PHOTO: Jari-Matti Latvala celebrates his Rally Finland victory (Volkswagen pic)
BARELY five weeks from its return to Australia, the FIA World Rally Championship looks set for a thrilling contest on the roads of the Coffs Coast region with the chase for the driver’s championship still wide open after the latest round in Finland.
In winning last weekend’s Neste Oil Rally Finland, Volkswagen driver Jari-Matti Latvala lifted his position in the championship standings to just 44 points behind teammate Sebastien Ogier, with five rounds still to run, including Coates Hire Rally Australia on 11-14 September.
The scenario for Australia will be set at ADAC Rallye Deutschland on 21-14 August, when a revitalised Latvala will have a chance to narrow the points deficit further in his quest for a maiden World Rally Championship.
Last year he arrived on the Coffs Coast 86 points adrift of a dominant Ogier, who only narrowly failed to win the championship at the end of the rally.
Latvala said the weekend win was vital for his title hopes.
“Only a victory could help me. If I had not won the rally here then I would be finishing second in the championship, but now I can fight to keep it alive – it was all or nothing,” he said.
Victory in Finland was sweeter for Latvala for the way it was achieved.
He kept calm and focused with the help of mental trainer Christophe Treier after a brake failure on Saturday and as Ogier closed to just 3.6 seconds at the end of the 360 kilometre high-speed “gravel grand prix”.
“It was so hard to take this victory. I had a fantastic feeling with the driving but when I had the brake problem yesterday I was in a difficult position,” Latvala said at the finish on Sunday.
“I was so close to losing the victory but I fought back. I was nervous today but managed to hold it together.
“I never worked so hard for one victory as I have done here.”
Third place behind Ogier went to Citroen driver Kris Meeke who, despite giving one of the best performances of his own career, heaped praise on Latvala.
“A podium is pretty special on the biggest rally of all. But we’re still not near perfection yet,” the Irishman said.
“Jari-Matti was the epitome of perfection all weekend in how to drive a rally car on these roads. Until I get there and try to win this rally some day, we’ll have to keep trying for perfection,” he said.
Coates Hire Rally Australia Event Manager David Catchpole said spectators were in for a thrilling time.
“Last year Ogier was uncatchable and we expected he would become champion here, three rounds before the end of the season,” Catchpole said.
“But that won’t be the case in 2014. His teammate Latvala wants to be world champion and it will be fantastic for spectators to see possibly the two fastest rally drivers in the world battling head-to-head on the Coffs Coast roads.”
World champion Ogier and Latvala will be joined by other WRC stars including Meeke, Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway), Mads Ostberg (Norway), Elfyn Evans (UK), Robert Kubica (Poland), Thierry Neuville (Belgium) and three-time Rally Australia winner Mikko Hirvonen.
A big turnout is expected for Hyundai teammates Chris Atkinson of Australia and Hayden Paddon of New Zealand.
Both predict that traditional trans-Tasman rivalry will spur their performances – and the fans’ behavior – as they strive to put a Down Under driver on the podium.
Final-day steering problems forced Paddon back from a likely sixth place to an eventual eighth in Finland. Meanwhile, Atkinson has flown from his Gold Coast home to Europe to test the factory Hyundai i20 world rally car before his next championship appearance in Australia.
Although Paddon was disappointed to miss sixth place, he said Rally Finland has been a valuable learning experience before his next outing in Australia (he will sit out Germany).
“I have felt totally comfortable in the Hyundai i20 WRC and without a doubt it has been our best rally so far – even with today’s issues,” he said.
“Our confidence has grown all weekend and I was pleased to have been in the top six; we have shown what we are capable of but there is much more still to come and I can’t wait for our next rally in Australia.”
Tickets for Coates Hire Rally Australia and its major support event the Pedders Suspension Coffs Coast 400, are on sale from NRMAtix via rallyaustralia.com.au.
Spectating highlights of the event include the East Coast Bullbars and VisitNSW.com Rally Villages on the weekend daytime Special Stages and the Hyundai Super Special Stage incorporating the ARMOR ALL Shootout on Friday and Saturday nights.
Entry to the Hi-Tec Oils Service Park at the C.ex Coffs International Stadium will be free.
FIA Driver standings (after Rd 8)
1 S Ogier 187
2 J-M Latvala 143
3 A Mikkelsen 95
4 M Ostberg 66
5 M Hirvonen 62
6 K Meeke 54
7 T Neuville 46
8 E Evans 42
9 M Prokop 31
10 H Solberg 26
FIA Manufacturer standings (after Rd 8)
1 Volkswagen Motorsport 305
2 Citroen TOTAL Abu Dhabi WRT 130
3 M-Sport WRT 106
4 Volkswagen Motorsport II 94
5 Hyundai Shell WRT 88