Coates Hire Rally Australia is Sebastien Ogier’s second opportunity to wrap up this year’s WRC drivers’ championship. And after the disappointment of crashing out of last month’s Rallye Deutschland, he’s eager to get his world title tilt back on track.
To secure the trophy, the Volkswagen ace must pick up nine points more than his closest rival Thierry Neuville and one more than his team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala.
But don't expect the Frenchman to waste time worrying about the calculations. Instead, he’s set himself the straightforward target - mathematically at least - of victory and a maximum three points on the power stage. If this happens, Neuville would need second in both competitions to keep the battle alive.
Another reason Ogier is motivated to do well this week is to make up for the frustration he suffered when Coffs Harbour last hosted Australia’s WRC counter in 2011.
On that occasion Ogier began the rally hell bent on beating his team-mate and title rival Sebastien Loeb. A crash on the opening day for Loeb made the task seem easier, and Ogier could have moved equal on points with Loeb had he kept out front. Instead his challenge unravelled when he spun into a tree shortly after the 23-kilometre mark of Shipmans II.
To make matters worse, Citroen later instructed Ogier to deliberately lose time so that Loeb could take his place in the top ten and salvage power stage points.
For Ogier to set the record straight this year, he’ll first need to get past Citroen’s Mikko Hirvonen – the winner of the last three WRC rallies held in Australia in 2006, 2009 and 2011.
Hirvonen likes the East Coast stages and although his wins have all been in Fords so far, expect him to be a serious threat this year in the DS3 - especially as the battle for the Manufacturers’ trophy between Citroen and Volkswagen reignited in Germany.
Latvala is another serious contender for the win and is, like Ogier, a driver with a score to settle. Latvala was on course to win Rally Australia in 2011 but relinquished the place so that his then team-mate Hirvonen could have a better crack at the title.
Citroen’s Dani Sordo replacement, Kris Meeke, might well surprise the established WRC stars. After impressing on Rally Finland, before crashing just before the finish, the Brit is eager to prove his value to the French squad at a time when next year’s contracts are being drawn up.
Thierry Neuville is the undoubted star in the Ford camp. The Belgian hasn't tackled Rally Australia before, but with four of his five podiums this season on gravel, the one-time asphalt specialist has developed into a true all-rounder.
Fellow Fiesta RS driver Evgeny Novikov has five Australian starts under his belt, and ran as high as fifth in 2011 before a huge crash on the final day. The Russian is hoping his experienced co-driver Ilka Minor can help him get a decent points haul this year.
There are 10 World Rally Car drivers on the entry list, including Mads Ostberg, who will make his Rally Australia debut this week, Khalid Al Qassimi, who was fifth in 2011 and Andreas Mikkelsen of the Volkswagen Motorsport II team.
The WRC drivers are rounded off by Coffs Coast resident Nathan Quinn, a wildcard entrant in the PWRC in 2011, who this year will drive a Mini John Cooper Works WRC run by Motorsport Italia.
Aside from the WRC contenders, nine crews from the FIA WRC 2 Championship have nominated Australia as one of their points-scoring rounds. We’ll bring you a separate WRC 2 preview later this week.
Australia rewind: On this rally last time
Mikko Hirvonen’s battle with Sebastien Loeb for the 2011 WRC drivers’ title was kept alive when the Finn took a third win on Rally Australia, while Loeb crashed out on the opening day.
Hirvonen began the final day of the Coffs Coast event 22.7s behind his Ford team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala. But when Latvala slowed to enable his fellow Fiesta RS WRC driver to get ahead, Hirvonen took a lead he wouldn’t relinquish. Latvala made it a one-two for the Blue Oval in second with Petter Solberg third in his privateer Citroen DS3 WRC.
Matthew Wilson equalled his career-best finish of fourth in his M-Sport Stobart Fiesta with Team Abu Dhabi’s Khalid Al Qassimi claiming his highest finish at world level in fifth. New Zealander Hayden Paddon finished sixth to win the Production Car World Rally Championship title with class rival Michal Kosciuszko seventh and Oleksandr Saliuk eighth.
The rally was one to forget for Citroen, which suffered a rare double retirement from its two cars. Loeb rolled his DS3 WRC on the opening day and salvaged 10th place after his team-mate Sebastien Ogier - who retired the same day after driving into a tree - was ordered by Citroen to surrender the place on the penultimate stage.
Australia tyre facts