Wilson charges as team-mates wither under vicious weather
In one of the most weather-driven days in this year's FIA World Rally Championship, Stobart VK M-Sport Ford crew Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr have battled the elements to finish leg 1 of Wales Rally GB in an impressive sixth position overall.
Team-mates Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud and Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila became victims of severe conditions and were both forced to retire from today's leg with similar, visibility related issues.
The day was structured into two identical loops of three stages which covered a total competitive distance of 140.8 kilometres. Last night's Ceremonial Start kicked-off proceedings as crews drove over the ramp in front of Cardiff city hall to cheering spectators who gathered to celebrate this final round of the 2007 WRC.
Typical Rally GB conditions made it tough going for all crews who were subject to harsh weather conditions in the form of torrential rain mixed with strong gale force winds and heavy fog. This generated huge amounts of mud over all three stages run today causing world rally cars to be almost unrecognisable at stage ends.
For the first time since Rallye Monte Carlo back in January, the WRC played host to a night-time stage this evening which many drivers described as the most challenging this season. Along with strong winds and vicious rain, fog came into play with many crews being blinded by the highly luminous pod lights beaming against the thick fog.
For Britain's only fulltime WRC driver it has been a fantastic day on his home event, finishing leg 1 in a points scoring position and, for the first time this year, top-placed Stobart driver after leg 1. Against a 26-strong world rally car contingent Wilson set top-ten stage times on every occasion today as he powered up the leaderboard from the opening kilometre.
It has been a perfect start for the 20-year-old Cumbrian as he looks to make it three consecutive points scoring events in a row to cap off the season in style.
The unbearable weather conditions played havoc on several top crews including Solberg who was forced to retire on the final stage after losing a large amount of time on the penultimate Resolfen test this afternoon. A broken heater matrix on stage 4, caused by the demanding conditions, was the reason for his massive time loss as it resulted in the incorrect functioning of his blower making the windscreen on his Stobart Ford Focus RS WRC06 became dangerously fogged up.
Unfortunately too for Latvala, harsh conditions caused a fault on his wipers forcing the young Finn to retire on the final test. With the wipers not being able to cope with the vast amounts of rain bucketing down, Latvala went off early in the stage due to poor visibility. The impact, while not major, caused slight damage to the driver's door. This was a disappointing end to the 22-year-old's day which was shaping up well as he began the last stage comfortably in fourth position outright.
Both Solberg and Latvala will re-enter day 2 under SupeRally regulations to tackle the 104.48 competitive kilometres which sees a run through the electrifying Millennium Super Special. Latvala currently occupies 15th overall while the Norwegian is in 35th.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Henning Solberg said:
"I was not happy this morning which started off with a puncture but that is a part of the game. I couldn't really find my rhythm today and then on stage 4 things got worse when the heater started playing up and I couldn't see anything for the whole stage. This got worse over the final two stages today and in the end Cato [Menkerud] had to use a stick with his hat on the end to try and clear the windscreen because the mist was just too bad to see anything. I just couldn't see a thing at all when the screen was misted up. Then it was even worse in the dark and I had no option but to crawl through the stages. I am so disappointed with today as we were hoping for things to start off well here."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Jari-Matti Latvala said:
"After a slowish first stage things got much better on the next two stages. While I was still making some small mistakes and sliding too much in places the rhythm was OK and we were in fourth fighting Loeb for third. In the last stage everything went wrong. The visibility was really bad and my wipers were not working properly. The rain was so bad I couldn't see anything and then I hit a bank quite hard on a very rough part of the stage which damaged the bumper and made the wipers stop working completely. I really couldn't see anything at all and had to stop and get out of the car a few times to clean the mud off the windscreen. There was so much water coming up over the screen that I had no option but to stop in places. It was a really frustrating end to what was a very encouraging start to the rally."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Matthew Wilson said:
"This morning was very tricky because sometimes the visibility was fine but other times you really couldn't see anything which made it hard to pick the right braking points. Things got better though as the fog began to clear and it was really fun on that last stage this morning. In the afternoon there was so much rain which made things very difficult and that last stage is one I will never forget, that's for sure; it was one of the most challenging I have ever done especially with the fog making it almost impossible to see. I just cannot explain how bad the visibility was; it was just a matter of damage limitation. I'm feeling quite good at the moment and it's great to be in a points scoring position but there is still a long way to go and a lot of tricky corners left in this rally. My times today were very encouraging and it's great to be sixth after the first day and even better to have stayed out of trouble today."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
"Matthew has done a great job today and has put in a very solid and impressive drive in extremely difficult conditions; a very good start to his home event. The weather conditions, fog and extreme rain have led to atrocious driving conditions but he has coped remarkably well and made no mistakes today. Jari-Matti was also doing well and in a strong fourth position until his problem on the last stage. Hopefully tomorrow both Henning and Jari-Matti will be able to salvage some manufacturer points for the Stobart team. They are not out of the fight yet."