The closest FIA World Rally Championship battle in a generation comes to a compelling conclusion in Australia this weekend when three drivers face the ultimate title shootout.
Sébastien Ogier, chasing a sixth consecutive crown in his farewell drive for the M-Sport Ford team, has erased a 23-point deficit in two rallies to head longtime leader Thierry Neuville by three points.
Ott Tänak is the outsider, but the fastest driver of all currently, having won or led the last five rounds. The Toyota Yaris pilot is 23 points off the lead ahead of the enthralling finale at Kennards Hire Rally Australia 15 – 18 November.
A maximum of 30 points is available. Given the dramatic twists and turns that have been the hallmark of the tightest fight since 2003, few would bet against the outcome being decided in Sunday afternoon’s final bonus points-paying Power Stage.
The points permutations are boundless, but one stands out. A fourth Australian win on New South Wales’ gravel roads would secure the title for Ford Fiesta driver Ogier, who has a wary eye on the weather.
If it is warm and dry in Friday’s opening leg, road opener Ogier will sweep the loose gravel tracks clean, handing an immediate advantage to Neuville and Tänak. Forecasts suggest rain is likely, which would remove Ogier’s handicap and turn conditions in his favour.
“The pressure is now on our rivals to overhaul the deficit. We’re aware opening the road will not be an easy task, but anything can happen and we’re ready for the challenge. We’ve enjoyed a lot of success in Australia over the years and our goal is to add to that success,” he said.
Neuville won in Australia in 2017 and is aware he must shrug off his patchy form to claim a maiden title in his Hyundai i20.
“Recent rallies have not gone our way and we now find ourselves involved in an incredible and intense championship fight. All manufacturers and crews have had ups and downs this season, but we need to put all of this behind us and to focus on a perfect weekend,” he said.
Tänak’s only option is to win and see what his rivals can manage. “I’m going to give it my all. I still have a mathematical chance in the drivers’ championship and even though it’s not really in my hands, I will keep pushing and not give up,” said the Estonian.
The Coffs Harbour-based rally starts on Friday morning. Drivers face 24 speed tests covering 318.64km before Sunday afternoon’s finish when the destiny of the 2018 crown will be decided.
© Image Tanak: Gary Jones