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1999 RALLY AUSTRALIA

November 04 - 07

Rally report by Neil Blackbourn

This year's Rally Australia was the culmination of years of hard work for the hard working (and worked!) crew that makes this event the envy of many on the WRC trail, and the one that many drivers really look forward to getting to. It also decided the WRC so the final round this week, the Network Q Rally of Great Britain, will be a battle for glory rather than a drive such as that of Tommi Makinen in 1997 in his Lancer Evo 4 - slow and deliberate to sixth, similar to that in Australia this year actually - except the result was third and his fourth World Title.

Burns drove impeccably to clinch the win in Australia.

This year's event would see the small Marlboro Mitsubishi Ralliart team field their usual two cars for Makinen/ Mannisenmaki and Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets, with Loix playing rear gunner to Makinen. The title was still a possibility in Toyota's final two events, and that was drivers for Didier Auriol and Denis Giraudet, while Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya had one objective, finish in the points and try and guarantee the World Manufacturers title for Toyota. But he was flying in pre event shakedown, and expressed a real desire to win the rally - as it is one of only four on the calendar he has not won! Ralliart's pre event testing took in three days down in the south west of WA, about 250km south of Perth. And they were happy with their efforts during the test, in which time they decided that the traditional shakedown for the media on the day before would be their last test prior to the start of the rally on the famous Langley Park Super Special on the Thursday night.

Another team happy with their testing was the current on-form team of the championship, Subaru. Both drivers had quite a bit of confidence in their cars, and Kankkunen has won this event no fewer than four times, so he knows his way around. Richard Burns felt his cars setup ideal, which meant he and co driver Robert Reid would be very carefully watched. However, they would be the only Subaru Impreza WRC still in the rally after day one, with local NZ hero Possum Bourne and Craig Vincent losing the Australian Manufacturers Championship to Mitsubishi when the cam belt failed 600 metres into SS2 on their WRC98 on Friday morning, while Frederic Dor and Didier Breton retired their WRC98 late on the first day when their turbo failed and some other problems which meant they would not start Leg 2 on Saturday.

But the locals were more disappointed to see Juha Kankkunen and Juha Repo exit after what was a spectacular start, with the pair making two very high jumps off the famous Muresk jumps. However, they retired after SS5. the 28.59km Beraking. this stage is one of the longer stages on the tough Leg 1, as the roads at this time of year are dry and dusty. Their retirement from the rally was put down to 'suspension failure', while the reality of the matter was that they hit one too many holes and a tree or stump and broke the suspension. KKK is a legend in this country - he is just the laid back type of character that the people here really identify with.

Sainz really wanted the win.

The battle for the driver's championship was warming up quite well, with Makinen having to finish in front of Auriol, but Auriol was firmly entrenched in the lead early on an event he won last in 1992 in a Lancia Delta Integrale! However, he lost the chance to take the championship to the final round in the UK when he hit a tree in the slippery dusty conditions and broke the radiator on the short but damaging Atkins 1, a short but sharp 4.42km stage, which would be run later in the day also. The Corolla made it to the Mundaring service, but the damage was done. Despite the team's efforts to try and straighten the Corolla's front end with a tow rope and one of the service trucks, the French combination were out, and therefore hoping for a similar fate for the Mitsubishi three time champ to take the championship to the wire.

Colin McRae and Nicky Grist had a difficult day for Ford after winning the opening stage the night before at Langley Park. They took their next stage win on the last stage before the Friday running of Langley Park, Atkins 2, but the interview at the end of the stage by one of the TV crews saw a very unhappy McRae. Thomas Radstrom and Fred Gallagher were having a similar day in the other Focus, staying in the top 10. The SEAT team had the day to learn how to set up the Cordoba WRC Evo 2 on the unique WA roads, and they were faring quite well, with Rovanpera and Gardemeister both well inside the top 10.

Group N changed dramatically over the Atkins stage also, when Hamed Al Wahaibi and Tony Sircombe exited the rally when they also hit a tree and knocked one of the rear wheels off the car. They limped back to the service at Mundaring, about 4km's away. 'I am still learning this sport' admitted Hamed later, who has been rallying for less than three years! He and Tony Sircombe (NZ) had a spectator role for the rest of the event. Gustavo Trelles and Martin Christie therefore had the pressure taken off them for their championship, Gustavo's fourth in row and Martin's second, and they duly crashed out of the rally on the next stage Kev's. The stage also claimed the Aussie hope for the rally, Michael Guest and David Green dislodged a HUGE rock from the edge of the road and rolled the Impreza out of the rally. It was a huge rock - it took four of us to roll it off the road! Katsu Taguchi and Malaysian Ron Teoh rolled their Evo 6 Lancer on Atkins (at the spectator point!) and lost six minutes trying to get the car back on to the road. This left the Group N fight to three drivers, Uwe Nittel and Terry Harryman in Al Wahaibi's spare Evo 5 Lancer, Aussie Ed Ordynski and Iain Stewart in the Ralliart Australia Evo 5 and the Tein Sport Impreza version 5 of Toshihiro Arai and Roger Freeman. Ordynski however had a puncture on one of the longer stages of the day and they dropped a minute and a half, making their task for the rest of the rally very difficult.

