For the last two years Rally GB has taken place in September, but the shift back to a winter date increases the possibility of ice, fog, mud -- and even snow. It has been unseasonably dry in the area in recent weeks, but rain is forecast in the days prior to the event and that could drastically alter the nature of the stages.
The later date means less daylight hours in the UK and rally organisers have made several changes to the route to compensate for the shorter days. The first stage of the rally, Port Talbot, is a revised version of the former Margam stage. Together with Resolfen and Rheola it forms the opening loop of stages which are run twice on Friday. Resolfen features many surface changes and takes the crews high up Rhigos Mountain, so fog could be a factor during the first run through the stage on Friday morning. Rheola is no place for a mistake: it is fast, but contains some huge, intimidating drops off the side of the road. The stage also includes the fan-friendly Walters Arena section near the end.
While leg one takes place in the undulating valleys of south Wales, the crews travel north to the fringes of the Brecon Beacons for leg two. It includes two runs through a trio of well-known tests: Crychan, Halfway and Epynt, before the day ends with the 1.1km Cardiff Super Special held inside the Millennium Stadium. An estimated 25,000 spectators will get some respite from the harsh winter weather under the stadium's retractable roof.
The third and final leg comprises two runs through Brechfa and Trawscoed, although this year the drivers will tackle the stages in the opposite direction compared to 2005. These two long stages take place on a hard-packed surface, but while the former test is fast and features some long, cambered corners, the latter is much tighter and strewn with hairpins.
The overall competitive distance is 356km and the first car is due onto the finish ramp inside the Millennium Stadium at 15.41 (local time) on Sunday 3 December.
Kronos Total Citroen
As for New Zealand, three-times World Champions* Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Elena are present in Wales solely to complete the reconnaissance. For the rally, the two Kronos Total Citroen's Xsara WRCs will be placed in the hands of Spanish team-mates Xevi Pons/Carlos Del Barrio and Dani Sordo/ Marc Marti. Xevi Pons, who feels fully at ease at the moment, can lean on his good knowledge of the Welsh stages he has successively tackled with a Production car (2003), with a super 1600 (2004) and with a Xsara WRC (2005). The Catalan driver wishes to finish an excellent second half of season in a nice way, by climbing on the podium which he has missed narrowly on the three last rounds. The situation is slightly different for Dani Sordo who takes the start of a new event for the sixth consecutive time. The Junior World Rally Champion aims to complete a careful job in reconnaissance to be able to drive safely on the first passes through the stages, before increasing the pace on the second one. Even if it's not his number one priority, he also hopes to defend his fourth place in the 'Drivers' championship--
Xevi Pons/Carlos Del Barrio: "I like the RAC rally like everybody I think-- It's true it's not an easy rally and especially when it takes place in November where water and mud are the rally's highlights. But there's something special in this event's route. Maybe the fact it's a traditional and classic round of the championship gives it a special thing and makes it's different from another one. I think its comeback to being the season's last event is a good idea. Even if the weather conditions will be more difficult, I feel really pleased to tackle the 'real' Wales Rally GB which should be very different from the September version--"
Dani Sordo/Marc: "I think this final round will be difficult for the weather. It's Rally GB, isn't it? Usually, it features rain, mud and cold, I think. I will try to defend my fourth position in the Drivers' rankings, even if Manfred [Stohl] has shown a good speed and only lies one point behind me-- However, if he did take it, it won't really matter. This year has been so useful for my experience, as it was my target number one. For Wales Rally GB, I will try to do a good job on the pacenotes and aim to finish the event to have a good knowledge of the stages. I realised how different it is in between a rally which I have already competed in and one completely new. For example, in Sardinia, where I participated in a S1600 last year, I sort of remembered if such corner had grip or if such place was slippery. With only one competitive pass, we have a very different feeling, really!"
