Neuville-Tanak battle grips Rally Australia

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AFP/File / Josep LAGO Belgian driver Thierry Neuville and co-driver Nicolas Gilsoul steer their Hyundai Motorsport WRT Hyundai i20 Coupe WRC during the 53rd 'Rally de Catalunya', in Vilalba dels Arcs, on October 6, 2017

Frenchman Sebastien Ogier has wrapped up the 2017 World Rally Championship but the battle for second remains alive heading into this week’s final Rally Australia leg in Coffs Harbour.

Belgium’s Thierry Neuville holds a 14-point advantage in his i20 over the Ford Fiesta of M-Sport’s Ott Tanak, with a maximum 30 points available in the Australian event, which gets under way on Friday.

Ogier’s third-place finish in last month’s Wales Rally GB was enough for the 33-year-old Frenchman to secure a fifth consecutive championship.

Ogier, who started his reign in 2013, is continuing French domination of the World Rally Championship. His compatriot Sebastien Loeb won nine consecutive titles from 2004 to 2012.

Neuville is hoping for forecast rain throughout the three days of racing to help his chances of holding on to second place in the series aboard his factory-run Hyundai.

World Rally Championship (WRC) rules require drivers ahead in the standings to start early in the order on Friday’s opening day.

In dry conditions those out early are disadvantaged by having to sweep away loose gravel with their cars, but the position is reversed when wet roads slow following cars.

“It’s going to be a tough contest. Like every single round this year was pretty demanding, it’s going to be the same here,” Neuville said.

“I hope it’s going to be a little bit wet on the weekend, which should give us a bit more opportunity to be on the podium, bring back maximum points for the team and a win as well.

“If it stays dry, there will be some road-cleaning conditions and it might be tough for us being second on the road.”

Neuville highlighted Citroen rival Kris Meeke and last year’s Rally Australia winner Andreas Mikkelsen as being among those who would have an advantage by starting further down the order.

Norwegian Mikkelsen, who is piloting for Hyundai for the final three rounds, is bidding to become the eighth different winner in 13 rounds of this year’s world championship.

“Australia is probably my favourite rally of the season and I have great experiences from the event previously,” Mikkelsen said.

“Winning in 2016 was a great memory and I hope we can be in the mix again.

“It would be an amazing way to end the season and to prepare for a full season campaign in 2018,” he added.

Adding spice to this weekend’s final round is the team situation for Ogier next year, with reports saying he was planning to leave the manufacturer champions M-Sport for Citroen.

“I know what we have to do, I know where we have to get to and that’s what I’m working on now,” M-Sport team principal Malcolm Wilson said this month.