Thursday | 04 Sep 2014

Australia countdown: The challenge

While Coates Hire Rally Australia isn’t the only gravel round of the World Rally Championship, its notoriously slippery road surface and mix of forest and open sections make it a unique test for the drivers.

The wide-ranging conditions start with Friday’s technical, narrow, winding stages – most of which are on forest roads and under tree cover. Day two’s stages pass through more open countryside and feature big corners, big crests and jumps, while day three is all about extremely fast sections through the rainforest.

If conditions are dry, this rally can be one of the worst of the season for road sweeping. The stages, especially the well-maintained ‘shire’ roads through open countryside, are generally smooth, with a hard-packed clay base topped with a loose layer of fine gravel.

While the early starters face the unenviable task of sweeping the loose material from the surface, those behind benefit from a cleaner and faster line. Andreas Mikkelsen was first through Saturday’s stages last year and said it was like driving on marbles.

Those running further down the order will try to keep their tyres on the swept line. Step off it however, especially in a corner, and the traction will break in a snap.

All this changes if it rains - and in early spring, that’s a distinct possibility. In wet conditions, the roads quickly become muddy and slippery as ice – conditions that caught out both Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier in 2011.

Visibility can be an issue too. A lack of breeze last year meant dust clouds from the cars were a constant hazard and organisers extended the gap between them from two to four minutes. A mix of sunshine and the forest canopy can also cause problems, with the dappled light making the roads hard to read.

Some of the most challenging conditions are reserved for the long final day that features a competitive distance of 100.58kms. The penultimate test, ‘Bucca’, is the roughest of the rally and is littered with rocks, while the ‘Wedding Bells’ Power Stage is a flat-out sprint with jumps and crests that could have been lifted straight from Rally Finland.

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