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 14-round championship.

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 Sainz.

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.

Tyre Talk

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.

Rally Route

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 almost 700km.


Colin McRae Rally 2.0 Official Game Website

Colin McRae Rally Official Game Website