THE three-way fight for this year’s FIA World Rally Championship crown looks set to go down to the wire at Kennards Hire Rally Australia next month but before that, the protagonists face RallyRACC Catalunya – Rally de España this weekend with one driver an outside chance to achieve a miracle.
(UPDATE: Thierry Neuville rolled his Hyundai during Thursday morning’s unofficial Shakedown session. Sébastien Ogier was fastest by 0.3sec in his Ford Fiesta from Jari-Matti Latvala’s Toyota Yaris. Ogier’s teammate Teemu Suninen completed the top three, a further 0.5sec back.)
Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville leads the standings by just seven points in the quest to score his first drivers’ title. It will be a near-impossible task to increase that advantage to an uncatchable 31 points by the rally’s finish on Sunday.
If he fails, the showdown will be at Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast on 15-18 November. Tickets for the event are available at www.rallyaustralia.com.au.
Lined up against the Belgian are Sébastien Ogier, winner in Great Britain early this month and keen to end a two-year tenure at the M-Sport Ford team with a sixth successive championship, and Toyota’s Ott Tänak, whose stunning late-season form has netted three straight wins.
“These two final rallies of the season (Spain and Australia) are massively important for us in the championship fight. We’ve lost ground in the past couple of events but we’re still on top and won’t give up without a fight,” said Neuville, referring to his disappointing results in the previous two rounds in Great Britain and Turkey.
“We know we’ve had some deficiencies on tarmac this season, but we’ve worked hard on that and hope we can see the fruits of it.”
The rally is the WRC’s only mixed-surface fixture. Friday’s opening leg of gravel speed tests is followed by two days of smooth and sweeping asphalt.
Ogier, a three-time winner in Spain, revived his title hopes with a remarkable charge to victory in Britain after gearbox problems relegated his Ford Fiesta to eighth.
“The dual surface element of this rally makes it a unique fixture on the calendar and you need to adapt quickly to each change in terrain. The title race is really hotting up and we’ll need to deliver another strong result if we want to defend our crown,” Ogier said.
Outsider Tänak lies 21 points behind Neuville after a broken radiator sidelined his Toyota Yaris in Britain while on course to grab a fourth straight win and the series lead.
The Estonian’s tactics are simple: “We still have a chance in the drivers’ championship and we’re not going to give up. We just have to win the last two rallies and see what happens.”
The rally is based in the coastal resort of Salou and after a street stage in nearby Barcelona’s Montjuïc area on Thursday evening (local time) gets underway in earnest with six gravel stages on Friday.
Teams are allowed a long service break on Friday night to convert their cars to tarmac specification for the remainder of the weekend.
The event will cover a total of 332km in 18 stages.
While the main focus will be on which driver leaves Spain with the advantage for Rally Australia, there’s plenty of other interest with appearances by world champions Sébastien Loeb, for Citroën, and Petter Solberg, in Volkswagen’s new Polo GTI WRC 2 contender. American video star Ken Block will have his first WRC drive, in a Ford Fiesta, since Spain 2014.
Skoda factory driver Jan Kopecký will confirm his WRC 2 crown from an unbeatable points position, but there remains a close fight in WRC 3 between five drivers separated by 13 points.
Kennards Hire Rally Australia also will feature the decider between four contenders for the CAMS Australian Rally Championship.
Highlight attractions at Rally Australia include –
Thursday-Sunday: Pedders Rally Central service park (C.ex Coffs International Stadium, 7am-7.30pm, free entry)
Thursday: Rally Show and Ceremonial Start (Coffs Harbour Jetty Foreshores, 4pm, free entry)
Friday: Destination NSW Super Special Stage (Coffs Harbour Jetty Foreshores, gates open 2pm, finish 7.30pm, ticket required)
Saturday: Raceway Special Stage (Raleigh, first car 9.47am, ticket required); Destination NSW Super Special Stage (Coffs Harbour Jetty Foreshores, gates open 2pm, finish 7.30pm, ticket required)
Sunday: Forests NSW Rally Village & finish podium presentation (Wedding Bells Special Stage, first car 8.40am, ticket required)
Rally Australia is supported by the NSW Government through its tourism and major events agency, Destination NSW.