MOTORSPORT NEWS Rally

Wales Rally GB: Final countdown

 The legendary Welsh forests are ready to welcome a capacity and star-studded 160-car entry into Wales Rally GB, the 13th and final round of the 2015 FIA World Rally Championship. Building on the huge success of recent years’ events, this season’s spectacular features a fan-friendly three-day route. It comprises 19 competitive special stage speed tests – totalling 193 miles – all run against the clock on a challenging mix of traditional gravel forest tracks and parkland roads.

Wales Rally GB

 After a dazzling Opening Ceremony on Mostyn Street, Llandudno on Thursday evening, the intrepid crews face a marathon leg in mid-Wales on Friday. The weekend’s action is closer to the Deeside Service Park and includes the popular RallyFest at Chirk Castle (below middle) and the return of the iconic Great Orme on Sunday. The winners will be crowned in front of the teams and fans back in the Deeside rally hub on Sunday afternoon.

Heading the entry list is 2013, 2014 and 2015 World Champion, Sébastien Ogier (main above). Having just clinched a hat-trick of titles, the gifted 31-year-old Frenchman will be the one to beat on an event he has won for the past two years. Ogier, though, isn’t the only past winner targeting further success. His Volkswagen Motorsport team-mate Jari-Matti Latvala has also lifted the coveted Peall Trophy and, with no team orders, is sure to provide stiff opposition.

No British driver has won the event since the late Richard Burns completed a hat-trick of triumphs back in 2000 but, with Elfyn Evans (below top row) and Kris Meeke (below second row) among this season’s front-runners, another famous home victory may not be that far away. Meeke won in Argentina and Evans finished second more recently in Corsica.

Adding to the competition, Hyundai Motorsport is fielding a four-car entry and is locked in a battle with Meeke’s Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT outfit for second place behind the all-conquering VW Motorsport in the Manufacturers’ Championship. Ex-F1 star Robert Kubica is another to watch.

Following the huge popularity of recent events in north Wales, every effort has been made to increase car parking capacity and improve the spectator experience in advance of next week’s season finale. Once again, the event will boast its own dedicated Wales Rally FM radio station on 87.7FM as well as big screen television coverage – anchored by Steve Rider – with live action at key locations.

“The excitement is really building towards next week’s event,” confirmed Ben Taylor, Managing Director of Wales Rally GB. “We’ve got 19 of the finest rally stages in the world, a capacity entry list featuring the world’s best drivers and a huge crowd anticipated.

“Better yet, we have genuine hopes of a strong British result, after Kris and Elfyn’s performances this year. We’ll also be inducting Petter Solberg into the ‘Hall of Fame’ and celebrating the 20th anniversary of Colin McRae’s WRC title triumph. It all adds up to an utterly unmissable world championship event.”

Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, Ken Skates, said: “The Wales Rally GB is a world-class event and I hope this year’s event will be even bigger and better than ever. Wales Rally GB has developed a strong profile on the World Rally Championship calendar, demonstrating Wales’ ability to deliver a wide range of major events. The rally provides an ideal platform to showcase Wales’ many assets, including our spectacular scenery.

“The organisers have worked to widen the appeal of this sport, with developments such as the RallyFest stages proving invaluable in reaching beyond the motor sport enthusiast. We look forward to an action packed weekend.”

The majority of the special stage action takes place in the spectacular Welsh forests which are managed by Natural Resources Wales, who provide an invaluable service to the event every year.

Emyr Roberts, Chief Executive of Natural Resources Wales, said: “More than 90 per cent of this year’s rally is staged on forest roads we manage. Welsh forests are an important part of our economy and environment. Preparing the roads and safe spectator areas has taken us many months – this is a beautiful backdrop for the teams to compete at the highest level.”

BIGGEST BRITISH CHALLENGE FOR MORE THAN A DECADE

Not since the heady days of Colin McRae and Richard Burns have British fans had so much to celebrate at their home round of the World Rally Championship.

With Kris Meeke becoming the first British driver since Colin McRae in 2002 to win a WRC round earlier this season and Elfyn Evans scoring a career-high second place in Corsica, there are two homegrown stars in the hunt for glory. Since joining Citroen Total Abu Dhabi WRT at the start of last season, Meeke has notched up six podiums and taken the fight to Ogier on many occasions.

“I love these stages,” enthused the 36-year-old Ulsterman. “They’re definitely some of the best in the world. But it’s not just the roads, it’s everything that goes with them: the smell of the mud on the exhaust, the sight of the mist hanging over the hills in the morning – it’s a beautiful place to be, and the only place to be for a rally fan in November.

“Of course I would absolutely love to win but we have to be realistic. To try and win it against these Volkswagen boys will be difficult but if something happens to them… Either way I want to try to get on the podium. We were running second last year, but then got caught out in the Brenig stage on the final morning. There’s a wee bit of unfinished business there…”

Evans is a local hero in his native north Wales, and the 26-year-old from Dolgellau has been groomed for future stardom by his Cumbria-based M-Sport team, underlining his potential with two podiums already this season. Last year, he sent the fans home happy by finishing a fine fifth in his Ford Fiesta RS WRC – now he’s aiming a bit higher.

“I would obviously love to score my third WRC podium in Wales,” he admitted. “Given the calibre of the opposition out there, it will be no mean feat, but I can promise you we will be giving it our all and that’s what we are aiming for.

“The stages are fantastic. Everywhere else in the world we go, when there is rain and mud, there is practically no grip – but here that never seems to be a problem, meaning you can settle into a good rhythm and really attack the event and enjoy the whole experience.”

While Meeke and Evans will spearhead the home guard, there’s plenty of other British talent on show. Welsh-based Manxman David Higgins will make a welcome return behind the wheel of a Subaru Impreza in tribute to Colin McRae, while rising young stars Tom Cave, David Bogie, Chris Ingram, Johnny Greer and Gus Greensmith will all feature in the International event.