After tackling everything from desert to snow, high altitude, rock-strewn tracks and even a course designed to test army tanks, the epic 2011 FIA World Rally Championship is heading for the New South Wales Coffs Coast, where a dramatic contest looms in Rally Australia next week.

Round 10 of the WRC, Rally Australia on 8-11 September will be run in a new location 300 kms south of the previous event in 2009 and 535 kms north of Sydney.

The field features 29 cars in the WRC and Production Car WRC rounds, with drivers and co-drivers representing 22 countries from Russia to Brazil and Australia.

A further 70 cars are entered in two companion domestic events, the Coffs Coast Forest Rally and Coffs Coast Classic Rally.

The route, to the west, south and north of Coffs Harbour on Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights beside the city’s harbour beach, will comprise 26 competitive stages over 369 kilometres.

It will be the setting for a crucial battle for the drivers world championship as the 13-round season heads toward its climax.

Sebastien Loeb heads the standings in his Citroen Total World Rally Team DS3 WRC, but with teammate Sebastien Ogier just 25 points behind, and both with four wins to their credit this season, the two French aces are expected to fight all the way to the finish on the 4.58 km televised Power Stage next Sunday.

While Ogier triumphed on the tarmac last round in Germany, Loeb was on top in the previous round in Finland on gravel and will be looking to translate that form into extra points towards a record eighth straight world title.

Ogier, who has taken a short holiday in Australia to ensure he’s fully focused for the challenge, has the advantage of following Loeb through Friday’s first gravel stages and should, in theory, benefit from a slightly cleaner road surface.

However, Loeb has shown on several occasions this season that his speed is rarely compromised running at the head of the field.

Ford arrives in Australia desperate to end a winless streak, which dates back to February’s Rally Sweden, where Mikko Hirvonen got the new 1.6 litre World Rally Car era off to a flying start with victory in his Fiesta RS WRC.

Hirvonen won the last Rally Australia to take place in Perth in 2006 and took first place in Australia in 2009 following Loeb’s demotion due to a technical infringement.

Hirvonen’s fellow Finn Jari-Matti Latvala, in the second factory Fiesta, is gunning for his first win of 2011 and will be a contender for victory, as will Citroen privateer Petter Solberg.

Despite a frustrating campaign in his works-supported DS3 WRC, Solberg has refused to get downhearted and remains a formidable force on gravel. The 2003 world champion from Norway hasn’t competed in Australia since 2006.

Evgeny Novikov and Matthew Wilson head the M-Sport Stobart Ford challenge in their Fiesta RS WRCs. Russian Novikov is one of the fastest drivers in the WRC on his day, while Briton Wilson is a hugely consistent performer.

Henning Solberg will also be armed with an M-Sport Stobart Fiesta and will be capable of landing a points’ finish. Team Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Monster World Rally Team’s Ken Block, from America, will also be in contention to finish comfortably inside the top 10 in their Fiestas.

Peter van Merksteijn Jr completes the Citroen line-up in his privateer DS3 WRC, while Brazil World Rally Team’s Daniel Oliveira is the lone MINI John Cooper Works WRC representative.

In addition to counting as round 10 of the main WRC, Rally Australia is round five of the Production Car World Rally Championship for turbocharged, near-standard machines in four- and two-wheel-drive configuration.

Having won three of the past four rounds, New Zealander Hayden Paddon is in a commanding points position and at Rally Australia will be focused on his quest to become the first rally world champion from New Zealand or Australia.

The roads of the Coffs Coast region have been used for rallies since the 1960s and have hosted a round of Australia’s national rally championship for a number of years. However, some stages have been untried for more than two decades and all will be new territory for the overseas drivers.

The daytime rural stages are a mixture of hard-base shire and forestry roads with fast and flowing and tight and twisty sections running through a combination of open areas and forests.

With trees lining the roads in many places, drivers will have to have to trade ultimate pace with caution to avoid unnecessary damage.

Road-clearing will also play a major role with drivers running at the front of the field forging a clean, faster line for those behind.

The Castrol Edge Super Special Stage covers 3.77 kms on mostly tarmac at Coffs Harbour’s Jetty area adjacent to the harbour, surf beach and a restaurant strip and is sure to generate an exhilarating atmosphere at night.

Rally Austraia will start officially with a rally show, Welcome to Country ceremony by indigenous community representatives and other festivities in the centre of Coffs Harbour from 4.30pm Thursday.

The permanent BP Ultimate Service Park will be located at Coffs Harbour Regional Airport.
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