(5/9/2013, Team preview) FOLLOWING a brief interlude on asphalt, next week sees the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) make a return to gravel at one of M-Sport’s favourite hunting grounds – Coates Hire Rally Australia. The Cumbrian outfit has been victorious on the championship’s last three ventures Down Under, and their young crews will be determined to continue that success.
Victory will be no easy task, but Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov and Thierry Neuville won’t let that hold them back. Out of the three crews, only Novikov has previous experience of the Australian stages but none of the Ford Fiesta RS WRC drivers should be discounted for a strong result.
Nestled in an idyllic pocket where the Great Dividing mountain range meets the Pacific Ocean, the tourist town of Coffs Harbour plays host to what is arguably the most compact event of the season. With two of the three legs never venturing further than 35 kilometres from the rally base, this year’s event looks set to be a spectator’s paradise.
The spectators will have plenty to see as the loose gravel tests provide crews with a technically challenging event. Traversing through fast shire roads and unforgiving tree-lined tracks, the stages can be treacherously slippery – making road position and recce of vital importance.
A good recce will be particularly important for Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson as they make their Australian debut. But the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team pairing are accustomed to the challenge of tackling new events. Thanks to a precise pacenote system, the Scandinavians won’t let their limited experience hinder their goal of securing a third podium in 2013.
Getting back into the rhythm of gravel rallying, Østberg contested Rally Telemark in his native Norway last week. Piloting a similar Fiesta RS WRC, he and Andersson were back to their best. Securing victory by almost three minutes, the gravel-based event will have been a huge confidence boost ahead of their WRC return.
As the most experienced Qatar M-Sport driver in Australia, Østberg’s team-mate, Novikov, will be looking to get his 2013 season back on track in style. The Russian contested the event in 2011 and was running as high as fourth overall before a final-day roll put paid to a point-scoring result.
With co-driver Ilka Minor calling the notes, the Muscovite is well placed for a resurgent comeback. Having contested the rally on five previous occasions, Minor is one of the most experienced in the field – securing back-to-back podiums when she partnered Manfred Stohl in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
Also contesting Rally Australia for the first time, preparation will be key for Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul. Despite being widely acknowledged as a Tarmac-specialist, Neuville has proved his worth on all surfaces this year – four of his five podiums being secured on loose-surface rallies.
Neuville can certainly ‘drive’ a rally car, but he can also ‘drive’ on the golf course. Since Rallye Deutschland, the 25-year-old attended the ‘Stars&Drive’ event at the ‘Club de 7 Fontaines’ in Belgium. Partnered by last year’s Ryder Cup Winner, Nicolas Colsaerts, Neuville added yet another podium to his tally – albeit not in the rallying stakes this time.
But a rallying podium could be well within his grasp next week. He and Gilsoul have been meticulous in their pacenote preparation this year and – using the first pass as a high-speed recce – have the potential to be blisteringly quick over the second loop. With their recent results as they are, there would be few to bet against the pairing in Australia.
Mads Østberg said:
“It’s always a big challenge going to a new event. We’ll try to gather as much information as possible, but you can never know what the conditions are like until you are actually there. We just need to keep an open mind and concentrate on having a really good recce. Jonas [Andersson, co-driver] and I are used to making new pacenotes, so hopefully it won’t be too much of an issue for us.
“Also, from what I have seen and heard about the stages, I think they will suit my driving style. The gravel roads are very fast and flowing – which I like – so who knows, maybe it could be a perfect rally for us!
“Of course it has been a long time since we have made a debut on a gravel event, so it is difficult to know exactly where we’ll find ourselves. But to be honest, we’ll be going into this event with the same mindset we had for the other gravel events. When it comes to loose-surface rallies, we want to fight for the top positions and a podium is always the goal.”
Evgeny Novikov said:
“I competed in Australia in 2011 and the stages are very fast and slippery. The last time we were there the weather was quite bad on the first two days so it was very difficult, but this year I think it will be a bit better. It’s a challenging event, but one that I am really looking forward to.
“Road position will be important so we need to make sure we have a good run through the Qualifying stage. As I said, the stages can be very slippery so having a clean road will be a big advantage.
“I am very fortunate to have Ilka [Minor, co-driver] next to me. This will be her sixth time competing in Australia and she has been on the podium twice. There is no question that her experience will be a benefit, but the most important thing for us will be to finish strongly with some good points.”
Thierry Neuville said:
“This will be our first time in Australia so we will need to take a different approach to what we have had recently. We will be discovering the stages for the first time, but I think that we are well prepared. Both Nicolas [Gilsoul, co-driver] and I have been studying lots of on-boards from 2011 so, hopefully, we will be in the best possible position going into the recce.
“From what I have heard, the stages are very fast. You can even compare them to Finland although there are obviously a lot less jumps and the gravel is a lot looser and softer. We could see some big ruts form over the second pass so, as always, road position will be key.
“The [Ford] Fiesta [RS WRC] was very competitive in Finland, so I see no reason why it won’t be just as competitive in Australia. But we have had no testing before this event so we will need to spend some time discovering the best set-up during the rally.
“With all the podiums we have had recently, I would of course like to have another. But honestly, I think a top-five finish would be a good result for us. For me, the most important thing is to hold onto second place in the championship – from now until the end of the season.”