For the first time in the history of the World Rally Championship, teams are going 'down under' to Australia to contest the final round of the series. In contrast to the muddy forest roads of Wales where the season has traditionally come to a...
For the first time in the history of the World Rally Championship, teams are going 'down under' to Australia to contest the final round of the series. In contrast to the muddy forest roads of Wales where the season has traditionally come to a close, this year's finale will take place on the sun-drenched gravel stages of Western Australia, where drivers will face a different yet equally demanding challenge.
Renowned for its unforgiving mixture of slippery gravel and narrow tree-lined stages, this year's Telstra Rally Australia has moved two months later in the WRC calendar to the height of the Australian summer, adding another dimension to an already difficult event. Famous for it's treacherous road surface, that features a loose covering of marble-like gravel on top of a hard-packed base, grip levels can be very low. In dry conditions, those running first on the road will face a considerable disadvantage as they sweep the slippery surface for those behind, while those further down the order will benefit as the base layer becomes more exposed with the passing of every car.
One of the most popular events of the year, Rally Australia is a firm favourite with drivers and spectators alike. Often contested in warm sunshine and in temperatures of more than 27C, the event mixes a holiday atmosphere with high-adrenalin action against the spectacular backdrop of the Australian countryside.
Commencing on Thursday 11 September with a spectator-pleasing, head-to-head sprint around a Super Special stage at Gloucester Park, the proper stage action will start on Friday 12 September. Comprising 388 competitive kilometres and 25 stages, the rally will be based around a single service park in the Western Australia capital city of Perth. The longest stage of the event will be the 35.64km Bannister North Long test, used in Leg three, while the shortest will be the Perth City Super Special, which is used five times during the event. The rally, and 2004 season, will conclude when the winning car crosses the finish ramp on Sunday at 1600hrs.
Although the Manufacturers' and Drivers' Championship titles were wrapped up in Corsica last month, the battle is still raging for second place in the Drivers' Championship and three individuals are in with a chance. Subaru World Rally Team driver, Petter Solberg leads the chase, with Markko Martin second, three points behind and Carlos Sainz third, a further six points back.
Citroën and Sebastien Loeb, the newly crowned 2004 World Rally Champions are heading for Australia with one purpose, to cap their historic 2004 season with victory in the Telstra Rally Australia.This year will be Sebastien Loeb's third Telstra Rally Australia, in 2002 in his Australian debut and when Citroën were still fine tuning his Xsara WRC before a full entry in 2003, the French driver came a very creditable seventh. Last year, Loeb finished second to Petter Solberg's Subaru when Loeb decided played for points to help Citroën secure the Manufacturers' World Title. This year, with both title races already decided in Citroën and Loeb's favour, the gloves are off for an all out battle for the top space on the podium. But there is another Citroën driver who would very much like to win in Australia: Carlos Sainz. The world's most successful driver of all time, who announced that this is his last season before retiring and a recording-breaking 27th on his final rally would be the unquestioned cream on his career gateau.
Sebastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: "The fact that we have achieved our objectives takes some of the pressure off us," explains Sebastien. "Guy's decision to let as go as fast as possible has removed the little pressure that remained. Psychologically, it means you can switch to maximum attack and go for victory from the word go, without having other considerations at the back of your mind. Petter Solberg is the benchmark on gravel and it is hard to say if I could match him if I push harder. That said, it's not my style to enter a corner with two chances in three of going off. I will drive at the limit of what is reasonable and see how it goes."
Carlos Sainz / Marc Marti: "Yes, I want to win in Australia," says Carlos. "It will be much easier, given permission to go as fast as we want. When you have a free hand, you can take more risks and try to drive even faster. But it's still important to be at the finish. My objective will be to end the season and my career on the highest note possible!"
The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Australia, which will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen). Last year, Petter won the rally after a thrilling duel with Sebastien Loeb. The Norwegian will be aiming to round off his season with a similar result this year. Finnish driver Mikko Hirvonen has contested the Australian event only once before. Finishing ninth in 2003, he will be using his experience of other gravel events, such as New Zealand, to secure a good result and more Championship points at the wheel of his Impreza WRC2004.
Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: "This is really going to be a special rally I think and I'm glad to be getting back to gravel where everything works well. I feel I'm really ready to get out there again and do the best I can - I'm hungry for success. Getting second in the Championship will be like a victory for me and the team and will make me want more next year for sure. I think Markko will certainly be going for it in Australia, and Sebastien, as he has nothing to lose now. It will be one hell of a fight I can tell you! It's one of my favourite rallies, I won it last year and it would be great to repeat that this year. It would be a good way to end the year, so I'm going to go for it - but somehow I don't think I'll be the only one doing that!"
Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: "Obviously this is the last rally of the season and I'm sure, because all the Championships are decided, that everyone will be going for it - flat out from the start - with the aim of winning the rally. I really want a good result to end the season, so I can't wait for it to start. It's a good rally and one that I really enjoy, it's definitely one of the best in the Championship. The speed is similar to Finland, but the stages are different and narrower - we'll see what we can do."
