Rally Australia – the second fastest gravel rally of the season – has performed a major route update for this year. There are many new stage titles but none of the stages are completely new. Most of it is recycled from the past years, often reversed from last year. Let’s take a closer look.
The shakedown is almost the same as the latest two years, this year labeled as Wedding Bells State Forest. Only small deviations to the route are made. A section at the end of the stage is borrowed from last year’s power stage, but the last junction turns now left instead of right.
The first part of the route includes the corner where Eric Camilli rolled his Fiesta in 2016 when the part was run in the actual rally.
As before, there is no Thursday night opening super special.
Friday takes the crews North of Coffs Harbour for three forest stages – two new and one familiar.
Orara East is a new stage name, but essentially it’s a reversed version of this year’s Wedding Bells power stage and the shakedown. In fact, all three stages are located in the same area, but organized in a way that only a very short bit of road is run on more than two stages. However, some sections of the stage are never before driven, such as the first 1,4 km or the last 0,5 km. The Wedding Bells route has also never been driven in this direction before.
The beginning of this stage looks quite fast on the map, but the middle section is quite twisty. In fact, looking at last year’s stage winning average speeds, the Wedding Bells power stage was the slowest forest stage of the rally, with average speeds revolving around 100 km/h.
A similar story is told for Coldwater. It is a new stage title for the rally, but under the hood we find a reversed and cut-down version of the long Shipmans stage last run in 2014. However, Coldwater is the only stage of this year’s rally which does not contain any road from last year. Shipmans was one of the fastest stages of the 2014 rally with 118 km/h of winning average speed but the fastest sections seem to not have been included in Coldwater.
Meanwhile, the longest stage of the day, the 26 km Sherwood, is run just the same way as last year, being the only such stage of this year’s Rally Australia. Last year it was the fastest stage of the rally, with Andreas Mikkelsen’s stage winning average speed reaching 126 km/h, much faster than most rallies usually, except for Finland and Sweden. However, it was also much faster than the other stages of the rally, with no other stage exceeding even 116 km/h. And this, with even one chicane on the stage, the only one of the rally, just like this year.
These speeds must have been a bit too fast for Kris Meeke who went wide in one of the corners. He was lucky to escape that one unharmed!
A couple of runs on the Destination NSW super special complete the day. It is a quite typical modern super special with a doughnut and parts of the stage run in two directions. The stage is placed on parking lots at the beach, so maybe you can expect it to get sandy.
On Saturday the route heads again South for three forest stages and one super special.
Just like Rally Finland had no Ouninpohja, Rally Australia won’t have Nambucca this year. But a closer look reveals that almost all the greatness of Nambucca is driven this year in two parts, Argents Hill Reverse and Welshs Creek Reverse, in similar portions than last year, when the repeat of Nambucca was split into two stages.
Like the titles say, these stages are driven in the opposite direction from last year. Nambucca was never driven this way, but the Welshes and Grace stages from 2011 contain good pieces of these two stages in this direction.
Argents Hill Reverse contains a kilometre of tarmac, whereas Welshs Creek Reverse has two such sections, although Argents Hill’s tarmac stretch includes a junction turn. Shorter tarmac bits are also included on both for bridges and such, making the grip level changes frequent.
Welshs Creek Reverse is now the longest stage of the rally at 28 km. Last year Welshs Creek caused a Rally2 retirement for Kris Meeke after hitting a bridge early into the stage. Like said, this year the driving direction is reversed, but the bridges still need to be treated with respect.
Urunga is for the most part a reversed version of Newry with also a new route on the road network allowing many options. The Urunga direction was used back in 2011, but it shares only short bits with this year’s stage. In fact, more sections are shared with the Newry stage of last year, thanks to creative use of junction turns.
However, the last 2 km are new, crossing also the M1 highway over a bridge on the way.
In 2016 Ott Tänak spun in Newry and in 2015 Newry was treacherous to Elfyn Evans and Stephane Lefebvre. In all cases, the driving direction was opposed to this year’s route.
