02 Dec 07
There are very few "easy" stages in the FIA World Rally Championship. Each event poses its own unique set of challenges and difficulties for the top tier drivers. Wales Rally GB has been no different.
With its return to late November, the rally was expected to have changing weather conditions that would make all the stages that more treacherous. Throughout the first two days there had been on and off rain showers that have made already tricky stages the more complicated and many of the drivers became more concerned about actually reaching the end of the rally instead of pushing for an outright victory. Jari-Matti Latvala was not one of those drivers.
The young Stobart driver thoroughly dominated the stages of day two, and, had it not been for the 10-minute penalty assessed for restarting under Superally conditions, he would be fighting for a podium position on the final day of competition. Instead, Latvala seemed determine to go for the outside chance of scoring a top-10 position overall, a feat that was almost a minute away.
On the other side of the overall classifications, Marcus Gronholm was entering his final day of competition hoping the tricky conditions would catch out Sebastien Loeb, allowing the retiring BP-Ford driver to take his third world rally championship. Loeb, though, was looking to end the day with his fourth straightátitle and merely had to finish to claim it. Loeb had been mostly cautious throughout the event, so the odd chance that something would happen to his Citroen C4 were unlikely, though stranger things have happened on more recent rallies. Mikko Hirvonen was in a comfortable lead overall, but that has never stopped the Finnish driver from pushing for stage wins regardless.
In the middle of the overall times table, the battle between Chris Atkinson and Matthew Wilson would have to be decided as only 10 seconds separated them after two days of competition, and with only 114.26 kilometres left to go. Four stages would be plenty enough to tie up all those loose ends.
The first stage of the day ended in predictably amazing fashion. Hirvonen had dominated the stage times on day one and Latvala had dominated the times on day two. On day three, they split the stage win on the opening test. Both drivers posted a time of 16 minutes 15.2 seconds to claim top honours over the 28.89 kilometre stage. Atkinson had trouble with his wipers on the rainy stage and lost time and sixth placeáto Wilson on the stage.áThe Britáwas now ahead of the Subaruápilot by 12.8 seconds with three competitive stages left on the rally. Gronholm finished third and Loeb came to stage's end an easy fifth, both maintaining position overall.
Stage 15 was a solo Latvala affair as the Stobart ace took another stage win and moved ahead into 11th overall ahead of Jan Kopecky. Wilson spun early on the stage to give Atkinson a chance at closing the gap, but theáAustralian was unable to do so and actually lost more time to the Ford Focus RS. The gap was now a sizeable 24.1 seconds, a decent cushion but in no way comfortable. Petter Solberg also ran into problems on the stage suffering a puncture early in the running. Solberg managed to bring hisáImpreza to the end of the stage fine, but lost a good chunk of time to the Citroen C4 of Dani Sordo. Sordo was now only 17.3 seconds back in fifth. While not a major threat to push for the position,áthe Spaniardácould easily benefit from another Solberg misstep. The Subaru ace, though, was unconcerned about the issue.
Midday service did little to change the complexion of the top of the stage times. Latvala took another stage win on the penultimate stage of the season, moving to within 18 seconds of the 10th placeáspot held by Mads Ostberg. Petter Solberg returned to form with a third place finish to reestablish his lead over Sordo to 21.7 seconds overall. Wilson continued to make time between him and Atkinson, with the gap now at 39.4 seconds. Atkinson could do nothing but admit defeat and focus solely on securing the manufacturers' points needed to gain Subaru a third place finish in their championship. Loeb was down the order, sixth on the test, but he was now only one stage away from claiming his fourth straight championship.
On the final stage, of the final day, of the final rally of the season, Loeb won his fourth straight drivers' championship.* The Citroen ace drove a safe rally all three days over treacherous terrain to bring his C4 to the end of theátest third overall. At stage's end Loeb congratulated Gronholm on giving him a good fight for the fourth title and went about celebrating his remarkable achievement with fans, media, and drivers.
The final stage of the day was also the final stage for Gronholm, who retires after this season. The double world champion was disappointed that his last outing couldn't be celebrated with a world championship, but he was content that he had pushed Loeb so far. Gronholm will be missed around the service park for his sense of humour and candid personality.
Hirvonen finished seventh on the stage, and managed to even add some drama to the final few kilometres of competition. The BP-Ford driver went off course, damaging his front bumper, before managing to get the car back on the road. There was no significant damage to his car, but even he was a little surprised at the lack in concentration.áThe Finnástill managed to keep a 15.2 second lead over Gronholm making him the winner of the 75th Wales Rally GB.
Latvala won the stage, making it a clean sweep of the day for the second day running. The Stobart driver managed to just get ahead of Ostberg for 10th overall, by 1.5 seconds.The dominance has to be a bit disappointing as Latvala would have been on the final podium spot had it not been for the 10- minute penalty assessed at the end of day one.
The close of the Wales Rally GB brings the end to the season and another chapter in the storied history of the FIA World Rally Championship. While we say goodbye to one legend, we can clearly see history unfolding for another. We can now take a short break before we begin again, with a new season, some new faces, and another new chapter to be written.
*Subject to confirmation of the final results by the FIA