Three weeks after the rain and gloom of Wales Rally GB, the WRC reaches its finale at Kennards Hire Rally Australia on what promise to be some of the hottest and loosest gravel roads of the season.
For one last time this year, we jumped into the WRC.com recce car to take a look at the route. Here's what we discovered.
A familiar challenge
Okay, some of the route has changed, but in general competitors face a similar picture to last year. Most of the itinerary consists of fast, flowing roads through open farmland, with only about 60km in the forests. The picture below, taken 11km into Friday's Bakers Creek (SS2/SS7), is typical of many stages and shows one of the many narrow, wooden bridges that dot the route.
Stages are in good condition, some have been graded recently and the depth of the notorious loose gravel surface varies. There have been heavy rain storms in the past week - most recently a torrential downpour on Monday night - but these have been very localised and the overall picture is dry. The forecast is for more dry and hot weather to come with temperatures in the high 20s Celsius.
A new Newry
The name isn't new, but the stage is. Run twice on Friday, the rechristened Newry16 is heavily modified from previous editions due in part to the completion of the nearby Highway 1 which forced a change to the entry point. The stage now starts on Avocado Road, named after the plantations close by. Narrow all the way through, and run deep in the forest, Newry is unlike anything else on day one. Visibility can be an issue here as the dense forest canopy creates a mix of bright sunshine and shadows, making the road tricky to read. The picture below was taken at the 13km point.
A raceway double
Another new feature this year is the 1.37km Raceway Super Special Stage. Run four times over Friday and Saturday, it is based on an international-spec kart circuit that has been super-sized to host drifting and rallycross events. The stage is mostly Tarmac but contains two short sections of gravel.
Beach Moto X
The return of the beach-side Destination NSW Super Special Stage, last used in 2011, offers plenty of stunt-driving potential. The short course includes a motocross-style bermed corner, a kicker-jump and a donut roundabout. About 50 meters of the 1.27km route is on gravel, the rest is Tarmac, but the stage has a strong beach theme. Run along the top of Boambee Beach, organisers have added a line of sand dunes to give the impression cars are racing along the shoreline. Work to construct the concrete berm was underway when we took a look on Monday. With no top rail, drivers will be on the rocks, in every sense, if they overcook it here.
Tweaks to Settles, Valla and Bucca
Last year's Valla stage has been extended by 5.9kms at the start to become Valla16. The new section is forest-based, fast and narrow before a right turn onto the 2015 route. Run twice on Sunday, Settles Reverse is the only stage this year that will be tackled in the opposite direction to 2015. Another Sunday stage, Bucca, has been lengthened after Forestry Corporation NSW opened up some formerly disused tracks. Fast and narrow, the renamed Bucca16 also features a new chicane at 17.1kms to slow things a little before a tight right-hander.