Championship rivals Andreas Mikkelsen and Thierry Neuville will put their friendship to one side when they lock horns at this week’s Dayinsure Wales Rally GB, both determined to end each other’s hopes of finishing as runner-up in the 2016 WRC drivers’ points standings.
With Sébastien Ogier winning his fourth world title in a row in Spain earlier this month, the focus in Wales will be on a fierce five-way battle to finish closest to the dominant Frenchman.
Mikkelsen and Neuville, who live close to each other and train together in Monaco, are both locked on 127 points with only Rally GB and Kennards Hire Rally Australia left to contest this season.
Neuville will take Thursday night’s ceremonial start in Colwyn Bay in the best form. The Belgian guided his Hyundai i20 WRC to third place at the recent RallyRACC Catalunya - Rally de España, an event where Mikkelsen crashed his Polo R WRC as he tried to defend the final podium place from his rival.
Although the championship momentum has swung in Neuville’s favour, Mikkelsen is determined to atone for his Spanish error by striking back on the 22 gravel stages that make up the 330.21km Rally GB route.
“The crash in Spain meant I dropped valuable points in the championship and Thierry has drawn level,” the Volkswagen driver said. “It is going to be a tough battle with him for second place.
“My goal is obviously to be second come the end of the season. Anders (Jaeger) and I will focus solely on our own performance. We have already had a few great battles with Thierry this season, and Wales will be no different.”
But Neuville will be equally keen to put in a strong performance in Wales after falling short of expectations during the 2015 event. He retired twice last season; once after he lost a wheel in SS3 and again after a heavy roll in SS11.
Talking about his friendship with Mikkelsen and events in Spain, Neuville said: “It’s a benefit to work together, train together and to push each other. We have been catching him the last couple of rallies. It was him who made the mistake in Spain, but in the future it can be on the opposite side. This will not change the relationship.”
Also in contention for runners-up spot in the 2016 drivers’ points are Hyundai duo Hayden Paddon and Dani Sordo. New Zealander Paddon is 13 points behind Mikkelsen and Neuville, while Sordo is 16 points down.
Jari-Matti Latvala also has an outside chance of taking the place in his Volkswagen but the out-of-form Finn is 23 points adrift heading to Wales this weekend.