So to this weekend's event. 3 days of top class rallying on some of the best stages in the country. Although this year's event is earlier than it has been for the last couple of years (no doubt some will complain that it's not bitterly cold and icy like it should be), there will still be lots of action to enjoy over the course of the event
This year, the main service park relocates for the first time to Cardiff. It could well be the last time the rally visits the city after the sponsorship problems that plagued the event earlier in the year. Thank you Rhodri Morgan. Anyway, major changes this year are a new shakedown stage in Margam Park replacing Penllegar forest near Swansea, and no superspecial this year for the first time since the event moved to Cardiff. Some classic stages are missing, most notably the competitive version of Margam, loosing the scene of Petter Solberg's victory celebrations in 2003, and Carlos Sainz's fustration of 1997
The most challenging day is the first. Friday's stages are based in Mid Wales, and feature some of the longest in the competition. The challenging Sweet Lamb, Hafren and Myherin stages have been features of Rally GB for decades, and warrant a remote service indoors at the Royal Welsh Showground in Builth Wells. The day opens with a long road section – 84 miles worth – and that's just to get to the re-fuel and rendezvous point before the first stage! From there it's a 32 mile drive to the first stage – 20 miles worth of Hafren Forest. It's almost certainly going to be damp, muddy and with some narrow roads between the unforgiving pine trees of the forest, the drivers will need all the concentration they can get. They won't get a rest on the roads of Sweet Lamb, but at least they should be more familiar with the area. It's a popular testing spot for the teams, but it's still demanding – there are some big rocks and drops, especially around the quarry section, and some big names have come to grief here in the past. Myherin is very fast and very narrow, and at 18 miles, is no picnic! The crews tackle all 3 tests in the afternoon after service, then return to Cardiff for the evening's podium ceremony (the fastest time of the day is awarded), before the mechanics can get to work on the evening's 45 minute service session.
Saturday is no less of a challenge. After a day in mid Wales, it's all about the beautiful Rhondda Valley today, starting up in the Brecon Beacons. Opening with the longest stage of the day, Rhondda – which is a fast and twisty test full of traps for the unwary – the teams move on to two other classic stages, Crychan and Halfway, which are both exposed tests conducted at close to top speed! The crews will be driving back to Cardiff for servicing today – a 42mile drive. Once again the tests are tackled twice and the evening is rounded off with the podium again.
Sunday is the shortest day, with only 2 stages. Port Talbot is the first half of the former Margam Stage, and is a quick downhill stage with plenty of sharp, slippery corners to catch out the drivers. This is followed by Rheola, featuring Walter's Arena half way around it's length. This artificial arena built in a former opencast mine features two huge jumps and goes around a lake giving the spectators plenty of time to see the cars and drivers in action. It's only a small part of the stage though, and the rest of the stage features stunning views as the cars wind their way down the side of a mountain towards the town of Neath.
Last year, Wheelnuts took at look at Walter's arena from private entry, Dave Matthew's Group N Subaru Impreza, The video is on the main site.
Then after the second running, it's back to Cardiff to crown the new champion... whoever it'll be.
The Ones to watchIt's all about Hirvonen in his Ford Focus, and Loeb in his Citroen. With only a point between the two drivers, whoever finishes first out of the pair will lift the championship – Hirvonen's first, and Loeb's 6th in succession. Technically the conditions and surface should favour Hirvonen, but Loeb seems to be good on any surface and in any condition!
Out to spoil the party is Petter Solberg in his new Citroen C4. Similar to, but not as advanced as Loeb's, the new car is being run with the assistance of Citroen's junior team, for whom he's been nominated to score points. He knows the roads well, as does his co-driver, Phil Mills, and has won the event 3 times in the past (although once by default). Petter Solberg is determined to show the world he still has what it takes to compete at the highest level of the sport, and could well be seen in a works seat next year.
Other drivers hoping for a good luck are Matthew Wilson, the spoilt brat son of Ford boss Malcolm Wilson driving for the Stobart Satellite team looking for a good result on his home event. Henning Solberg is trying to upstage his brother, and the Ford and Citroen number two drivers will almost certainly be locked in their own private battle – or called upon to delay either Hirvonen or Loeb, if the need arises – although the manufacturer's title has already been decided (Citroen took it in Spain)
Cruel and unusual obstaclesWell, they don't get more unusual than the lake in Walter's Arena, complete with waiting frogmen to fish out the drivers! but the biggest obstacles are the trees, and occasionally particularly big rocks hidden in the gravel and dragged out by preceding cars. The narrow stages can also be cancelled by big accidents that block them fairly easily. The other likely problem is the weather. This week, the rain has been heavy, and is currently light. If it's wet, it'll be very wet, if it's dry we're in for a extremely fast event – followed by a huge accident.
The NativesSpectators on Rally GB's of recent history seem to enjoy a good moan about how they're not allowed to stand in the middle of the stage to get photos, and are restricted to designated spectator areas. These areas were brought in on the insistence of the FIA, and the organisers made sure that the rules were followed (to a point, it's still possible to spectate outside of them provided you stay safe). Typically, pretty much no where else on the WRC calendar took them seriously! There are also quite a few rose tinted spectacled visitors and others who will gladly tell you that the event was better when it took a week to go around the country. They're best ignored really, and take great pleasure from trying to ruin the event for everyone else.
Other than that, if you value your eardrums, avoid anyone with a Norweigan Flag.