BP-Ford World Rally Team will aim for its third consecutive victory when the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship comes to a close in Australia next week. Back-to-back victories for Markko Martin and Michael Park in France and Spain have left the Ford Focus RS World Rally Car pair heading Down Under for a three-way battle to claim the runners-up spot in the drivers' series. The 16th and final round of the season will bring to an end an exciting four-week period for the BP-Ford squad. Martin and Park's double victories on European asphalt were accompanied by Ford securing second in the manufacturers' championship, with one round remaining. And earlier this week Ford committed to the championship for the next four seasons, announcing a cost-effective business plan tailored around the new-generation Focus road car, which goes on sale in Europe this month. A new Focus rally car will be the team's challenger from 2006. BP-Ford team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot are also keen to improve their record in Australia. The 23-year-old Belgian driver claimed his best result from three starts last season, when he was 10th in a Focus RS.
Markko Martin / Michael Park: "I have the chance to finish second in the championship and that would be my best position to date," said the 28-year-old Estonian. "That's my aim and to finish second in both the drivers' and manufacturers' championships would represent a solid season. I don't have a good record on this event, but confidence is high in the team and I think we can make a good rally. "Rally Australia is a very difficult event. The roads are mostly man-made and there's not really any flow to them from a driving perspective. The loose gravel makes them slippery on the first pass through the stages and I really can't afford to make mistakes. Speeds are high, the tracks are narrow in places and there are no ditches to land in if a driver does make an error. Instead there are often trees right on the edge of the road and a small mistake on the slippery stones can mean big trouble. "This rally is well-known for the jumps in Sotico on the final day. Unfortunately I don't know too much about them because, I have only reached the last leg once. They look incredibly spectacular from outside the car, but from the inside I just remember them as big jumps," added Martin.
Francios Duval / Philippe Droeven: "I think a top five finish is possible," he said. "It's the last rally of the season and all the titles are decided so maybe the atmosphere will be more relaxed than usual. But I want to finish as high as possible, so I'll try as hard as ever. "This year the rally is in early summer so the roads should be drier than in 2003. This will mean more loose gravel and they will be even more slippery. The further down the order, the cleaner the stages are. I will start in sixth on the first day, behind the five drivers ahead of me in the championship, so I think that should be quite a good position," he said. Duval and Prevot will prepare new pace notes for the whole rally. "Last year I changed my pace notes and they weren't good. This year many of the stages use the same roads, but in a different route. So rather than modify my notes again, I'm going to make new notes for every stage," Duval explained.
The final showdown of the 2004 World Championship, Rally Australia, has regularly been happy hunting ground for Peugeot Sport which enjoyed a run of three consecutive wins in Perth in 2000, 2001 and 2002. This year again, the 307 WRC promises to be in its element over the event's fast, selective stages, and Marcus Gronholm and Harri Rovanpera have every intention of exploiting the car's strengths to the full to conclude the season on a high note.
Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: After bagging 5th place on his first visit to Australia with Peugeot, Marcus Gronholm claimed a hat-trick of wins here in 2000, 2001 and 2002 but retired following an off on last year's event. This is clearly a rally the two-times World Champion enjoys: "It's one of my favourites and I have often gone very well here. After finishing in 2nd place in Spain, where I wasn't expecting such a good result on what is a very specific rally, I would really like to score a fourth win in Australia. I am fired up at the idea of giving my team a chance to end the year with a top finish."
Harri Rovanpera / Risto Pietilainen: Harri Rovanpera also has good knowledge of Rally Australia after finishing 4th in 2001 and 2nd in Peugeot's resounding one-two in 2002: "Like Marcus, I enjoy this rally, not only because of its challenging stages but also because of its pleasant atmosphere and setting. This year's event takes place at a later date which means it should be warmer and drier, so the conditions are likely to be quite different. The stages of the last day are the main difficulty when you have to contend with very fast roads, jumps, trees and dust... It's excellent training for a driver. This rally will also be the last outing of my fourth year with Peugeot so I am keen to mark that with a top result. I would so much like that for everyone in the team."
- The total length of Telstra Rally Australia stages is 388.25km divided into 25 special stages.
- The rally is once again based in its traditional host town, Perth, Western Australia's capital city.
- New this year is the central service park based at the venue of the Super-Special Stage at Gloucester Park. This is located only 4kms East of Perth against the Swan River.
- Recce (two runs) takes place over Tuesday - Wednesday
- The shakedown stage (Thursday November 11th, from 9:00 until 12:00) uses a stage located near Jacoby Park in Mundaring.
- A start ceremony will be take place on Thursday at Gloucester Park before the first running of the Super-Special Stage.
- Leg 1 - The first full day, Friday, sees the teams head to the forest roads around Dwellingup.
- Leg 2 - On Saturday, the rallying heads east to Mundaring.
- Leg 3 - Sunday sees the return of the spectacular Sotico stages in North Bannister.
- Tyres: two types of pattern are authorised per team. They were registered four weeks prior to the start. The individual driver quota is 80 tyres in Australia, 40 of which may be used during the event.
The current weather forecast for Perth over the rally weekend is for light showers clearing on Friday and mostly sunny conditions in the low 20's during the event. If the cooler weather of the week clears earlier temperatures up to 30 degrees may be experienced.