KINGSCLIFF, NEW SOUTH WALES // Contrary to statistical evidence, Sebastien Loeb's five consecutive world championships have not come easy. The Frenchman's five-year spell as the WRC's prime pace-setter has left an array of rivals - who in any other era would have won world titles - second-best. Marcus Gronholm and Mikko Hirvonen have pushed Loeb close. Both have headed him going into the business end of the seasons.
However, the diminutive Citroen driver refused to buckle and solidified his "best-ever" tag by winning titles number three and five, respectively. Hirvonen is back in front this year. It is becoming a familiar scenario for Loeb, who is down by three points with three rallies remaining, as he chases his sixth consecutive crown. Ominously for the BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver Hirvonen, who leads the championship standing, Loeb is relishing their title fight.
"I will try to do my best, but Mikko is strong in these situations and it will be a good fight," he said. "It would be good to continue [the championship streak] and I'm trying hard - we'll see what we can do." While much has been made of gravel specialist Hirvonen's narrow standings lead, it is a measure of Loeb's historical dominance that there is no favourite on the rocky surface at this weekend's Rally Australia.
"It's difficult to say. We are good, but Mikko is also. The surface will be good for both of us and I think we'll both be competitive," said Loeb As the drivers' championship heats up, an equally tight manufacturers' battle between Citroen and Ford has taken a back seat. The closing or stretching of the current 14-point gap, in Citroen's favour, would provide an intriguing sub-plot. Loeb leaves thoughts on the manufacturers' battle at home: he knows team glory will come if he snares personal points first.
"At the moment, I'm trying to fight for the drivers' championship, if I can do a good result for the drivers' it works well for the manufacturers' - that's what I always try to do. We will see," he said. Citroen got off the perfect start in yesterday's traditional pre-rally testing session, as Dani Sordo and Loeb registered the two quickest times over a dusty 3.29km shakedown distance in Dunloe Park, Pottsville.
Their second driver, the Spaniard Sordo, was fastest in 1min 34.5secs, with Loeb 0.3secs behind. As he sprang, expressionless, from the restrictive confines of his car's roll-cage, the Frenchman was keen to get into today's nitty-gritty. "The stages are good. There is a lot of difference. Some are very fast and very wide with grip, some are very twisty, narrow and slippery, so it's going to be interesting," he said.
Hirvonen managed the third fastest run with a 1min 35.5secs effort, while his Ford teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala, was 0.2secs further back in fourth. "The idea is to get the feeling for driving again," said Hirvonen. "I've learnt a little bit about the springs, and we may try a slightly harder set-up on the cleaner stages. "The character of shakedown is different to the rally's stages, so I'm basically fine-tuning my set-up."
After no pre-rally testing, the Emirati Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi had six official shakedown runs as he looked to reacquaint himself with his Ford Focus. He got quicker with every attempt and posted the ninth fastest time of the morning, 1min, 38.6secs, on his final run. "The most important thing during shakedown is getting the feeling, not the speed," he said. "We did a fast final run, a good time, but I overshot the last corner - it could have been quicker. This shakedown doesn't really reflect the stages we'll face during the rally."