Ogier set to clinch 3rd consecutive World Rally Championship

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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) After a Volkswagen sweep of the podium in last month’s home race of the German manufacturer, Sebastien Ogier can clinch his third World Rally Championship in a row with a victory on Sunday over the forestry and farmland roads which make up Rally Australia.

France’s Ogier and his co-driver Julien Ingrassia have 207 points in the standings with three races left after Australia. He could also clinch the 2015 title if he finishes ahead of his Volkswagen teammate Jari-Matti Latvala of Finland, who is in second place with 114 points.

Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway, who finished third in the Rally of Germany, has 98 points after nine rounds.

After a ceremonial start on Thursday night, the rally officially begins Friday with three new first-day speed tests. The new stages of Utungun, Bakers Creek and Northbank, south of the event’s Coffs Harbour base, will be run in the morning and repeated in the afternoon.

“They are fast, technical, set in magnificent countryside and truly some of the best roads in the rally world,” clerk of the course Adrian Stafford was quoted as saying on the Rally Australia website.

The stages are split between the Coffs Coast state forests and open farmland, with many of the country shire roads lined by trees that leave little room for error.

There will be two passes on Saturday through the 50.80-kilometer (31.35 mile) Nambucca stage, one of the longest and most difficult stages of the season. The 7.94-kilometer (4.9-miles) Valla stage is also driven twice, the second after dark.

Five more tests north of Coffs Harbour on Sunday complete the rally. The 17 stages cover 311.36 kilometers (192.20 miles).

Norwegian driver Mads Ostberg and co-driver Jonas Andersson, who sit in fourth place in the overall standings, sustained minor injuries after their car crashed with a truck during a reconnaissance drive on Tuesday afternoon.

The head-on crash with the heavy vehicle occurred on a narrow section of roadway as the Citroen crew prepared pace notes.

“It took some time getting out of bed today,” Ostberg posted Wednesday on his Facebook page. “We had quite the impact yesterday, but we were lucky. It could have been much worse when you look at our recce car.

“We’ve been cleared to continue by the medics. Luckily there were no fractures, only two bruised ribs causing me a bit of discomfort. So we’re going to recce again today.”

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
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Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”