WRC – Fresh Start In Rally Australia For Ford Abu Dhabi Drivers

September 5, 2011

WRC

New-look Rally Australia (8 – 11 September) offers a step into the unknown for Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s drivers.  A new base at Coffs Harbour, on the northern coast of New South Wales, means Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen and team-mates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila must quickly get to grips with roads never seen before in the FIA World Rally Championship.

The pre-event recce on Tuesday and Wednesday will be key to their preparations for this 10th round of the series.  The crews will have just two limited-speed passes over the gravel special stages, a mix of forest tracks and public roads in the countryside near Coffs Harbour, in which to make and refine their pace notes.

In June tyre engineer George Black visited the area, almost halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, on a fact-finding trip to ensure the team is as well-prepared as possible before its arrival on Australia’s eastern coast.

“There is a mix of hard base roads, some tight and twisty and others that are fast and flowing,” he said.  “Some parts closely resemble the countryside in which the rally used to be held in Western Australia.  Other areas are similar to the famous Whaanga Coast stage in New Zealand, with dense rainforest vegetation.

“The public (shire) roads are well-maintained, with trees close the edge of the road in many places.  If drivers put a wheel off-line it will be easy to hit one.  Most stages travel through dense forest, so the low angle of the sun in mornings and evenings could be tricky.  It creates a ‘strobe-like’ effect as it flashes through the branches and it could be hard to read the road,” added Black.

Coffs Harbour is the hub of a thriving banana industry and the home of Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe.  It is a fast-growing holiday city, nestled between the Great Dividing Range, Australia’s largest mountain region, and the golden beaches of the Pacific Ocean.  But the scenery will be the last thing on Hirvonen’s mind when he takes to the wheel of his Ford Fiesta RS World Rally Car.

“When competing on a new rally it’s essential to learn quickly,” said the 31-year-old Finn.  “Accuracy when making pace notes is important because we only have one run in which to make them and a second pass to check them.  But getting a feel for the characteristics of the roads is equally vital.

Hirvonen won Rally Australia’s last two appearances in the championship in 2006, his maiden WRC success, and 2009.  “A hat-trick would be a welcome conclusion to the weekend.  I’m looking forward to being back on gravel after the asphalt in Germany.  I enjoy Australia and the rally usually has a relaxed feel which helps with the preparation,” added Hirvonen, who is third in the drivers’ standings.

Latvala lies fourth in the points table and has three previous starts in Australia to his name.  Fourth place in 2009 is his best result.  The 26-year-old Finn also relishes a return to gravel and believes he can relieve the frustrations of a disappointing weekend at Rallye Deutschland last month.

“I enjoy fast gravel rallies and I want to be fighting for victory next weekend,” he said.  “There have been some frustrating times this year because we’ve lost rallies by small margins, but we know the Fiesta RS WRC is competitive and I’m confident we can turn that around.  Australia would be the perfect place to start.

“We’re going to a new location and that means the preparations must be slightly different.  After the recce we’ll take a close look at our videos of the stages.  When I’ve competed on stages several times before, the roads are fixed in my memory, so there’s not so much to learn from watching the videos.  But on new roads there’s always a benefit to watching them.  It helps develop an understanding of the characteristics of the stages,” added Latvala.

Khalid Al Qassimi and Michael Orr will drive the team’s other Fiesta RS WRC and the duo are nominated to score for Team Abu Dhabi.  This will be Al Qassimi’s third Rally Australia and he is aware that a sensible approach will be required over new roads.

“I understand the stages will be of a different nature to those we drove in 2009.  The weather forecast indicates showers during the rally and on hard-based roads conditions could be slippery.  The key is to find a balance of good pace in the dry, and a compromise of speed and safety if it’s wet.  Missing a braking point on slippery roads can lead to an overshoot or worse,” said Al Qassimi.

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