BRENTWOOD, England - Following a brief interlude on asphalt, this week sees the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) make a return to gravel at one of Ford and M-Sport’s favourite hunting grounds – Coates hire Rally Australia. Blue Oval badged cars have been victorious on the championship’s last three ventures Down Under, and M-Sport’s young crews will be determined to continue that success.
Victory will be no easy task, but Mads Østberg, Evgeny Novikov and Thierry Neuville won’t let that hold them back. Out of the three crews, only Novikov has previous experience of the Australian stages but none of the Ford Fiesta RS WRC drivers should be discounted for a strong result.
Nestled in an idyllic pocket where the Great Dividing mountain range meets the Pacific Ocean, the tourist town of Coffs Harbour plays host to what is arguably the most compact event of the season. With two of the three legs never venturing further than 35 kilometres from the rally base, this year’s event looks set to be a spectator’s paradise.
The spectators will have plenty to see as the loose gravel tests provide crews with a technically challenging event. Traversing through fast shire roads and unforgiving tree-lined tracks, the stages can be treacherously slippery – making road position and recce of vital importance.
A good recce will be particularly important for Østberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson as they make their Australian debut. But the Qatar M-Sport World Rally Team pairing are accustomed to the challenge of tackling new events. Thanks to a precise pacenote system, the Scandinavians won’t let their limited experience hinder their goal of securing a third podium in 2013.
Getting back into the rhythm of gravel rallying, Østberg contested Rally Telemark in his native Norway recently. Piloting a similar Fiesta RS WRC, he and Andersson were back to their best. Securing victory by almost three minutes, the gravel-based event will have been a huge confidence boost ahead of their WRC return.
As the most experienced Qatar M-Sport driver in Australia, Østberg’s team-mate, Novikov, will be looking to get his 2013 season back on track in style. The Russian contested the event in 2011 and was running as high as fourth overall before a final-day roll put paid to a point-scoring result.
With co-driver Ilka Minor calling the notes, the Muscovite is well placed for a resurgent comeback. Having contested the rally on five previous occasions, Minor is one of the most experienced in the field – securing back-to-back podiums when she partnered Manfred Stohl in 2005 and 2006 respectively.
Also contesting Rally Australia for the first time, preparation will be key for Qatar World Rally Team’s Thierry Neuville and Nicolas Gilsoul. Despite being widely acknowledged as a Tarmac-specialist, Neuville has proved his worth on all surfaces this year – four of his five podiums being secured on loose-surface rallies.
The event will commence on Thursday 12th September with the qualifying stage, followed by a rally show and ceremonial start then the first attempt at the super special.