Rain expected for nail-biting WRC season finale in Australia
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A long-range weather forecast is a tenuous place to begin the preview of a world championship showdown but rain expected to arrive on Friday just as WRC Rally Australia gets under way could prove the deciding factor in the title race.
When the WRC crews wake on Friday morning for the WRC finale, the hard-baked gravel roads of New South Wales’ Coffs Coast are forecast to get a downpour. That would cast a completely different complexion on the running order and title fight for the first day of competition.
Defending champion Sebastien Ogier (France) edged three points ahead of Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville (Belgium) in the title race following the most recent round in Spain. It set up a final round showdown with Toyota’s Ott Tanak (Estonia) also a long-shot contender trailing Ogier by 23 points with a maximum of 30 available in Australia.
Championship leader Ogier [pictured above] starts first on the road in Australia. In dry conditions he would be at the greatest disadvantage during the first day stages as the loose gravel is swept from the hard pack surface.
The rain forecast from Friday morning would put Ogier in prime position with a small advantage over Neuville and reduce the threat from Tanak and the speedsters deeper in the start order, including Toyota’s Jari-Matti Latvala and Esapekka Lappi (Finland), and Hyundai’s Hayden Paddon (New Zealand) and Andreas Mikkelsen (Norway).
An additional variable would be short, heavy downpours. Several times in recent years drivers have lost or gained significant chunks of time depending on how much rain they encounter as the showers move through the hills surrounding Coffs Harbour.
A substantially revised route for WRC Rally Australia sees the Friday and Sunday stages based just north of Coffs Harbour with Saturday slightly further to the south in the Nambucca Heads region. The rally is compact, with 318km of special stages in a total route of 1017km. Though the rally uses many familiar roads only one stage is unchanged from 2017 — the 26.68km Sherwood stage (SS3 ad SS6), the longest stage on Friday.
The route travels two loops of three gravel stages on Friday followed by two runs through a slightly revised Destination NSW Super Special Stage on the Coffs Harbour beachfront.
Saturday heads south using sections of the former Nambucca stage in a new configuration. It loops twice through three gravel stages and a spectator special stage at the Raleigh karting and rallycross facility and the evening ends with two more runs at the Destination NSW stage.
If the title fight remains alive on Sunday morning there is a longer than usual 83.96km of Sunday driving to decide the title with the new Coramba (15.55km) and Sapphire (19.27km) stages and an altered Wedding Bells (7.16km) stage providing what could prove a title-deciding bonus points Power Stage.
Ogier starts WRC Rally Australia with 204 points, with Neuville on 201 and Tanak still part of the title equation on 181. There’s a big gap to Lappi on 110 points and potential for reshuffle of the minor places with Latvala on 102 and Mikkelsen with 84.
The Manufacturers’ title race has closed up ahead of the final round with Toyota Gazoo Racing on 331 points leading from Hyundai Motorsport with 319 and M-Sport Ford on 306, with a maximum of 43 points available in Australia from a 1-2 result.