COFFS COAST (NSW) – The talk is over and now the fight begins: the world’s fastest rally drivers are ready to tackle Coates Hire Rally Australia, one of the most challenging events of the FIA World Rally Championship season, starting officially today.
The WRC 10th round has attracted 21 overseas crews representing 18 countries. The entry list stars World Champion Sebastien Ogier of France, Formula 1 race winner Robert Kubica of Poland, Australian hope Chris Atkinson and several more drivers capable of winning across more than 310 kms of Special Stage competition over three days.
The first of 20 stages is on Friday morning, but the total WRC field of 30 crews already will have completed two days’ of route reconnaissance and a shakedown session tomorrow morning which, although not officially a competition, will be a keenly-observed guide to who’s in form for the fast Australian roads.
The numbers say the winner should be either Ogier or Finnish teammate Jari-Matti Latvala, who have won all but one of the preceding rounds.
But Belgian Thierry Neuville is fired up after scoring the first win for himself and his new Hyundai team in Germany last month and will be rivalled for determination by his own teammates Chris Atkinson and New Zealander Hayden Paddon, both keen to shine in front of a Down Under home crowd.
Third Volkswagen representative Andreas Mikkelsen, the only other driver with his teammates still in contention for the drivers’ championship, in hunting his first win, as is Northern Irishman Kris Meeke who came closer than ever in Germany.
Whoever wins the rally, Ogier and Latvala need to score only five points between them to clinch the manufacturers championship for Volkswagen in Australia.
Atkinson, Australia’s most successful international rally driver, is returning to his Hyundai seat after a six-month break and is back in his home event for the first time since 2006.
“Your home event is always special and the fact I haven’t done it for a few years makes it even more significant,” Atkinson said.
“Since my last rally in Mexico with the team back in March I’ve not done much racing, which is unfortunate because nothing beats time in the car.
“My target for Australia is to be consistent and be in the fight for a good result, but I’m not underestimating how difficult it will be to be on the pace after six months away.
“The car is showing some good speed so everything is heading in the right direction. I know we’ll have some really strong support from the Aussie fans too.”
The Rally Australia field also includes a strong group of contenders, led by Italian Lorenzo Bertelli, who are fighting for the WRC2 title, and nine Australian crews keen to measure their performances against the world’s best.
The World Rally contenders will be followed by 40 cars in the East Coast Bullbars Australian Rally Championship while, on a separate course, the Pedders Suspension Coffs Coast 400 will offer equally spectacular racing.
The rally starts officially this afternoon when drivers turn out to meet thousands of fans at the Coates Hire Rally Show in the main street of Coffs Harbour.
Spectating highlights over the coming three days include a Red Bull aerobatic display and off-road display preceding the Hyundai Super Special Stage, free entry to the Hi-Tec Oils Service Park and Fanzone and the East Coast Bullbars and VisitNSW.com Rally Villages serviced throughout the weekend by a free Michel Shuttle bus service.