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.
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.
"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!"
"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."
The Car / The Challenge
Subaru World Rally Team Principal, David Lapworth
"This year, the fact that the rally is the last in the Championship is something to look forward to. The stages are pretty challenging and I think all the drivers find it difficult. It's generally quite a fast event, but the drivers have to be precise. The grip on the driving line is pretty good, but off line there's a ball-bearing type of gravel that makes it very slippery indeed. It's almost like driving on a railway track, stay on the line and everything is fine, but go off it by just half a metre and the car will just slide. The drivers therefore find it difficult to get their confidence, if they have it, they can go very quickly, but if they lose it, they can lose up to two seconds a kilometre.
This is one of the rallies where if it stays dry, the effect of running further down the order is the biggest. That's because of this ball bearing like loose surface, as more and more gravel gets cleaned away by each car, it just gets faster and faster so it's probably the most exaggerated of the year. By the time we get to the stages on Sunday, you may see two seconds a kilometre difference between the first and fifteenth car on the road.
It's likely to be a bit drier than normal in Perth this year due to the date change and that's quite a challenge, especially when it comes to tyre choice. Drivers normally like to run a fairly open pattern in Australia with a soft compound to try to maintain grip, especially if they go off the driving line. However the higher temperatures mean that the soft compounds move around more when you're on the clean, hard driving line and you can lose precision in the tyres. That's going to be pretty tricky challenge to get right this year, especially if the temperature is five degrees higher than normal, as expected.
We're planning to run a similar set-up to last year's car and are confident going into the event. We'd never predict that we are going to win a rally and so many things can happen, but the nature of the stages are perfect for Petter and he thrives on the tricky stuff. We've been very strong on the last three gravel rallies and, as this offers a similar surface, we have to feel pretty confident. That said, Sebastien was very good last year and has nothing to lose now. All the top drivers will go there with not much at stake, other than the pride of winning the last rally of the year, so it should be a good fight."
Between the Rallies
It's been a busy few days for Petter Solberg, who flew directly to Australia from Spain to attend a PR function in Sydney before the start of the final rally of the year. On Thursday the Norwegian attended a Subaru Australia / Subaru WRX Club event where he signed more than 300 autographs, showed off his driving skills in a Subaru Impreza WRX and completed a series of interviews. On Friday he will attend more interviews before enjoying a Sydney Harbour cruise that evening. Petter is set to arrive in Perth on Saturday, where he will spend some time with his family before beginning his rally duties on Monday 8 November.
Meanwhile, his Finnish team-mate Mikko Hirvonen is enjoying a short break in Dubai with his fiance Karoliina. The pair arrived on Thursday and have spent time swimming and canoeing. On Friday they are set to go on a 4WD desert safari, which includes downhill skiing on the sand dunes and a camel ride. They will leave on Saturday and arrive in Western Australia the next day.