With just 12 points separating the top six drivers in the WRC drivers’ standings, the teams will vie to conquer the “marbles” of the Australian Rally’s dirt course this weekend.

With just 12 points separating the top six drivers in the WRC drivers’ standings, the teams will vie to conquer the “marbles” of the Australian Rally’s dirt course this weekend.

The rally is based in Perth, Western Australia. Days one and three take place south-east of the state capital, with day two running east of the city around Mundaring. There is just one service park this year – at Jarrahdale, 60km south of Perth. New for 2003 is the “superspecial” stage at Gloucester Park in the city centre.

According to , the rally is famous for its stage surfaces, where a fine layer of 'marbles' – millions of ball bearing-like stones – over a hard base make the WRC cars struggle for grip. The crews who head out on the road first will be sweeping a fast line for those behind to follow. Mind you, the rally is being held two months earlier than its usual slot, and if it rains the wet surface will cancel any advantage that those down the order may otherwise have.

The event also punishes untidy driving: trees are very close to the side of the road in Australia – there are no ditches separating the stage from the forests – therefore the slightest mistake almost invariably ends in a big crash and retirement from the rally.

Peugeot’s defending world champion Marcus Gronholm has won this event for the past three years, and with team-mate Burns 11 points ahead of the reigning champ in the title race, the Finn is desperate to make it four. With three asphalt rallies in October, this could be loose surface expert Gronholm’s last chance to grab 10 points before the season’s final event, the British Rally.

Burns announced that he will be heading back to Subaru next year, but he says he's completely focussed on driving his heart out for Peugeot between now and the end of the season. He's been leading the championship since the Turkish Rally in March, and once again he'll be penalised by being the first away on the rally’s likely slippery surface on Friday.

And then there's Harri Rovanpera. He's is a buoyant mood after securing a full season with Peugeot for next year, and has a good starting position for this weekend’s event. If the conditions are dry, he may be the fastest Peugeot in Perth this weekend.

As for Citroën, Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae will be evenly matched. The Australian Rally promises to be another epic duel between the two drivers, who are fighting over the remaining drive at Citroën next year. McRae says he's more at one with the car than ever before, and with Sainz having maybe just one eye on protecting his championship position, the Scot may have his best chance of victory this season.

However, the Ford Focus RS WRC 03 has been the car to watch on recent rallies, culminating with Markko Martin's win on the last round, the Finnish Rally. But a repeat win might be out of reach in Australia – even for Martin, who is in top form. He has contested the event just twice, and team-mate Francois Duval only once, so the pair face a tough task in emulating the speed the car has shown on recent rounds. Both drivers will probably play it safe and aim for a solid finish rather than try to win the event.

Meanwhile, Subaru Impreza WRC driver Petter Solberg has scored 25 points since the Acropolis Rally at the beginning of June, while Burns, Sainz and Gronholm have scored 17, 20 and 8 respectively. If the form book is anything to go by, the Norwegian will be a frontrunner in the Australian Rally.

His team-mate Tommi Makinen has announced he will retire at the end of the season, so will that mean he will wind down between now and the British Rally, or will we see a rejuvenated Tommi for the last five rounds of the year? Only time will tell.

Skoda’s Didier Auriol and Toni Gardemeister were both in a desperate fitness race for Australia – Auriol recovering from an operation to relieve the shoulder problem that caused him to skip Finland, and Gardemeister recovering from a broken wrist sustained after a fall in a charity ice hockey match. But both have declared themselves fit for Oz, which is a boost because the Fabia World Rally Car needs to see as much competitive action as possible if Skoda is to turn it into a podium-scoring car next season.

As CARtoday.com reported before, Hyundai’s Freddy Loix will be off to pastures new next season, after securing the third drive at Peugeot. Last year, Loix actually set a fastest stage time – and it would be a great feat if the team could match that again this time round. Rally Australia should be a better event than Rally Finland Loix and team-mate Armin Schwarz because there are not the same number of privateer world rally cars contesting the event.

In addition, Hyundai need be capitalising on the new Skoda Fabia's teething troubles by ensuring both its cars get to the finish in Perth and pick up valuable manufacturers’ championship points.

Original article from Car