The OMV Peugeot Norway World Rally Team will take up the last run to the FIA World Rally Championship, the Wales Rally GB, from November 29 to December 3 in the Cardiff area with a lot of self-confidence. Manfred Stohl and Henning Solberg have bestowed the OMV Peugeot Norway WRT and Bozian Racing with the most successful season in history already prior to the showdown. Nevertheless, both the Austrian as well as the Norwegian OMV driver have big plans for the rally finale 2006.
Manfred Stohl/Ilka Minor: "The Wales Rally suits me just fine. I like the conditions and know that I can be very fast there. It is good that we still have a goal in front of us in order to keep up the tension. And I obviously want to end this season with my fourth podium place."
Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud: "We drive a very high speed which sometimes takes its toll. But it is the only way to keep up with the top. It is important to us to test our limits. We have had some very good results this year already. And we want to top that at the Wales Rally."
Newly-crowned FIA World Rally champions BP-Ford aim to complete the most successful season in their history by ending a long winless streak on next week's Wales Rally GB (30 November - 1 December). After securing the manufacturers' world title earlier this month for the first time since 1979, BP-Ford drivers Marcus Gronholm and Timo Rautiainen and team-mates Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen have their sights set on giving Ford a first British win since the same year.
Marcus Gronholm/Timo Rautiainen: Gronholm has plenty of experience in Britain, having started nine times and won once. "It can be an extremely difficult rally," said 38-year-old Gronholm. "When the conditions are OK then the stages are fine but when it is wet, foggy, muddy and icy -- sometimes all together -- then the roads can be really hazardous. Fog is something that we don't encounter on many rallies during the season, but you can guarantee that with the rally back at the end of the season, at some point we will have fog and that's horrible. "I'm looking forward to a good battle and I'm sure that Mikko will be one of my biggest challengers. He has increased his pace as the season has progressed and I know that he wants to try to prove himself in Britain so it should be good fun," added Gronholm, assured of second in the drivers' standings.
Mikko Hirvonen/Jarmo Lehtinen: Hirvonen has started in Britain on three occasions and the 26-year-old is relishing the opportunity to attack. "There will be no pressure through having to score points so I'm looking forward to giving it a real go and driving as fast as I can. The stages in Wales are good but it's not an easy event in which to bring the car home to the finish because of the conditions. In the dry the stages are quite simple but in December we can expect temperatures below zero with ice and fog. Fog is the worst. The roads are so fast that when it's foggy you can't see well. "I will try to win but I know that to do that I need to beat Marcus at least. I hope that I can match his pace and put pressure on him through the whole weekend," added Hirvonen, who is already assured of third in the drivers' championship.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford
Cumbrian world rally sensation Matthew Wilson arrives back in Britain after a whirlwind 11 months, taking in 15 countries and 15 rallies on five continents, as the most successful 19-year-old driver ever to compete in the World Rally Championship. Despite only just being out of school, Wilson signed up to drive for the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team in this year's World Rally Championship -- and made an immediate impression. Despite a fearsome reputation in the sport, Wilson made his name on Rally Argentina earlier this season. The son of former British Rally Champion, Malcolm, rocked the establishment in South America, where he became the youngest driver ever to set a fastest time on a world championship stage -- and the youngest driver ever to clinch a WRC point. Joining Wilson in the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team is Jari-Matti Latvala from Finland. With Wilson aged 19 and Latvala 21, this team really represents the sport's future. There's going to be a fascinating battle between the two team-mates, both of whom have already won at the highest level in Britain, but Latvala certainly edges Wilson in terms of experience. The fast Finn arrives on the back of two Production World Rally Championship wins in Australia and New Zealand, so his confidence will be high.
Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr: "I'm really looking forward to this one! Having traveled around the world for the past year, it's great to be coming home for the biggest rally in Britain. As you might expect, Rally GB is the event where I have the most experience, which will help me. The one thing which is likely to be different is the weather. Every time I've done it before it's been in September. Okay, we've had some rain during those events, but nothing like the conditions we could experience next week. There could be anything: rain, snow, ice, anything, but that's all part of the challenge. Competing in the world championship means everything to me, but coming home is always going to be just that bit special. "Obviously I am disappointed about the penalty, but it's there, there's nothing we can do about it. I have to just get on and drive. It does make getting a good, strong finish very difficult, but I can't think about that. I've driven the 2006 Focus three times now, and each time I drive it, I just can't help grinning that bit more -- it's an amazing thing to drive and driving it at home in front of people who have watched WRC on the television all year is mega!"
Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila: "I am definitely looking forward to Rally GB. For me it will be the first time in the 2006 car, I have done three asphalt events with Stobart and it's been a great car, but now it will be even better. I have a good feeling with the stages in Wales and have a good setup, this will help. My best result was in 2003, but last year I had some problems. Despite those, we set a sixth fastest time on three stages. Last year was good experience and will help me a lot with my confidence for this year. "I liked Wales when it was dry last year, but I think now it will be wet and muddy, but it helps now that I have been driving my last rally in New Zealand as the conditions were very similar to what it will be like in Wales. It's also encouraging that we have won the last two Production rounds, it gives me a good feeling going to GB, I hope that I can keep the same speed. I hope I am a more clever driver now than earlier in the year. I made mistakes with the previous events, but I have definitely learnt a lot from them."
As the Subaru World Rally Team heads to south Wales this weekend for Rally GB, it is preparing not only for the final challenge of the season, but also one of the toughest events on the calendar. The varied nature of the gravel stages and the traditionally unsettled Welsh weather makes the rally notoriously difficult to prepare for. Historically it has been an event where the Subaru World Rally Team has been strong. In all, Subaru has taken nine wins in the last 11 occasions on which Rally GB has been part of the WRC (it was not part of the 1996 championship).
Petter Solberg/Phil Mills: "It's going to be a big attack from the first metre of the rally: it's as simple as that. It's the final round of the championship and there's nothing to lose. I hope it will be good old-fashioned Rally GB weather, with lots of mud on the stages. Those would be the best conditions for me. Our tyres have always been very competitive on the event and the team has lots of experience of how to deal with the tricky conditions. We always have a lot of support on the rally, especially with Phil [Mills] living close by, so it would be fantastic to end the year with a good finish."
Chris Atkinson/Glen MacNeall: "I contested Rally GB for the first time last season, but with the date change I'm expecting conditions to be quite different this year. Last year there was a little bit of mud at the start, but the stages were dry on the second leg. This year there will probably be ice and fog, which will make it tricky. It won't be a completely new experience, because I've done winter rallies in places like Tasmania, where the conditions were similar. Some of the Rally GB stages are new, and that could level the playing field for me because the more experienced drivers will be learning the route too. We've had some good speed at certain points of the last two rallies, so now we're working on trying to find that pace for an entire event."
Red Bull Skoda
Both Skoda Fabia WRCs will be well-prepared for the season finale of this year's World Rally Championship in Cardiff. An additional test in Wales has been organised for this coming Monday with the help of the sponsors. The two team bosses Raimund Baumschlager and Armin Schwarz are hoping for a good outcome to the rally because of that: "With this extra knowledge it should be possible to repeat the performance we had shown in Germany and Turkey, so that the team can celebrate a positive conclusion to the season."
Andreas Aigner/Klaus Wicha: Red Bull youngster Andreas Aigner in the Fabia WRC has great intentions for Wales: "I want to try and reduce the gap to the front runners with several top ten times to just under one second per kilometre, like I did in Germany. It's a high benchmark I'm aspiring to for sure, but it would be a significant personal result for my self-confidence as well. The test day also is very important for this venture after almost a two-month break."
Harri Rovanpera/Risto Pietilainen: Harri Rovanpera already has had great success in England. In 2001 he finished in second position overall, then it was P7 in 2002. In 2004 the Finn made it to sixth, and to P4 the previous year. Nevertheless Harri talks about the Wales Rally as a very difficult task: "A lot will depend on the weather, it's a real challenge to drive in the rain each and every time. What's most important: We'll be able to test there on Monday the week of the rally. That should enable me to deliver the best result of this season in the Fabia WRC."