(Team preview, 6/9/2013) THE final round of the season to be held outside Europe, Rally Australia is set to be an important event for the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team.
Following on from the win secured in Germany, the eight-time World Championship-winning team will be looking to Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen – three time winners of the event – and Kris Meeke/Chris Patterson to build on its return to form.
Held for many years in the Perth region, on the west coast of the country, Rally Australia has been based in New South Wales since 2009. Half-way between Sydney and Brisbane, the city of Coffs Harbour lies at the hub of a mixed course. The stages are run on fairly wide gravel roads and much narrower forest roads. A significant number of the timed stages are new this year and the decisive stage in the rally may well be Nambucca, a 49.9km-long test, run twice on the Saturday.
After an excellent overall result in Germany, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team has entered two crews that will be aiming high down under.
Having won the last three rallies held here in 2006, 2009 and 2011, Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen would dearly love to keep their record going.
“I’m always happy to come back to Australia. For someone who loves wide open spaces like me, it’s a fascinating country and one that I would love to get to know better,” explained Mikko.
“From a sporting point of view, I have won this rally three times, on three different courses. So, it’s certainly true that I’ve enjoyed a lot of success here. This year, my aim is to secure a second consecutive win for Citroën. That’s definitely what we need to aim for if we want to close the gap to the leaders in the Manufacturers’ World Championship.
“Our good result in Germany hasn’t changed our preparation for Australia, but the momentum gained from winning has boosted the confidence of every member of the team,” continued the Finn.
“As is the case at every rally, we’ll be fighting with some very quick rivals, but we have to be determined in striving to reach our goals.”
The no.3 Citroën DS3 WRC will be entrusted to Kris Meeke and Chris Patterson.
The Irishman, who produced a fine performance in Finland in the Abu Dhabi Citroën Total WRT car, is very aware of what a great opportunity this represents: “The end result at my last rally was frustrating, but I’m heading for Australia to finish the job! It’s a big responsibility to be promoted to the works team, and I have to finish the rally in a good position to score points for Citroën.
“I’m not expecting it to be an easy week. This is my first time in Australia – in fact, this is my first WRC rally outside of Europe! But I know I can count on the support of the team and on the qualities of the DS3 WRC. I feel almost as though I’m part of this car and I can’t wait to get out there in it on the Australian roads!”
The third Citroën will be driven by Khalid Al-Qassimi, with co-driver Scott Martin. The Abu Dhabi driver has only competed twice before at Rally Australia, but he did record his best ever result in WRC when he finished fifth here in 2011.
“It’s a very enjoyable rally in terms of driving. The roads seem quite natural for me, more so than those in Germany, in any case! I hope we can reproduce the kind of performance we achieved here two years ago, but above all I would like to see a DS3 WRC on the top step of the podium!”
THREE QUESTIONS FOR MIKKO HIRVONEN
What memories do you have of Rally Australia?
“In 2006, the rally was still based in Perth and I claimed my first WRC win after a great battle with Petter Solberg. The 2009 rally was the first time it was held on the East coast. This time, I was embroiled in a scrap with Sébastien Loeb, who won the race before then being penalised. That meant I had claimed a fourth win in a row and took the lead in the Drivers’ World Championship standings at that stage. However, after Rally Wales GB, Seb ended up beating me by one point. Two years ago, both Citroëns went off at the start of the race. I was leading at the end of day one, but then lost time due to sweeping the loose gravel, which allowed my team-mate to take over as leader the next day. In the end, though, I won the rally.”
What do you think about the course for this event?
“We don’t know these roads very well, as we have only raced on them once before in 2011, when the roads were also particularly wet. Generally, the road surface is in very good condition, and the stages are held on fast-flowing roads. They aren’t difficult to get to grips with, but you need plenty of ‘guts’ in certain sections in order not to lose speed. It’s also nice not to have rocks along the sides of the road. In short, you could say it’s like a flat version of Rally Finland!”
Does the third place you secured in Germany mean your run of bad luck is over?
“I certainly hope so! It was a very special moment for every member of Citroën Racing, but we put it behind us quickly in order to focus on the upcoming events. The fact is that we have drastically cut our rival’s lead in the Manufacturers’ Championship. The title is still very much up for grabs, but we need to produce perfect performances at each rally to have a chance. We are competing against two very strong teams who will also be very quick in Australia. We have to keep believing. We can do it, if we all work together!”