So here we are, after 12 rounds, thousands of miles and a not inconsiderable number of crashes and off-road excursions, the 2017 FIA World Rally Championship reaches its climax in Australia. An event that’s moved around over the course of the last few years, the WRC’s annual trip down under remains a firm favourite with both teams and fans, not least as it blends a challenging gravel surface with flowing stages which enable crews to build up a rhythm. Based in Coffs Harbour since 2011, Rally Australia has been a key round of the WRC for decades, with many of the sport’s most memorable moments having taken place on the nation’s sun-baked outback roads.
The Australian round of the WRC has long majored on providing a mix of technically demanding sections and flat out blasts between outback trees, stages which require drivers to have taken their bravery pills beforehand! This year’s running encompasses a trio of stages new for 2017 north of Coffs Harbour, plus a tarmac blast along the Coffs jetty, a stage repeated on Saturday afternoon. Saturday is also home to Nambucca, a monster of a stage in the tradition of Rally Australias of old, and one which clocks in at 49km. Sunday will see the crews tackle a trio of tests, including Bucca and the Wedding Bells Power Stage.
M-Sport will go into the event high on confidence after its performance on home turf a few weeks ago. Elfyn Evans has already admitted that it will take a monsoon of epic, indeed wholly improbable, proportions for him to repeat his Welsh victory down under, but that doesn’t mean that the WRC’s latest winner isn’t fired up for the final round of the season, especially as (with the title already decided) there’s no chance of team orders. Newly crowned WRC champions Sebastian Ogier will no doubt be seeking to complete his 2017 season in the manner in which he started it, while Toyota-bound Ott Tanak will want to close the M-Sport portion of his career with another victory. The M-Sport Fiesta has proved it has what it takes to win on punishing gravel events already this year, so Malcolm and his team will seek to end the year on a high, especially as Ford continue to monitor the team’s performance with renewed interest.
One car which certainly hasn’t shown the strength required to win consistently on rough events is the Hyundai, and you could argue that the relative frailty of the i20 Coupe WRC has played a direct role in both titles going to Cumbria instead of Korea. Still, both Thierry Neuville and Andreas Mikkelsen have proved they can win on tricky gravel stages, with the latter having secured his and VW’s last victory in Australia 12 months ago. Kiwi Hayden Paddon will also wish to do well in what is effectively his home event now New Zealand is off the calendar, not least as he’s likely to be sharing the third i20 with Dani Sordo in 2018.
The Toyota Yaris WRC has probably enjoyed a better opening season than Tomi Mäkinen and his team would have dared hoped for back at the beginning in Monte Carlo, but it has also looked too specialised, perhaps a result of its development being undertaken almost entirely in Scandinavia. The car’s advanced aero package which served it so well in Finland will hopefully do the same on some of Australia’s more frenetic stages though, while Jari-Matti Latvala has proved that he’s more than comfortable in his new team, perhaps comfortable enough to take the fight to M-Sport and Hyundai, who knows… Team mate Esapekka Lappi will no doubt treat the rally as an experience building exercise in readiness for his first full time drive in 2018, though the Finnish sensation has already proved both his pace and his talent with a remarkable win in Finland.
A torrid year finally comes to a conclusion for Citroen, though the Versaille outfit will be able to draw some comfort from the C3’s improved showing last time out in Wales. Kris Meeke‘s eventual finishing position of seventh overall belied his top 5 pace on Friday, and it wasn’t all that long ago that the Northern Irishman took a commanding win in Spain. He’ll be joined by Craig Breen and Stephane Lefebvre, both of whom will be seeking to bolster their experience ahead of next year, while the whole team will no doubt be seeking to use the rally to further develop the C3 ahead of 2018.
It isn’t just the WRC titles which have been decided before the championship before the teams have even arrived in Australia, WRC2 has as well, with Pontus Tidemund having done more than enough to claim overall victory for Skoda Motorsport. Tidemund’s success means that he’s all but guaranteed to be back in the works Skoda team next year (unless M-Sport come-a-knocking of course), and has also enabled him to save some money by skipping the trip to Australia. It means that the one and only WRC2 entry is that of Kalle Rovenpera, the young Finn still learning his craft after a tricky debut in Wales.