Ford looks to experience of McRae and Sainz
The nail-biting battle for both the drivers' and manufacturers' titles in the FIA World Rally Championship will reach a new peak on the Rally
Australia (9 - 12 November). Although four drivers and three teams can
still claim the respective crowns, the series has reached a position where
both can be settled in Western Australia on this penultimate event of the
A calm temperament in such circumstances and the experience and knowledge of
how to 'play' such a specialised event as Rally Australia could prove vital.
In Colin McRae and Nicky Grist and team-mates Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya,
the Ford Martini team may hold a big advantage. The start will mark McRae's
100th world championship rally while this will be 136 for Sainz.
Driving Focus World Rally Cars, both will aim to put Ford back into the lead
of the manufacturers' series - they are just two points off the lead - while
improving their own chances of winning the drivers' championship. McRae and
Sainz are tied in third, six points behind leader Marcus Grönholm.
The Rally Australia is a favourite of most drivers. The pleasant climate,
warm welcome from the locals and the organisers' determination to make the
rally a show as well as a sport, pleases all. But, more than anything, it
is the gravel roads around the Perth base which make this event unique.
"The most important factor is the running order through the stages," said
32-year-old McRae. "The roads are covered in loose gravel for the first
cars but their passage brushes the surface clear to the advantage of those
behind. On the first day we'll benefit by starting behind Marcus and
Richard Burns. Conditions are worst on the final day and tactically the
lower down the order a driver lies going into the last leg, without allowing
a big gap to develop to the leaders, the better."
McRae used these tactics to perfection in 1998, before joining Ford, when he
climbed from sixth to first in three stages on the final day, only for
mechanical problems to drop him back.
The Scot, still recovering from a broken cheekbone and bruised lung after
his accident in Corsica, will be much fitter than for the previous round in
Italy last month. "Time is a great healer and that's what the injuries
really need. But my surgeon has told me not to do much fitness training
before Australia for fear of raising the pressure around the sinus area,"
added McRae, who will again sleep in a special chamber which reduces oxygen
levels and speeds recovery.
Sainz, three times runner-up in Australia, is looking forward to returning
to gravel stages having won the last round on that surface in Cyprus. "The
roads in Cyprus are rough and not like the stages in Australia but,
psychologically, I'm happy to be back on the gravel again," said the
38-year-old Madrid-based driver.
"Only two rounds remain and we've reached the point in the championship
where we're looking for victories only. Consistent results early in the
season provide a good base but we must return from Australia closer to the
championship lead than we are now and the best way to do that is to win.
The Focus is capable of that and I have sufficient experience of the rally
to do that so if it all comes together I see no reason why we can't," added
A third Ford-entered Focus will be driven by Tapio Laukkanen and Kaj
Lindström, the Finnish duo tackling only their second event in a World Rally
Car. "We competed in Australia last year so we have experience of the
roads," said 31-year-old Laukkanen, "but it was in a two-wheel drive car so
driving a Focus will be a very different prospect."
Ford Martini team director Malcolm Wilson hopes Western Australia's spring
sunshine will shine brightly on his team. "I think we'll all be happier
back on gravel after the last two rounds on asphalt. This rally can make or
break the season. Good results for Carlos and Colin in Australia can send
us into the final round in Britain as favourites for both titles and that's
what we must aim for," he said.
Rally Australia presents a challenge all of its own for Ford Martini's tyre
partner, Michelin. The gravel roads of Western Australia, especially those
in the Bunnings complex, are covered by millions of tiny ball-bearing like
stones. That loose top surface hides a harder base underneath and the
effect has been likened by competitors to driving on marbles.
In conditions found nowhere else during the championship year, Michelin's
rubber strives to offer the best possible grip and traction in two ways: by
cutting through to the hard base or by momentarily imprisoning the rounded
stones in the tread thanks to the type of pattern.
Re-cutting treads to suit the nature of the stones has always been one of
the 'hidden' skills of this event. But Michelin has been working hard on
developing further a tyre used for the first time in Australia last year.
With a more open tread pattern, it has somewhat reduced the need for
additional cuts without completely removing the crucial advantage that can
be gained by the expertise of the tyre engineers.
The rally follows a similar format to previous years, although the first leg
around Mundaring, east of Perth, is more compact. The long second leg heads
south for tests around the towns of Harvey and Collie and the final day
heads south-east to the famous Bunnings forest complex, now re-named Sotico.
Thousands of fans will gather on the hillsides there to watch the
spectacular downhill roller-coaster jumps and watersplash which see action
twice on the final day's four tests, including the final stage televised
live across Australia.
Huge crowds will also gather in Perth's riverside
Langley Park for the opening super special stage on Thursday evening where
two cars at a time race under floodlights on a purpose built circuit. This
year the stage, repeated on Friday and Saturday evenings, has a new layout.
There are 21 stages in all, covering 391km in a route of 1283km. The
longest is a massive 45.52km in the middle of the second leg, which covers