WRC Rally Australia: what to watch out for
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At a glance it’s a challenge to find much point to WRC Rally Australia which brings the 2018 world championship to a close this weekend.
The Driver’s, Co-driver’s and Team’s championships have already been decided. There’s scope for Thierry Neuville (Belgium) and Ott Tanak (Estonia) to scrap over runner-up honours in the Driver’s title and for some positions further down the order to switch around.
So where does the interest lie in this weekend’s Coffs Coast season finale?
For Kiwi sports fans there is one thing to get excited about. It’s the hope that Hayden Paddon can close out his troubled 2017 campaign on a high note and build momentum for next season.
A strong result in Australia will be important for Paddon. He must now stake his claim for the maximum number of starts with Hyundai Motorsport in 2018 as the team sorts through the logistics of now having four contracted drivers on its books.
Hayden Paddon and co-driver Seb Marshall will be looking for a strong finish to the 2017 season in Australia this weekend. Photo / Hyundai Motorsport
Rally Australia has been the scene of some of Paddon’s strongest WRC performances. He turned in stage-winning pace at the 2017 event and has top-six finishes in last three years with Hyundai.
If conditions are dry on the Coffs Coast stages Paddon will have an ideal starting position on the opening day to take advantage as the roads are swept at least partially clear of loose gravel.
Paddon sits 10th in the championship and has the opportunity to leap several places in the final standings by achieving a strong result in Australia. There will be plenty of Kiwi rally fans in Coffs Harbour providing the encouragement for a return to form.
What else is there to look out for this weekend?
Sebastien Ogier (right) and co-driver Julien Ingrassia celebrate their fifth world title at Wales Rally GB last month. Photo / Red Bull Content Pool
There’s the possibility of some news clarifying the future of five-time world champion Sebastien Ogier.
Will the Frenchman stay with the M-Sport squad for 2018 and will it be with an increased level of official Ford support to the Cumbria-based team that swept this year’s title as a privateer squad?
Or is Ogier returning to Citroen, or as some recent stories suggest, soon to announce his retirement? There could be answers or at least clues during the Rally Australia weekend.
Another highlight will be the spectacle offered by the 2017 specification cars. This season’s WRC machines are more powerful and aerodynamically more sophisticated than their predecessors and have brought a heightened roadside spectacle and faster stage times.
Esapekka Lappi (Finland) take flys to his first WRC victory at Rally Finland. Photo / Red Bull Content Pool
They promise to be spectacular on the faster sections of the Rally Australia stages but with detail changes to the route it’s only through Sunday’s Bucca and Wedding Bells stages where a direct comparison can be made against 2016 stage times.
There’s also considerable anticipation for the appearance of a young driver already being touted as a future world champion.
The Rovanpera name is a familiar one to Kiwi rally fans as Harri Rovanpera contested Rally New Zealand with the SEAT, Peugeot and Mitsubishi teams taking podium finishes in 2001 and 2002.
His 17-year-old son Kalle will tackle Rally Australia, making his second WRC start after a debut at Rally Wales GB last month which delivered some stage times to match the WRC2 front runners.
Rally Australia will see 17-year-old Finn Kalle Rovanpera make his second WRC appearance driving Ford Fiesta R5. Photo / Red Bull Content Pool
Expectations are high for the young Finn who has competed primarily in Latvia and at home in Finland with a special dispensation prior to his 17th birthday and gaining a road license. Rovanpera is already being described as rallying’s equivalent of Max Verstappen – complete with Red Bull support.
The Finnish teen will have no competition at Rally Australia. With the second-tier championship decided, Rovanpera is the only WRC2 competitor making the trip down under. He’s driving an M-Sport Ford Fiesta R5 in a programme that’s all about gaining experience before a full WRC2 campaign in 2018.
And for Kiwi rally fans with longer memories who are at Rally Australia this year there is the welcome return of Toyota. Last seen in action at the top of the sport in 1999 with the Corolla WRC, the Japanese marque has returned in 2017 with a promising debut season for the Yaris WRC bringing wins for Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi.
2018 World Rally Championship (after round 12 of 13)
1 Sebastien Ogier (France), 215pts
2 Thierry Neuville (Belgium) 183pts
3 Ott Tanak (Estonia) 169pts
4 Jari-Matti Latvala (Finland) 136pts
5 Elfyn Evans (GB), 118pts
6 Dani Sordo (Spain), 95pts
7 Juho Hanninen (Finland), 71pts
8 Kris Meeke (GB), 70pts
9 Craig Breen (Ireland), 64pts
10 Hayden Paddon (NZ), 59pts
1 M-Sport WRT, 398pts
2 Hyundai Motorsport, 305pts
3 Toyota Gazoo Racing WRT, 241pts
4 Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT, 210pts