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British Rally Champions, Vauxhall Motorsport, face the year's biggest challenge in the four-day Network Q Rally GB, our home round of the FIA World Rally Championship, aiming for a top 10 finish. A pair of Vauxhall Astra Kit Cars driven by Mark Higgins and Neil Wearden will tackle the equivalent of three British Championship events rolled into a concentrated three full days of flat out driving through the tough forests of south and mid-Wales, starting in Cardiff on Thursday, November 23.
"The Network Q is a fabulous event. It's the toughest challenge we face each year when the World Championship comes to Britain and of course we all want to show what we can do." Says Mark Higgins, who finished the British Rally Championship (BRC) as vice-champion, missing the title spot by just one point after winning outright three of the six rounds. "There are 17 stages to drive and they are all much longer than we are used to in the BRC, so that in itself is quite a challenge. I'm really looking forward to it, we have won in Wales already this year, the Astra is a good reliable car and we are motivated, so our aim will be a finish inside the top 10."
The two RML prepared and run Astras will be pitched against the best in the world championship, but the battle will be like David and Goliath. The Astras are built to the 'F2' regulations for 2.0-litre front-wheel-drive cars, the accepted standard for national championships, while the world championship is for WRC cars, the 'F1' of rallying - high-powered turbocharged four-wheel-drive cars.
The Astra proved itself to be the fastest car in the British championship this year and between them, the Vauxhall pairing of Higgins and Wearden won 60 of the 89 special stages that featured in the 2000 Mobil 1 BRC. Vauxhall won the champion manufacturer's title and carries that forward to the 240 miles of forest stages that face 160 competitors when they line up for the Cardiff start at 6.30pm on Thursday, November 23.
"A top 10 finish would be a real achievement for me and for the Astra," says Neil Wearden, winner of this year's MSA Rally. "There will be a lot of well driven WRC cars to contend with and one of them will win outright, but the 'F2' cars will be snapping at their heels if it's a dry event. The Astra has come on very well this year, it feels good on both tarmac and gravel surfaces, and I've come on well myself. I think Mark and me are closely matched for this one - it will be a good battle between us for a top 10 place."
Higgins, who lives near Newtown in Wales, is again partnered by Hereford's Bryan Thomas, the 2000 British Champion Co-driver, while Neil Wearden from Lancashire will have his regular co-driver Trevor Agnew, from Oxford, alongside.
"We are all well prepared for the Network Q," says Mike Nicholson, Vauxhall's motorsport manager. "The Astra is the strongest car in 'F2' and we should easily finish in the top 15 places, but both Mark and Neil are motivated enough to push that little bit harder and will have a top 10 place firmly in their sights. That would be a great achievement to close this chapter for the Astra, for although the Network Q is a great challenge for us, it will also be the final rally for the Vauxhall team."
The Network Q Rally GB is the final, 14th round of the FIA World Rally Championship and will settle the Drivers title. Action starts in Cardiff with a 'superspecial' in the docklands area on Thursday at 7.00pm. Friday takes cars out to Builth Wells for their first taste of the south and mid-Wales forests before returning to Cardiff for their second overnight stop. Saturday features forest stages in the Swansea area, with a real sting-in-the-tail for Sunday when crews leave Cardiff at 6.00am for a run out to Pembrey before swinging back towards Cardiff for the final 17-mile stage in Margam Park. Champagne spraying will greet the rally winners at 4.00pm on Sunday, November 26 back in Cardiff, where the rally is based around the City Hall district.