Can Hirvonen extend WRC lead at Rally Australia?
- 30th August 2009, 2:29pm
The rally returns to the series for the first time since 2006 and after 19 years in Western Australia, it has crossed the country to the east coast. Its new base is the small resort of Kingscliff in the far north-east of New South Wales, close to the border with Queensland and just a few kilometres south of the famous Gold Coast holiday region and Brisbane.
The Ford squad is surfing a wave of success after equalling the team's best ever winning run in the WRC last month. Victory for Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila in Italy preceded Hirvonen's hat-trick in Greece, Poland and an emotional home town success in Finland. Just three of the 12 rounds remain and the virgin rally territory of the Tweed region, home to the Aboriginal people for 10,000 years, and the Kyogle area, known as The Gateway to the Rainforest, will provide a tough challenge.
Drivers will only begin to develop an understanding of the characteristics of the gravel roads once the recce begins on Tuesday. However, BP Ford Abu Dhabi tyre engineer George Black visited the area last year to examine the nature of the speed tests. The average special stage length is the shortest in the series, reflecting the rally's proximity to populated areas where gravel roads are less frequent.
The tests vary greatly, ranging from narrow and twisty routes among trees near Kingscliff that are used during the first leg, to quick, wide and smooth roads further west where speeds are expected to be close to those experienced in Finland, the championship's fastest round. The most westerly roads, used during the final leg, incorporate narrow rainforest tracks. Each loop of stages has a mix of roads so selecting the best compromise set-up for the Focus RS World Rally Cars will be important.
Hirvonen claimed his first WRC win in Australia in 2006 but the 29-year-old Finn acknowledges that will count for nothing on new roads. "This is a brand new rally so I don't know what to expect," he said. "The roads in the west where I won in 2006 are different to those we will experience here. The tracks were covered in slippery marble-like stones but I understand these roads are more traditional gravel, which should suit me. I love Australia, the people are friendly and easy going - like me!
"It's a crucial rally for the championship. I will try to win but if I can't, then I must score as many points as possible. Zero points and the title fight could be over for me this year. I have a good record on new rallies, although I don't feel I do anything differently in either the recce or the rally itself. But I'll be happy if I can maintain that record," added Hirvonen, who hopes to help 40-year-old Lehtinen celebrate his 100th WRC start in style.
Latvala, starting his third Rally Australia, identified the arduous schedule as a key factor. Drivers must spend more than 14 hours behind the wheel during the first leg, over 15 hours on the second day and more than 11 hours on the usually short final leg.
"They are long days and it will be important to adapt quickly to the time difference after the flight there and sleep a lot to be ready for this rally," said Latvala. "Maintaining concentration will be harder than usual. In most rallies the stages are held in groups of three, but it's different here. The opening section on the first leg includes seven tests so it will be important to remain focused during the long liaison sections.
"Shorter stages usually mean the competition is close because it's more difficult to open big time gaps on short tests than it is on longer sections. The drivers' championship is looking set for an exciting finish and my job in Australia will be to score solid points to help Mikko maintain his challenge for the title," added 24-year-old Latvala.
Abu Dhabi's Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive a third Focus RS WRC for the team. Al Qassimi is eager to maintain the form that has seen the 37-year-old driver claim points on four occasions from six outings this year. "I am very much looking forward to the Australian east coast rally experience. The stages will be new to everyone, so we are all in the same position to give it our best shot and get the most out of the challenge. I have great confidence in my car and the team, so I just need to prove that I can perform on the unknown stages," said Al Qassimi.
* Tyre partner Pirelli will provide BP Ford Abu Dhabi with just the one regulation tyre pattern. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be available in hard compound only. Teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber and each car can carry two spare wheels.
* Three other Focus RS WRCs will start. Henning Solberg / Cato Menkerud and Matthew Wilson / Scott Martin are nominated by the Stobart VK M-Sport squad while Federico Villagra / Jorge Perez Companc will drive for the Munchi's Ford team.
* During their visit to Sydney for promotional activities, Hirvonen / Lehtinen and Latvala / Anttila will attend the Sydney Swans v Brisbane Lions Australian Rules football match tomorrow (Saturday) evening at the Sydney Cricket Ground. It is the final game of the season for the Ford-backed Swans.
The rally is based in Kingscliff, on the Tweed Coast, which will also host the service park. The stages will all be based in the Tweed and Kyogle shires to the south-west. Two passes of an asphalt super special stage around the streets of Murwillumbah begin the action on Thursday and will also end the competition on Friday and Saturday. The opening leg is the shortest, with much of the action based close to Murwillumbah, before Saturday's route takes competitors further west for stages clustered around Kyogle. The final leg is the longest, journeying west of Kyogle with a remote service based in the town's main street. A live TV stage ends the action before the finish back in Kingscliff. Drivers tackle 35 stages covering 344.72km of competition in a route of 1733.75km.
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