Meanwhile, Raleigh is a new name for the super special driven previously as Raceway. This year it’s driven in the opposite direction than before but with a similar concept, with mixed surface turns on a rallycross track. Raleigh is driven after both runs of Urunga, whereas the afternoon loop concludes with two more runs on the Destination NSW stage, making it a total of six super specials for the rally, only one less than Rally Mexico.
On Sunday the drivers return to North of Coffs Harbour. Compared to most rallies of the season, Rally Australia’s Sunday is quite lengthy at 83 km with three double-run stages and a service break in the middle. If the championship isn’t settled by now, there’s still plenty of kilometres to attack!
Coramba is a combination of three Bucca versions. The first 5.8 km are from 2015 (with almost all of it also driven in 2014), the following 9 km from 2017 and 2016 with the final hundreds of meters having been driven in 2013. The beginning was also a part of the Eastbank stage last year, but to the other direction.
Sapphire is another new title and new route on a road network used often. After 800 m of new road it joins the Eastbank route of last year for about 1 km, deviates into a 2 km shortcut (driven in reverse on last year’s Bucca stage) and re-joins the Eastbank stage for a further 5,5 km. The latest bit, as well as the following 5 km, was also a part of the Bucca Long stage in 2015. Next 700 m of tarmac road hasn’t been driven before, but the last 4 km of the stage was the beginning of Pilbara last year. This stage contains a whole of six water splashes, whereas most stages have one at most.
Although the two previous stages share road with last year’s Bucca stage, the corner where Craig Breen rolled out of the rally last year is not included in this year’s rally. Similarly, the Sapphire stage ends just before the corner where Stephane Lefebvre hit a tree last year, but the driving direction would have been opposite anyway.
Like mentioned before, the Wedding Bells power stage shares roads with Orara East and the shakedown. The first kilometre of the stage is new, but then it joins the 2013 route for another kilometre. The following 2,5 km have never been driven in this direction, often containing the beginning of the stage. What follows is a repeated km from Orara East, which was driven in the opposite direction last year, containing the corner where Jari-Matti Latvala crashed on last year’s power stage. Next up is a short bit used before only in the shakedowns of this year and two previous ones. The final section of the stage is finally again run in the opposite direction than last year, omitting now the junction turn which has ended the rally in the previous years, ending now instead at a water splash. At 7.16 km, it’s quite short for a power stage.
See the whole map at rally-maps.com
Rally Australia is considered to be one of the worst rallies to be first on the road because of fine loose gravel on top of the road surface, making it difficult to find grip. At the same time, the gravel gets swept on each pass, making it easier for cars starting further behind.
As Colin Clark mentioned in his latest Kitchen Table, Sebastien Ogier was 47 seconds off the pace after the first day in 2017. However, what Colin forgets is that Ogier had a gear shift issue, which generated the time loss. On both of the runs of the Pilbara stage, which was the first of the loop, he didn’t have the issue and was actually faster than Thierry Neuville, who started second on the road. Thus we shouldn’t expect it to be such a dramatic difference between first and second, especially with Ogier being very accustomed to opening the road.
However, I have no doubts that Ott Tänak will be able to set a totally different pace to the title contenders right from the get-go being third on the road, as he did in Catalunya and Finland. Being a rather fast rally, I would expect it to suit the Toyota Yaris quite well, making Jari-Matti Latvala also a favourite.
We must also not underestimate the potential of the later starters, shown by Andreas Mikkelsen last year, being fastest on the first day with a very late starting position. Thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mads Østberg or Hayden Paddon would be high up on the leaderboard after Friday.
Rainy conditions could also change dramatically the starting order disadvantage. Last year the rain was even so hard at times that some stages were cancelled and on the Bucca stage Kris Meeke and Andreas Mikkelsen lost one and a half minute because the first cars had gotten through on dry conditions whereas the later starters had to tackle a road that was as slippery as ice.
Here’s a lengthy onboard from the Newry stage in 2015, driven by the future Toyota driver Kris Meeke, showing a good example of the characteristics of the roads of Australia.
Cover Image by teghkalsi