The Colin McRae and Nicky Grist attack on Rally Oz would come to a crunching end on the first stage of the second day - the challenging Murray Pines 1, which is 18.53km of some tight and twisty stuff indispersed with some extremely fast wide roads. The Focus jumped a bridge well known by the crews, but the bridge had a bigger effect on the cars this year. The Focus got a lot of air under the wheels, and landed heavily enough for the steering wheel to be wrenched out of Colin's hands, flicked the car right to left, and headed off the road to the left into some very large pine trees. The car went from 185km/h to zip in 1.3 seconds according to the team's data logger. By the time we got to the car (we were all of 200m up the road at a hairpin and saw the accident) a very dazed McRae was only just getting out of the car. Both Colin and Nicky were driven out of the stage and taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital where they were checked over. Both were lightly concussed, but as Nicky Grist said to me that night 'I'm just glad we both got out of it as lightly as we did. I have a very sore ankle and leg, while Colin is receiving some physio for his neck and shoulders. It was the biggest accident I've been in, including the accident I had with Juha at the Safari!

This put the title defence of Makinen back on track, because he needed to finish the event third or better to deny the championship a finish in the UK. The rest of the longest day of Rally Oz would provide some serious stage miles to get the crews into trouble, but nobody really managed it bar poor Toni Gardemeister and Paavo Lukander, who lost all their transmission hydraulic pressure in the Cordoba WRC Evo 2 and left them with two wheel drive only when as high as fifth, while Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets were under instructions not to bend the Carisma and finish this event. They were playing rear gunner for Makinen and Mannisenmaki, and finished the day fourth right behind the Finns, also driving quite steadily.

The aftermath of McRae's accident - luckily nobody was seriously injured.

Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen were having a quiet event learning their way around, and each time they lost time, they were able to pull that time in again in the Peugeot 206WRC. Francois Delecour and Daniel Grataloup retired the night before with gearbox dramas - not that they were on the pace anyway!

Richard Burns and Robert Reid had fought their way forward all day, and he and Sainz/ Moya were breaking stage records left right and centre. The Spanish combination had their eyes on the win almost as intently as the British team, and it was evident that the stages on the third leg around the famous Bunnings complex would be a sight for sore eyes tomorrow provided the two leaders stayed upright. In F2 the battle for the championship was wide open, with both teams, Renault and Hyundai still with both drivers running, although Tapio Laukkanen and Kaj Lindstrom had problems in their Megane Maxi and dropped to 54th outright. They would be back to 23rd by the end of the second leg! Kenneth Eriksson and Staffan Parmander won this event outright for Mitsubishi in 1995 and were showing the way in the Coupe Kit Car Evo 2 to the Aussie newcomer Martin Rowe, and the former winner of the event in 1994, Derek Ringer (C McRae in an Impreza) were ahead of the other Coupe Kit Car of Alister McRae and David Senior, while chasing them hard in the VW Motorsport's new Golf Mk 4 was Mark Higgins and Brian Thomas, and the in fact ended the day in front of the McRae Hyundai. The stage times for Eriksson was around or in front of the top Group N times for much of the day. Nittel and Harryman would take almost a minute lead into the final day of the rally to Japanese Arai and Brit Freeman, while Ordynski would be back in third almost a minute further back.

The stages around the Bunnings complex are probably best known for the jumps and watersplash down the hill that completes two of the four stages that make up Leg 3. Apart from the final stage, which is televised live, but not for extra points, all stages are over 25km's. In fact, two are over 35km's! The stages would be dry and dusty, and they are longish and fast, with some sections with trees right beside the road, and some very open sections.

Woooooooh there.

The Subaru driver chose to start the final leg of the rally eighth on the road for the famous Bunnings stages, which meant that his closest rival, Spanish combination Carlos Sainz and Luis Moya in one of the last two Corolla WRC's to be built by TTE would start immediately ahead on the road. Sainz immediately took the advantage this morning with a fastest time over the first 35.29km Bunnings East stage, but had to give second best to Burns over the next one - Bunnings North. The pair had been separated by all of one second overnight, but the flying Burns had taken ten seconds off Sainz on the next one. Sainz realised early on in the stage that the diff setting switch was disconnected, causing a handling drama, and he said later that he felt that 'any small problem during a WRC event these days really puts you behind quickly.'

