It’s the showdown of the decade! Many years have passed since the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) was fought down to the last event of the annual global tour. That the final round this year will be staged on the Coffs Coast at Kennards Hire Rally Australia is a huge, unexpected bonus for fans of the world’s toughest international motorsport series.
It started on the streets of Monte-Carlo in January, cut a swathe of excitement across many parts of Europe, plus Central and South America and even the Middle East. Now audiences around the world and in Australia will be watching a unique finale set in this beautiful part of New South Wales.
Apart from the thrill of seeing superhuman drivers ply their amazing skill at high speed on narrow forest tracks, the benefits Rally Australia and the WRC bring to the region are easy to appreciate.
Why such anticipation? When the cover photo for this edition of FOCUS was shot earlier this year, the two drivers who had slugged it out all season, five-time champion Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville, seemed set to decide the prestigious drivers’ title between them.
Then suddenly, a quietly-spoken driving dervish named Ott Tänak made it a three-way fight, with consecutive victories in Finland, Germany and Turkey. The contest was electrified – the ledger of championship points is balanced so finely, no driver can win before Australia.
And there’s another highlight in 2018: the CAMS Australian Rally Championship is also down to the wire and will be fought out between four of the country’s most talented young pilots.
This will be the 27th Rally Australia and the seventh hosted on the Coffs Coast with the support of the NSW Government’s tourism and major events agency Destination NSW, regional councils and commercial partners led by Kennards Hire.
It’s found a natural home here. The temporarily-closed shire roads and roads made available by the Forestry Corporation of NSW offer a worthy challenge for the WRC drivers and a scenic backdrop for live TV coverage to 150 international markets. Putting together a rally route of just over 300 km involves officials driving many times that distance in surveys over many months. The aim is to find not only great roads, but also ones that have easy access at the ends and from the sides for sporting officials, emergency services, media and spectators, plus the best possible viewing locations.
Even with a once-a-year visit, rally drivers over time become familiar with the roads used for the special stages, so organisers have created new challenges for the 2018 Kennards Hire Rally Australia.
All but eight of the 24 competition stages covering 318 kilometres are new or changed, using different roads or sections of former roads in reverse direction.
Wedding Bells 18, the points-paying Power Stage and last stage of the rally and the WRC season, will be run in reverse, with a longer, higher jump at the popular NSW Forests Rally Village. Saturday’s 1.97 km Raleigh stage will be run twice for the first time, while the 28.84 km Argents Hill Reverse on Saturday will be the longest, using more than half the roads of the former Nambucca stage, hailed as one of the most challenging anywhere in the WRC.
The Destination NSW Super Special Stage on Friday and Saturday evenings is always a spectating highlight. Nowhere else in the WRC does a competition stage run between a harbour and the ocean, as it does on the Coffs Harbour Jetty Foreshores. This year features a water splash and a second jump. The images will be priceless.
What else is new? The always-popular Rally Show and Ceremonial Start on Thursday afternoon moves from the Coffs main street to the Jetty Foreshores, where drivers and their cars will turn out to meet their fans. Sunday’s podium presentation ceremony also will be relocated to the NSW Forests Rally Village, from where it will be televised live around the world.
The competitors’ service park, now known as Pedders Rally Central, returns to C.ex Coffs International Stadium and will be a free-to-enter hub of activity throughout the weekend. Many attractions will be on offer, including a video super-screen showing constant live action from the stages, trade displays, souvenir sales, food and drink and the lively Meet-the-Crews interview sessions with the leading drivers and their managers.
The X-factor at Rally Australia is the warmth of the welcome. The teams from Britain, Germany, France, Finland, Italy and other parts love coming to the Coffs Coast, because they can see readily that the resident and business community is proud of its home and values the benefits the WRC brings.
Sébastien Ogier – 34, France
M-Sport Ford World Rally Team (Ford Fiesta)
It’s extraordinary that the coveted drivers’ title has been held for 14 years straight by Frenchmen named Séb. The incomparable Sébastien Loeb won the first nine and when he retired and former teammate Ogier switched to the dominant Volkswagen team, a further four were bagged. Ogier did it again last year with his new team, M-Sport, but 2018 has been by far his toughest challenge. Victories in Monte-Carlo, Mexico, Corsica to his credit, Ogier was nonetheless third in the standings until he pulled off a brilliant triumph on Wales Rally GB to be a dangerously-close second to Neuville. Determined, ruthless and hugely ambitious, the former ski instructor and professional boules player knows how to win when the chips are down.
Ott Tänak – 30, Estonia
Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team (Toyota Yaris)
Although he won Rally Argentina, Tänak was a distant third in the standings until he returned from the European summer break with fire in his belly. Consecutive wins followed in Finland, Germany and Turkey and catapulted him into the middle of the title fight. He utterly dominated Wales Rally GB, until mechanical damage stopped his Toyota Yaris. Tänak has been a sensation since switching from M-Sport to Toyota at the beginning of 2018, and his performances also have helped the Finnish-based, Japanese-owned team take the lead in the manufacturers’ competition. Intense and blisteringly quick, he won his first WRC event only last year and came home third in the final standings. On Rally Australia, his driving will be absolutely committed and promises a breath-taking experience for fans.
Thierry Neuville – 30, Belgium
Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team (Hyundai i20 Coupe)
Chasing the first championship for him and his Korean-owned team, Neuville has enjoyed his best season so far. The Belgian won in Sweden, Portugal and Sardinia (Italy) and narrowly led the points standings when this article was written after round 11 of 13. Last season Neuville pushed Sébastien Ogier all the way in the race for the drivers’ crown. A failure to score in Germany and Spain ultimately proved his undoing, but four wins was his best return in a WRC season. Cool as a cucumber, with a winning mix of youth, raw speed and natural talent, the 2017 Kennards Hire Rally Australia winner is determined 2018 will be his year.
Citroën Total Abu Dhabi
World Rally Team (Citroën C3)
Although Citroën’s performances haven’t got it into the championship race, don’t discount the French team for an upset result – it’s got nothing to lose from a win-or-bust effort by its drivers Mads Østberg and Craig Breen. It’s their last event before Séb Ogier arrives as team leader for 2019 – 2020.