefer to think about that rather than talk about the difficulties. It's all to do with the mind - look at the positives and not the negatives," he said. "It's a tough rally but the speeds are quite high, which I enjoy. It's important to stay on the right line and accurate pace notes are vital for that. This will be my eighth start here so I'm starting to know the roads pretty well. The 1-2 result in Turkey gave the team a real boost and having now moved into the lead of the manufacturers' championship, we'll do everything we can in Australia to strengthen our position," he added.

Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: "It's fast and flowing with many big jumps and it's one of my favourite events of the year," said 26-year-old Hirvonen. "It's unique because the loose gravel makes it so slippery and the jumps are different from other events. In Australia the car rarely flies straight so a driver doesn't know exactly where the car is going to land. It's rare to have a perfect landing - and that's something I like! "We had a fantastic result for the team in Turkey and I felt really comfortable battling with the Solberg brothers at a faster pace than I had driven on other rallies recently. I've learned so much this year and one of the biggest things is that I feel more comfortable driving at a pace which is closer to Marcus' speed than earlier in the season. The team is full of confidence and hopefully we can show the same speed and reliability with the Focus as we did in Turkey," he added.

Stobart VK M-Sport Ford

As has been the case with all-but one of this year's WRC rounds (Rally Great Britain), this will be Wilson's debut in Australia. The highlight of his season, to date, was when he re-wrote the record books in Argentina, becoming the youngest driver ever to score a WRC point, by clinching eighth overall, and becoming the youngest driver ever to score a fastest time on a WRC stage. He set that fastest time in order to beat his team-mate Luis Perez Companc in his own backyard. Companc is back for next week's Rally Australia, where the two will renew the kind of fierce, but friendly rivalry they have enjoyed this season. Both drivers will tackle the Antipodean event in the latest-specification Ford Focus RS WRC 06s.

Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "This is a rally everybody knows about. And the thing they all seem to know about is the road surface. It's among the hardest to drive in the championship, particularly if you're first on the road. The trouble with being first on the road is that there are no braking marks from anyone ahead of you. If there's a particularly tricky corner, maybe one which tightens up a bit more than expected, then you're going to be the one to find it. So, okay, we know about that and I'm going to have to go that bit harder on leg one to try and avoid being first on Saturday and Sunday. "As for the car, I can't wait to get back behind the wheel of the Focus RS WRC 06. It's a sensational rally car, just amazing. The only thing which isn't ideal is the shakedown stage - it's at Gloucester Park this year, which is a trotting track and absolutely nothing like the stages we'll encounter for the rest of the event."

Luis Perez Companc/Jose-Maria Volta: "This is going to be all new to me, I've never done Rally Australia before. I have seen pictures of the stages, so I understand a little bit about what to expect - but not too much. The one thing I do know a little bit about this week, is the car. I drove the Focus RS WRC 06 for the first time on Rally Japan at the start of September and absolutely loved it. The old Focus really wasn't a bad car, but the new one is better. It gives you so much confidence and power from the drivers' seat."


The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Rally Australia, one Impreza WRC2006 for Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and another for Chris Atkinson (co-driven by Glenn Macneall). Petter has contested the rally six times before and won it in 2003 on the way to clinching that year's drivers' championship. Last year Solberg was in a commanding lead before an encounter with a kangaroo put him out of the rally altogether. This year will be Chris' third attempt at his home rally. On his debut in 2004, he won the Group N classification and in 2005, in a WRC car, set the fastest time on nine of the 26 stages to finish fourth -- equaling Ross Dunkerton's 1993 record as the highest placed Australian finisher.

Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "Australia is a fantastic event. I've had a win there in the past and really enjoy the challenge of the stages. Last year could have been another good result but the circumstances meant it just wasn't to be. On the last round in Turkey we showed that our performance is improving. The small details that have changed on the car made a positive difference, and perhaps if the work that has gone on since then brings further improvements, we can aim for even more next week. As a driver, my confidence is higher than it has been for a while. All I can do is drive to the best of my ability and keep my fingers crossed that's enough. We'll see."

Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: "Of course it's always special to compete on your home event, and the rally in Perth is one of my favourites - I've always enjoyed it. We were fast there last year, but this time we have to be a realistic - we still have some work to do to get the whole package working together again. We came away from Turkey feeling positive about the way the development programme was shaping up, and the changes that have been made so far are encouraging. We'll just have to wait and see what we can do next week. My motivation is always the same; to get a good result, and that's what I'm aiming to do."

Red Bull Skoda

Skoda are not entered in Australia.

-credit: www.rallye-newsletter.com

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About this article
Series WRC
Teams Citroën World Rally Team , M-Sport