|Rd.8 Telstra Rally Australia|
Production Car World Rally Championship Rd.8
11 to 13 November 2005
SUBARU Shows Strength as spec C runs 1-2-3-4
Aussie stages see retirements, though Imprezas lead the way
11 November 2005
The opening day of competition was actually the previous night's Superspecial action at Gloucester Park where crews did two back-to-back runs of the spectator stage in front of a throng of Aussie rally fans. Leading the group N challenge after the Superspecial was Toshi Arai (dead even with Mitsubishi driver Fumio Nutahara), followed by Mark Higgins, Nasser Al Attiyah, Marcos Ligato, Gabriele Pozzo and Sebastian Beltran.
Although Toshi was expected to take a fairly risk-free attitude on this rally with the title so close to his grasp, his racing instincts must have taken over, the Japanese ace not compromising one iota as he ran under the floodlights on Thursday night. Maintaining one's natural race pace is arguably the safest thing to do in terms of not making any driver errors.
Right behind Arai (0.2 seconds) sat a revitalized Mark Higgins - in his first outing in a group N car since Rally Argentina. Next quickest was a very hard-charging Nasser Al Attiyah, making a massive effort on the two nighttime stages, and giving the fans something to cheer about with his spectacular driving. Marcos Ligato, chief protagonist for the Production Car title behind Toshi Arai was next fastest, with compatriot Gabriele Pozzo sixth, ahead of Sebastian Beltran in seventh. To give an idea of just how close the competition was, there were five group N cars sitting within 1.5 seconds of the leader after the two stages had been run.
The top seven places in Group N featured six SUBARU competitors. Taking into account Group N outside the Production Car World Rally Championship, there were eight SUBARUs within the top nine. The two additional machines are those of recently-crowned Australian Rally Champion Cody Crocker and teammate Dean Herridge. The local pair topped the Group N scores overall by quite an impressive margin.
It's all going a bit Arai...
The opening stages on Leg one of Rally Australia certainly seemed to be going just as lead protagonist for the Production Car title Toshi Arai would have wanted. He sat comfortable in second place in PCWRC for every test of the day, though let everybody know he had the pace, taking three stage wins throughout the leg. With the title so close, it was a wise strategy for the opening leg, and his position allows him to fight for the lead on Legs two and three.
Toshi maintained his pace throughout the day while dramas unfolded all around him. Apart from his three stage wins, the Japanese showed remarkable consistency, posting a pair of seconds, thirds, and fourths to run a scant 7.7 seconds behind leader Mark Higgins at the end of the day.
It was no surprise to see Higgins set the pace throughout the first day here. The car is working very well - and so, quite obviously, is the driver! Higgins has had a fantastic year in Britain, taking the laurels in the British Rally Championship in a WRC car, though his season in PCWRC has, thus far, been terrible. A couple of mistakes have cost him very dearly, as have unlucky incidents, including a freak fire that engulfed his car in Cyprus. A driver who's always shown blinding pace, he was 2nd in Argentina until a Servicing infringement put him out. Mark is clearly aiming to finish the year on a high.
STI Group N Project General Manager George Donaldson:
"Toshi is very much mindful of his championship position. The target today was to go out and find a pace that was suitable for his title aspirations. At first not knowing exactly where that was and how it would pan out, he took the first couple of tests a little more cautiously. When the news came through that his main championship rival Marcos Ligato had fallen foul of the road conditions and retired from the stage, this affected his strategy for the rest of the morning, and indeed it will do for the remainder of the rally. Toshi's just trying to settle into a pace where he's comfortable - but fast. He's pushing on as hard as he can whilst keeping an eye open for anything unexpected that may happen."
Leading the Production car championship after the opening day of competition is Mark Higgins, very comfortable with his pace. It was not a totally drama-free morning for the Briton however as he popped out of a rut and just touched a tree on the Turner Hill test before lunch - something that in less fortunate circumstances could quite easily have taken a wheel off.
On SS7, Higgins had been trailing Australian driver Dean Herridge by 7.4 seconds, then leading Group N overall. Unfortunately for the local man, he holed the radiator on the following test, the 23.30-km Beraking 1 stage - just one test after his teammate Cody Crocker also had an off. It was a sad end to SUBARU Rally Team Australia's home event, particularly as it's their last-ever outing, and even more so after the unmatched success the team has enjoyed over the past ten and more years.
Until their individual retirements, both Herridge and Crocker had been matching the pace of the PCWRC drivers stage after stage. They had in fact gained a very slight margin at one point.
It was very refreshing indeed to see the Argentinean pushing out his performance to the level that he did, driving all the while in a very calm and relaxed manner. At the lunchtime Service, he was a mere 14 seconds behind PCWRC leader Mark Higgins. By the end of the day that gap had grown to 25 seconds, though Pozzo was still well ahead of Teiskonen.
Nasser Al Attiyah had a somewhat conservative run throughout the day, knowing that by scoring a handful of points on Sunday he'll have clinched 2nd place in the PCWRC - a commendable achievement in only his second year in the championship.
Aki Teiskonen, once again co-driven by his brother Miika (after being absent on Rally Japan to attend the birth of his child), played himself in carefully over the first group of five forest stages, and then lifted his pace over the afternoon's tests, ahead of lead Mitsubishi driver Fumio Nutahara in fifth.
Natalie Barratt had a miserable start - and end - to her Rally Australia campaign as just four kilometers into the first of today's stages (SS3 - Murray North 1 - 15.92kms), a false line on the road drew her to run offline, t-boning her front suspension on a large rock. With five more stages to drive (before the Service), there was no way of getting the car around, and she was forced into retirement. She will run again tomorrow on Superally and try to prefect her notes for the future.
Tomorrow's stages run through more forested track (the Bannister stages), known for their soft surface and ease of rutting. Road position is therefore crucial on these tests. One of the most famous elements of Rally Australia is the Bunnings jumps - and the water splashes - particularly popular with fans. There is then a return to the Superspecial in the evening after re-visiting the Flynns and Beraking stages used today. Total mileage for the day is 122 kilometres.