It is not known who forgot to flick the switch, but the pair were firmly fighting for the manufacturers championship for Toyota, and they succeeded in that, but seemed disappointed at the end to not be able to pull the Englishman in front in.

Sainz set the fastest time over the next stage, the 25.16km Bunnings South, but the British team set a time all of 0.1 of a sec slower! So with only the 2.73km Michelin TV stage to go, the rally was to go to Burns and Reid, as they set another stage time 0.1 secs slower than Sainz, and entertained the crowd down the famous jumps and through the watersplash that sits all of a couple of hundred metres away from the finish of the event. 'We are really happy to win here' said co driver Reid later. 'You have to be so committed to everything in Australia and we did it this year.' Driver Burns agreed 'We had a fantastic rally, and we feel good now going into our home event.'

Harri Rovanpera was putting his case forward for a drive somewhere at least next year by setting a string of third fastest times today, as he looked towards the one point place that was being ably held by fellow Finn Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen in the sensational Peugeot 206 WRC, on their first Rally Australia. However, Gronholm would remain in front, but this did not mean that Rovanpera would not win a point, as Swede Thomas Radstrom dropped back to seventh in the remaining Ford Focus WRC.

The Mitsubishi team had a quiet day on the stages, with Freddy Loix and Sven Smeets taking the day as it came, consolidating their fourth place and playing rear gunner to Tommi Makinen and Risto Mannisenmaki's title bid. And it worked. The quiet Finn clinched his fourth straight world title by putting the Driver's Championship in his pocket before the final round. Tommi related later that the title meant a lot to him, however he believed that the most satisfying one was the one he clinched here by winning Rally Australia emphatically in 1996. Tommi now heads into the Rally GB 'confident that I can drive to my capabilities and not have any championship pressures on my head. I might then be able to do something about these guys that go so fast there.'

Hyundai continue to battle for the F2 title - it goes down to the final race.

The Group N and F2 leaders were squabbling for most of the day over seconds, looking for the advantage over the other. Toshihiro Arai and Roger Freeman in their Impreza were chasing Kenneth Eriksson and Staffan Parmander in their Hyundai Coupe Kit Car. They ended up winning their respective classes and were separated by near on nine seconds, with the Japanese Subaru driver in front, in an impressive eighth outright. However, the F2 title appears to have gone to Renault as the VW Golf GTi Mk4 of Mark Higgins and Brian Thomas held out the second Hyundai Coupe Kit Car of Alister McRae and David Senior by a minute and a half. This means that they cannot beat Renault for the title, as Martin Rowe and Derek Ringer made sure of second F2 today. He lost a little time to Eriksson today, but it made little difference. Eriksson and Parmander ended the rally a little over thirty seconds in front of Ordynski. Third was the overnight Group N leader, Owe Nittel and Terry Harryman in their Evo 5 Lancer. The pair hit a rock on SS21 and stopped to check for damage, but all seemed well apart from a steering problem. 'We had to stop and check the damage, which wasn't too bad, but the steering was not right' advised Nittel later. But he damage was done time wise.

Following the spectacular and consistent Arai and Freeman home in Group N was the Aussie Group N master, Ed Ordynski and Iain Stewart in their Lancer Evo 5. Ed had a puncture on day that cost him around a minute and a half, and they were only separated by 40 seconds at the finish. 'I am quite happy with the fact that we were on the top Group N pace for the whole event.' said Ed after the finish. 'We seemed to have Cody's measure, and we had the speed, if not the luck after our puncture to win.' Third in Group N was the overnight leader, Nittel and Harryman. Ordynski and Stewart were agan the first Aussies home, while young WA driver Dean Herridge and Jim Carlton were second Aussie home, in 18th outright in a Group N Impreza.

The WRC circus plays again on Sunday with the start of the Network Q Rally of Great Britain. Go Richard! Oh, and I wish I was there!

Story and photographs by Neil Blackbourn. Neil also writes (and photographs) both the Australian Rally Super Series and the V8 Supercars (Australian Touring Cars) for The Car Enthusiast. Email your comments and suggestions.


Click here to view the championship standings to date.
AUSTRALIA RESULTS
Position
Driver/Co-driver
Car
1 Richard Burns / Robert Reid Subaru Impreza WRC 99
2 Carlos Sainz / Luis Moya Toyota Corolla WRC
3 Tommi Mäkinen / Risto Mannisenmaki Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution V
4 Freddy Loix / Sven Smeets Mitsubishi Carisma GT
5 Marcus Grönholm / Timo Rautiainen Peugeot 206 WRC
6 Harri Rovanpera / Risto Pietilainen SEAT Cordoba WRC E2
Sanremo Rally Rally of Great Britain

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