SYDNEY (Reuters) – Frenchman Sebastien Ogier and Belgian Thierry Neuville will take their thrilling battle for the world rally championship to the bushland tracks of northern New South Wales this weekend for the title-deciding Rally Australia.
M-Sport Ford driver Ogier, who is gunning for a sixth successive world title, holds a three-point lead over Hyundai’s Neuville heading into the final round of the championship with up to 30 on the line around the coastal city of Coffs Harbour.
Toyota’s Ott Tanak remains in mathematical contention for the title in third place 23 points behind Ogier but the Estonian will be relying on something going spectacularly wrong for the other two contenders.
Neuville, who is looking to break France’s 14-year grip on the title, led the championship until the last round in Spain when a broken wheel rim cost him vital points in the final power stage.
The 30-year-old won in Australia last year and being second in the championship will have the advantage of watching Ogier going out first and sweeping the hot gravel tracks on day one on Friday, improving conditions for the drivers that follow.
“Really looking forward to the last round of the championship, it has been so intense in the last couple of rallies,” Neuville said.
“Now we are aiming at getting that championship secured, we are second now and we will have a better start order in Australia. So it’s going to be interesting.”
Ogier, who won three consecutive Rally Australias for Volkswagen from 2013, is determined to clinch a second title for M-Sport Ford before he returns to former team Citroen in 2019.
“It’s a very positive place to be compared to where we were when we were 23 points behind two rallies ago and the pressure is now on our rivals to overhaul the deficit,” the 34-year-old said.
“Of course, we’re aware that opening the road will not be an easy task, but anything can happen and we are 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 next week.”
All the teams will be watching the weather carefully and hoping the forecast rain, which can turn the gravel tracks into treacherous slipways, stays away.
The manufacturers’ championship is also on the line in the last of the 13 rounds of the season but Toyota have a clearer advantage in that race with a 12-point lead over Hyundai and M-Sport Ford a further 13 points adrift in third place.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Greg Stutchbury)