14 November 2004
The final day of competition on this year's Telstra Rally Australia was appropriately exciting, with drama and upset throughout the last group of stages.
There was euphoria in the ARAI Motorsports camp as Toshi Arai's win firmly plants the Japanese in 2nd place in the championship. It was a well-deserved victory here in Australia where Arai was quickest on every test of the final day. Toshi did have a very big moment on the second test of the morning, going off the road and through the trees for a short distance before recovering. Although he lost a few seconds, he was never threatened, managing to win that stage also.
The biggest disappointment of the rally for SUBARU was the retirement this morning of long-time leader Alister McRae, who went out after dominating the event from Friday's opening stages. Mechanical failure is being blamed for his early exit. It is particularly disappointing for the Scot as a win in Australia would have sealed the 2004 PCWRC crown; where as the result today leaves him lying 5th in the points, so close is the competition in the Production Car World Rally Championship.
The final tally shows McRae nine points adrift of the leader on 26, and third among the SUBARU runners behind Niall McShea (1st) on 35 points, and Toshi Arai (2nd) on 30.
'One man's misery is another's man's joy' as the saying goes and this was illustrated clearly when Niall McShea was thrust into the top position after McRae went out. It was a welcome gift after McShea's earlier dramas and incredible fightback from 9th(SS2) up to 2nd place.
He chose not to fight Japanese ace Toshi Arai, the championship being Niall's clear priority over the race win. On SS24, just 2 tests from the end, Toshi got by and took over a lead he was never to relinquish.
This victory is Arai's third on Rally Australia. He won in Group N here in 1999, and again took honours in PCWRC in 2002. This last minute upturn to Toshi's 2004 season campaign will no doubt raise his spirits and hopes for PCWRC title glory next season. On all 6 of Leg Three's competitive tests, Arai took the stage win. Adding his fastest times from the other two days shows the Japanese was quickest on 16 out of the 25 stages on the event. Clearly, this man has the speed and consistency to win more frequently in 2005.
Among the eight SUBARU-supported drivers in this year's PCWRC, all managed to score points on at least one occasion. Behind the lead trio of Niall, Toshi and Alister, newcomer Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah raised a few eyebrows with his speed and impressive consistency. The Qatari driver scored points on 5 of the 6 events he entered. Nasser is, of course, no stranger to international rallying, having taken the MERC (Middle East Rally Championship) title no fewer than 7 times! We can expect to see great things from Al Attiyah next season as his increased familiarity with the stages and the championship are bound to net him even greater results in 2005.
Marcos Ligato had a less than ideal season, his only really impressive result being 2nd in New Zealand. The Argentinean showed great flashes of speed and car control, but a couple of unfortunate retirements due to human error cost him any chance of a large points-haul and a higher place in the standings.
Probably least lucky - or most unfortunate - whichever way you want to look at it - was Mark Higgins. A man known for his uncompromising driving style, and long-tipped for greatness, the Englishman had a myriad of misfortune, retiring on 5 of 6 events he contested. One consolation however, was his 4th place in Corsica, a reminder to those around him of his prowess on tarmac, and more importantly, behind the wheel of a well-sorted car.
Fabio Frisiero rarely made mistakes (save for his rather big off on SS1 in New Zealand), the Italian steadily improving his finishing positions throughout the season. From placing 14th on the opening round in Sweden, he came 6th in Australia. He also scored points in Argentina, one of the more difficult rallies of the season, and finished every other event except Rallye Deutschland.
Joakim Roman scored a solitary point for his efforts this season. Ironically, it was on the Swede's home event, the first round of the campaign. After such a promising showing, more was expected of Joakim. Unfortunately, it was not to be. We hope to see him back next year, and with more reward for his hard work.
"I had to push quite hard before the second group of stages this morning. On the second test (SS21), I went off the road for 50 to 70 metres, but was able to get back on course quite easily. However, it was very scary! From that point, we continued to push hard right to the end. Then on the 2nd group of stages, Alister retired and we were able to come back on Niall and take the win! I'm extremely pleased for the team, and very happy to get the points. It was a really big effort all weekend."
Niall Mc Shea - Car #34 - Champion
"We had a fantastic day today, absolutely fantastic. It was very hard in the morning and it looked like we weren't going to get there, but it came together in the end. We were consistent all rally, but we've had a bit of difficulty with our engine in terms of power. It hasn't been up-spec'd and we were struggling to get the pace we needed. Toshi was going extremely fast yesterday and on the first day. I had a fair idea he was going to catch us again after his puncture. The most important thing for me was the championship and not the rally. It feels incredible to take the title!
It's been such a roller coaster ride this year. Even for this event, I was completely out of money. A group of Irish businessmen and Irish companies came together in support of us, and put the money together for me to compete here. With the help of Chris Lloyd and John Lloyd, they're the reason I am here to begin with, it's an absolutely amazing result this weekend. You couldn't have written the script any better today. After what's happened this weekend, I couldn't have found a better way to pay back their faith in me.
I'm over the moon and really quite tired at the moment! I'm sure we'll recover to have some celebrations tonight."
George Donaldson - SUBARU Group N Project General Manager:
"It's been a heck of a year. All the SUBARU teams have been competitive - right from the start of the season. It was a bit confusing early on because we were always on the pace but we weren't picking up enough points. Toshi for instance, has had the greatest number of stage wins all year. It hasn't been a reliability thing; it's just the way the dice have rolled. And here they've rolled our way. It's an incredible turn-around at the end of the year to get this result.
Niall had two very strong 2nd positions on the last two tarmac rallies; and on the first event in Mexico, he chased Toshi like crazy for 2nd place. Toshi won by a few seconds on that occasion. Niall's always been absolutely at the front of the pack when his car's been right. Of course it's a very low-budget team, he's been on a second-hand engine here in Australia so they couldn't push so hard. It's an incredible result considering their resources.
All in all, it's been an unbelievable year. The SUBARUs have been competitive all of the time - and in the end, our drivers have proven that they have pace and reliability; and that our cars have exactly the same - pace and reliability. As for Toshi - for him to win here is absolutely beyond belief after losing three minutes with a puncture! It really is fantastic; both for the team, and for SUBARU. Absolutely incredible.
After 19 seasons professionally in the sport, I was genuinely choked with emotion at the result today. A lot of my involvement in the sport is business, a lot of it is passion - but I've never been so affected by the outcome as today when Niall came back into the Service. I've gone back to my roots in the sport with Group N and for me this has been the most rewarding year of my life. It's been fantastic, I'm absolutely wrapped."
The 2005 PCWRC features an expanded calendar consisting of 8 events, commencing with the Uddeholm Swedish Rally, running from February 11-13, 2005.