Kennards Hire Rally Australia (16-19 November) marks the climax to the thrilling 2017 FIA World Rally Championship season and, while the main WRC titles were provisionally wrapped up on Dayinsure Wales Rally GB, the battle for second position between Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak is sure to be intense.
All four manufacturers have won at least two events, seven different crews have stood on the top step of the podium and three of those – including the most recent winner Elfyn Evans – had never taken a win in the WRC before.
17,000km from Citroen Racing’s Versailles base, this gravel rally has its own specific characteristics, with a mix of wide roads through the fields and tight, twisty tracks in the rainforest. The hard ground is often covered with tiny round stones, which can be especially slippery for the drivers who are first on the road. Once swept clear, the hard ground provides a high level of grip, unless it decides to rain.
Australia has hosted its round of the Championship since 1989 and between then and 2006 its home was in the west coast city of Perth. The event moved to the east and New South Wales in 2009 and two years later relocated to its current base in Coffs Harbour, mid-way between Sydney and Brisbane.
The event offers a real mix of twisty forest tracks, flowing shire roads and stages in the rainforests, which create a tricky strobe lighting effect caused by low morning and afternoon sun flickering through the trees. The dusty gravel tracks are also notoriously tough for the front-runners who are forced to sweep their way through the loose surface, providing a cleaner racing line for those behind.
In a change to the itinerary, Friday takes the crews north of Coffs Harbour for two loops of three stages, all of which have been used in different configurations previously. The day rounds off with two blasts around the super special stage set up around the harbourside.
The highlight of Saturday is the 48.89 kilometre Nambucca test that kicks off the day’s action. In the afternoon the stage is split into two – Welshs Creek and Argents Hill – and with a short raceway stage and another two runs around the Coffs jetty stage, the day is the longest of the event. Three stages to the north of Coffs, two run twice, round off the competition on Sunday.
Two stages will be broadcast live; SS13 on Saturday and Sunday’s second runs through Wedding Bells, counting as the all-important Power Stage.
As the world titles were wrapped up at Wales Rally GB, all the competitors in Australia will have one thing in mind: sign off in style and finish the season on a positive note. Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT and its three crews are no exception to this rule.
With a favourable starting position for the opening leg, the C3 WRC drivers may be able to partially compensate for their lack of knowledge of the roads, due to the fact that Kris Meeke, Stéphane Lefebvre and Craig Breen all missed the 2016 rally.
With three appearances between 2013 and 2015, Kris Meeke still has solid experience of the event. His natural talent helped him to secure fourth place in 2014 and a podium finish the following year. Winner of two rallies this season – in Mexico and in Spain – the Briton will be expecting to fight at the front in Australia.
Meanwhile, Stéphane Lefebvre’s sole appearance in Australia was at the 2015 rally. Stéphane stepped in at the last minute to replace Mads Østberg, who was injured in an accident during the recce. For his first rally on gravel in a WRC, the young Frenchman set some decent times, especially on the first leg.
For Craig Breen, this will be his very first appearance in the southern hemisphere. Whilst he knows Australia well, the Irishman will be competing in this rally for the first time. However, he has already proven his ability to adapt quickly to new surroundings on several occasions this season.
Yves Matton, Citroën Racing Team Principal: “We are aiming to confirm the performance level of the C3 WRC on gravel at this, the final round of the season. The Rally Australia stages are run on specific roads, on which it is forbidden to hold any testing. With that in mind, the responsiveness and experience of the technical team will be vital in defining the best set-up between recce and the start of the race. Considering the times set by Kris on gravel in Spain and the work done over the last few months to widen the operating window of the car, I think we have the means to aim for a good result. Stéphane and Craig will also need to make the most of this final round to show their speed and confirm the progress they have made this season.”
Kris Meeke: “I have some very good memories of my three appearances in Australia. In 2015, I had led the rally for two days before losing out to the VWs, but third place was nonetheless a very good result. This year, a few of the stages that appeared last year will be new to me, but that shouldn’t be a big problem because I feel comfortable on these roads. There are some characteristics that you just don’t get anywhere else. For example, the trees are so tall in the jungle that the light flashes through the branches, creating a ‘strobe’ effect. The changes in light can make it very difficult to read the road. I’m looking forward to contesting the Nambucca speed test again – it’s one of the finest stages of the season in my opinion. Considering our performance level at the last two gravel rallies, I think we’ll be there or thereabouts.”
Number of appearances at the event: 3
Best result: 3rd (2015)
Craig Breen: “I often say Australia is my second home. My sister lives in Perth and there is a big Irish community in the country, so I have a lot of friends and supporters here. I can’t wait to start my second rally outside of Europe. I know it won’t be easy, because I’ll have to learn the whole course, which is quite a disadvantage at an event that doesn’t change much from year to year. But the stages look magnificent and the performance of the C3 WRC on the last few rallies fills me with optimism. I hope we can finish 2017 in a positive manner.”
Number of appearances at the event: 0
Stéphane Lefebvre: “It’s easier to forget it, but this is the longest journey of the year and we have to think ahead and prepare for the time difference. In 2015, I came here originally just to do recce. Then Mads Østberg had an accident and the team asked me to step in to replace him at the last minute. We didn’t have our racing equipment and we had to come up with improvised solutions for all that within a few hours. Despite the lack of preparation, I set some decent times overall, whilst also experiencing some difficulties in dealing with the stages in the rainforest, such as Nambucca. Everyone would like to finish the season on a high. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll be aiming to build on my level in Spain, when I was setting times within 2/10ths per kilometre of the leading drivers.”
Number of appearances at the event: 1
Best result: 13th (2015)
THE TOTAL QUESTION: WHAT PREPARATIONS ARE UNDERWAY FOR 2018?
Next year marks a significant milestone for Total and Citroën, since it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the technical, industrial, commercial and sporting partnership forged between the two brands in 1968 and which has continued uninterrupted ever since. In order to celebrate the golden anniversary of this record-breaking partnership, both brands are therefore preparing a large number of activities. It will also be an opportunity to look back on some of the special memories and victories shared and to recount a few untold stories. However, this anniversary won’t be solely focused on the past, since the technical teams are already working on the next generation of products used on the C3 WRCs. The first part of the celebrations will be unveiled at Rallye Monte-Carlo (25-28 January 2018).