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GP Week : Issue 62
WRC AUSTRALIA >> SEBASTIEN Loeb thought he had emerged from his long victory drought by out-foxing the opposition when he was announced the winner of Repco Rally Australia. His winning margin, just 12.5s over championship leader Mikko Hirvonen, should have been enough to elevate Loeb to within a point of the leader in the Drivers' series, but it wasn't so straightforward. Eight hours later, Hirvonen was declared the victor ... It was not meant to end up being a Citroen domination, but their clever tactics helped them achieve the unexpected. The fast gravel stages in the north east corner of New South Wales offered a new challenge to teams in the World Rally Championship, and it was Citroen who mastered the niceties of the novelties quicker than their rivals Ford. It was a rally full of deceptions. Whereas most of the stages were among the fastest found anywhere in the championship, the alternative stages in the hilly regions close to the rally's headquarters town, and the six times the drivers tackled an asphalt down-town stage, made the news. It was three years since the WRC had been to Australia, and the move of venue from the west to the east could hardly have produced a bigger difference. Gone were the ball bearing surfaces in Western Australia's private forests, in came a mixture of long, fast closed public country roads and shorter twisty stages run in rainforests. But it was those round-the-houses night-time, end-of-day stages, which had to be tackled on gravel tyres, that made all the difference. Citroen's victory had much to do with the use of deliberately worn-out tyres, a tactic connected with the need to control the running order for the following day. There was much more to this event than driver bravery when averaging over 120kph on the gravel. The layout of the territory brought a whole new scene to the event. A lack of suitable rally roads close to the selected headquarters of the rally at the holiday resort at Kingscliff meant very long road sections; indeed this was the longest event in the season, while a lack of gravel roads in the area meant that most stages were unusually short. In order to achieve the minimum competitive distance required by the rules, more individual stages were run than in the past 15 years of WRC rallying. Sebastien Ogier went immediately into the lead on account of his speed on the two opening asphalt stages, but by the second gravel stage of the rally, Jari-Matti Latvala, running fourth car on the road, had moved into the lead, with seventh-runner Ogier holding on to second through the day. Hirvonen and Loeb were the first two cars through the stages and held on to the leaders as best they could, and by the end of the first day there was a remarkable scene in which less than one second separated third place Loeb from his team-mate Sordo and Hirvonen. Loeb was biding his time, running with part-worn tyres through the afternoon stages, awaiting the chance to pull back a few but critical seconds on the asphalt. Rally leader Latvala started Day 2 first car in the rally. It had been raining but when he headed towards the stages, but it was not long before the sunshine arrived and dried out the gravel. Fifth placed Loeb caught up fast, and by mid afternoon he had overtaken Latvala for the lead, but did he want to keep it? No chance; brutal tactics came to the fore once again, and Loeb stopped before the end of the final gravel stage of the day, the deciding stage for running order on the final day, to drop back to third place. This left Hirvonen holding the poisoned chalice of being the first car on the road. Latvala was lying second, but then slid off the road and punctured a tyre, losing around 45 seconds and ending the day in fourth place. On the final day Hirvonen tried hard and successfully resisted the challenge from Sordo, while Latvala ended up fifth, after another puncture. However, Loeb and Citroen's podium celebrations were short lived when all three Citroens which finished the rally were penalised a minute each, giving Hirvonen victory and a substantially enhanced chance of winning the World Rally Championship. Eight of the 10 World Rally Cars, on probably their final appearance in Australia, completed the route, with Matthew Wilson safely in sixth place ahead of the battling Ford drivers Federico Villagra and Henning Solberg, who was delayed by brake problems. Conrad Rautenbach missed stages when he went off the road, while Khalid Al Qassimi also missed stages after his car was damaged on a tree stump. The after-rally penalties had only a marginal effect on the manufacturers title race; Citroen Total lost one point of their advantage over BP Ford Abu Dhabi, while in the drivers series Hirvonen increased his lead over the Loeb slightly, from three points before Australia to five points. In the Production Car World Rally Championship, an unexpected last stage one point score increase for Armindo Araujo was enough to crown the Portuguese driver as provisional Champion with one round still to go, assuming that the appeal of his only rival Nasser Al Attiyah against exclusion in Greece four months ago is rejected. 35