28 Nov 08
Sebastien Loeb may have already wrapped up this year’s WRC Drivers’ title but the battle between Ford and Citroen for the Manufacturers’ trophy is going right to wire. We’ll find out which team has won after the conclusion of the final round of the 2008 season - Wales Rally GB - which gets underway on 4 December.
The 15th WRC rally of the year takes place largely in the hilly forests of south and mid-Wales. The dramatic scenery and harsh wintry weather always present a stern challenge on this all-gravel event, and this year’s rally features the extra twist of a significantly modified route. For the first time since 2001 competitors will visit the classic stages of mid-Wales such as Sweet Lamb and Myherin on the opening day of the rally, with a remote service halt at the Royal Welsh Showground in Builth Wells.
The stages in Wales are some of the classics of the season. Tree-lined sections high in the forests contrast with wide open stretches, both on military land and where forestry work has removed the timber. While for those who like their rallying a little drier and warmer, Saturday and Sunday’s action includes a revised Super Special built inside Cardiff's spectacular Millennium Stadium.
Taking place during the first weekend of December, the weather is likely to be a major factor. Rain and fog are a distinct possibility, with an outside chance of snow as well. The stages held in the early morning and late evening will be run entirely in the dark, providing yet another big trial for the competitors. Good night vision is an essential attribute, as well as the ability to see through fog, which can reduce visibility to fewer than 10 metres in places.
As if that lot wasn’t enough, one of the most demanding aspects of the event will be the constantly-changing levels of grip from the wide variety of surfaces found on the rally. The packed flint, slate or gravel roads can each become treacherously muddy and the ability to judge which sections can still be taken flat-out is something which only comes with experience.
Thanks to a number of rapid straights and sweeping bends, Wales Rally GB is an extremely quick event, with average speeds on some stages approaching those of Rally Finland.
The rally gets underway on Thursday night at 1800hrs with a ceremonial start in the Welsh capital of Cardiff. The service park is based again in Swansea's marina area, 70km away. In total crews will face 19 stages, before the finish back in Cardiff on Sunday afternoon at 1456hrs.
Just one tyre pattern is available from the series’ supplier Pirelli. The Scorpion gravel tyre will be supplied in soft compound only. Each car can carry two spares but in accordance with this year’s new regulations teams are not allowed to hand-carve additional cuts into the rubber.
Who’s going to win?
Now that the individual battle between Mikko Hirvonen and Sebastien Loeb has been settled, this one will be all about the teams. Only Citroen and Ford can win the 2008 title and each of the four nominated drivers will have their eyes on securing the necessary results before going after any personal goals.
Manufacturers’ Champion in 2003, 2004 and 2005, Citroen holds the upper hand this year and heads to Wales with an 11-point lead over Ford in the standings.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi Team drivers Mikko Hirvonen - who won the rally last year - and Jari-Matti Latvala have pledged to try and repeat their Japan 1 - 2, finish. However, without the need to assist Hirvonen in the drivers’ battle, Latvala says he’s gunning for the lead spot this time. But even the top two podium places won’t be enough to clinch the deal completely. In order to secure the trophy for Ford for a third successive year they also need Sebastien Loeb and Dani Sordo to have an unusually awful rally.
Even with a Ford 1 - 2, Loeb and Sordo need only seven points between them to give Citroen the championship double. The odds of the Citroen pair achieving this look pretty good - they’ve surpassed this target on 12 of the 14 rallies so far this year - but in the treacherous Welsh conditions nothing can be taken for granted.
Sebastien Loeb will also have a lot on his mind. The Frenchman says that in Wales he’ll be adopting the same strategy he employed in Japan - where he drove for points rather than a win. But this approach is not without its problems and in Japan it caused him to make the odd mistake as he struggled to find a comfortable middle ground between being too slow and going at his usual flat-out pace.
Another thing Loeb might have to keep in check is his desire to complete a clean sweep of classic WRC rallies. Having won Rally Finland earlier this year, Wales Rally GB remains the only one he has yet to win. There’s also the chance of setting another world record too; currently Sebastien is the only driver ever to win 10 rallies in a single season - victory in Wales would be number 11. Whether Loeb will be content to let the Ford boys battle themselves for the lead, or whether he’ll have a crack at the win himself remains to be seen...
Follow this link for more information about the Wales Rally GB runners and (Moto GP) riders...Entry list for Wales Rally GB.
In addition to the WRC competition Wales Rally GB also counts as the final round of the FIA Production Car World Rally Championship (P-WRC). Click here to read our story about the final chapter in the P-WRC battle: Wales Rally GB P-WRC preview.
The itinerary for the rally can be found by following this link: Wales Rally GB itinerary.
Live rally information including the final timetable, itinerary, maps and penalties, will be posted in the Rallies section when the event goes live on Thursday 4 December.