After 12 thrilling rounds in four continents, the 2011 World Rally Championship concludes in Great Britain next week with the title battle finely poised between Mikko Hirvonen and defending champion Sebastien Loeb.
Loeb, the seven-time title-winner, is eight points clear of Hirvonen after he ended a barren spell with victory on the last round, the 67th of his phenomenal career. But with Wales Rally GB’s stages frequently subjected to mud, rain and strong wind, the destination of this year’s crown is far from settled.
In a further twist, significant changes have been made to the itinerary of this year’s title showdown with a route spanning from Llandudno in the north of Wales to Cardiff, the principality’s capital, in the south.
Although the stages on Saturday and Sunday will be familiar to Rally GB regulars, albeit with a few modifications, the stages on Thursday and Friday represent unchartered territory for most. And to spice up the action, an all-asphalt test on the Great Orme toll road, which juts out into the Irish Sea, will open the action, the first time since 1981 that it has been used on the rally.
Furthermore, the Clocaenog Forest stage late on Thursday afternoon last appeared on the event route in 1996, one year before Sebastien Loeb first took part in a full rally. Friday’s route is also untried by the bulk of the overseas competitors, with Dyfi Forest last used in 1996 and Dyfnant Forest not visited since 1997.
While Saturday’s stages in Hafren, Sweet Lamb and Myherin are unchanged from 2010, the Halfway, Crychan and Monument tests on Sunday will generally run in a reverse direction, with Halfway and Crychan again featuring a combination of asphalt and gravel.
Aside from the Great Orme test, Rally GB’s stages on mainly closed forest roads are characterised by their high-speed and undulating nature with inconsistent grip levels caused by changeable weather conditions creating a huge challenge for crews.
In another change for 2011, the permanent service park will be housed in the Royal Welsh Showground in Builth Wells, where shakedown will also take place on Wednesday. However, the rally headquarters will continue to be based in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, while Llandudno will host an overnight halt on Thursday and a remote service zone.
As well as counting as the final event of the WRC season, Wales Rally GB will bring the curtain down on the Production Car World Rally Championship and the new-for-2011 WRC Academy Cup. Previews for both support championships will appear on Wrc.com next week.
Next page: So who’s going to win?