Curtain Falls on 2017 Season Down Under
For the thirteenth and final round of the 2017 World Rally Championship, the Citroën Total Abu Dhabi WRT will be aiming to finish the season on another positive note. In the Australian rainforest, the C3 WRCs will be driven by Stéphane Lefebvre/Gabin Moreau (no.7), Craig Breen/Scott Martin (no.8) and Kris Meeke/Paul Nagle (no.9).
A RALLY TURNED ON ITS HEAD
Mainly contested in Europe, the FIA World Rally Championship travels overseas on three occasions. Following trips earlier in the year to Mexico and Argentina, the third exotic destination takes the teams to the east coast of Australia. Roughly midway between Sydney and Brisbane, the small coastal town of Coffs Harbour has hosted the event since 2011.
17,000km from Versailles, 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 it is swept clear, the hard ground provides a high level of grip, unless it decides to rain.
For the 2017 rally, the organisers have devised a more compact course, which predominantly features roads that are well known to regulars at the event. The decisive stage is expected to be the Nambucca speed test, almost 50km long and contested early on Saturday morning.
Families attending the rally will be able to enjoy a close-up view of the action, since the first and second legs conclude with two passes on a super special stage, held right next to the service park. The Raceway super special stage (Saturday morning) and the Wedding Bells Power Stage (Sunday) are equally very popular with the Australian fans.
THE CHALLENGE: FINISH THE SEASON ON ANOTHER POSITIVE NOTE
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).