Top six positions provide perfect season end for Stobart
The Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team kept up their remarkable record of scoring manufacturer points at every round of this season's FIA World Rally Championship as Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson produced a strong finish to the season at Rally GB.
Solberg finished fifth overall, his best ever result on the event, with Wilson one place further back, finishing as top British driver and equalling his best performance on his home event. The result also confirms Wilson's best ever finish to a WRC season as he claims seventh in the drivers' championship, one place behind Solberg.
With a new home for Rally HQ in Cardiff Bay, many of the stages remained unchanged from previous years, incorporating classic Welsh forest stages which provided the perfect backdrop for the thrilling climax of the WRC season. Huge crowds flocked to the Welsh capital on Thursday night for the spectacular Ceremonial Start where all of the crews got a fantastic reception.
Solberg, battling his brother Petter for position in the drivers' championship, had a difficult start to the rally as his Ford Focus RS WRC developed a misfire on the very first stage causing the Norwegian and co-driver Cato Menkerud to lose over a minute on the leaders. But as the 62 starters tackled 130kms of fast and slippery stages in mid-Wales, the Norwegian managed to improve his times, despite the recurring engine problem, climbing from ninth to sixth by the end of the day.
Wilson and co-driver Scott Martin had a heart-stopping moment in the first stage as their windscreen wipers stopped leaving them at the mercy of the heavy rain and muddy roads. Thankfully the problem was only temporary, but the young Brit suffered throughout the day with handling problems as his car lacked traction, particularly in the slow corners.
With only a short 15-minute service at Builth Wells there was little that the team could do to investigate Solberg and Wilson's problems, but the technicians worked hard overnight to make sure that the cars were in perfect condition for the start of Day 2.
The longest day of the event at 138.16kms, Saturday also turned out to be the toughest of the rally as the autumnal Welsh weather continued to batter the hillsides leaving standing water on the stages and slippery, muddy conditions on the forest roads which tested the Pirelli Scorpion gravel tyres to the maximum.
Solberg set out to chase down Sebastien Ogier but he found it hard to stay on the pace of the Frenchman early on and was hit badly on the final stage of the morning's three-stage loop as their windscreen wipers struggled to cope with the constant barrage of rain. He maintained his sixth place at the end of the day.
Wilson meanwhile set out to rebuild his confidence after Friday's serious handling problems and produced a solid and reliable performance throughout the day despite the treacherous conditions out on the stages.
While other crews suffered on the final day of the rally, slipping off the roads on the tests to the north-west of Cardiff both Solberg and Wilson maintained their consistency and reaped the rewards as Ogier slid off the road on the penultimate stage of the rally, advancing Solberg to fifth and Wilson to sixth.
Team sponsor Steve Perez, competing in his only round of the WRC this season, had a strong event in his Kick Energy Ford Focus RS WRC avoiding any major problems and climbing steadily through the field over the three days of the rally, catching Citroen Junior Aaron Burkart on the very last stage to finish 12th.
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Citroen's Sebastien Loeb took a remarkable sixth successive WRC drivers' title as he beat BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen, his only challenger for the title, into second place. The battle for the championship was effectively ended on the penultimate stage of the rally as Hirvonen's bonnet came open mid-stage giving Loeb a one-minute advantage as the Finn was forced to stop and fix the problem.
Loeb's team mate Dani Sordo held off a spirited battle from Petter Solberg to take third place coming in just one second behind Hirvonen in the end. But Sebastien Ogier's impressive performance throughout the event was marred as he slid off the road and into retirement on SS15.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Matthew Wilson said:
"Friday was a very frustrating day because we lost a lot of time with the traction problem. The guys did a fantastic job with the car on Friday night, though, and it was great to drive for the rest of the rally. It would have been nice to get a top-five finish because that's what I was aiming for before the rally started, but I am happy with sixth. Conditions were very difficult, especially with the rain that made it really challenging. I've secured seventh in the championship and that's very positive."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Henning Solberg said:
"Once again the weather conditions have made this a very tough rally. The first day was the hardest for me as it was really difficult to concentrate with the engine misfire. But we put that behind us and had a good run on the rest of the rally and I was happy with most of the times we were setting. Apart from Day 1, the car has worked well and felt very nice to drive. I tried my best throughout the weekend and it's special to finish the season with a top-five finish."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford driver Steve Perez said:
"It has been a really exciting rally. We have been trying so hard the whole way around and on the penultimate stage we passed Aaron Burkart who had gone off, so then we really had to push on the last stage to hold him off. It's a good result, but a shame that we missed the top ten by 20 seconds. I am really happy with how it went. It's just a case of pushing yourself on a WRC event because you are competing against the best and they really make you raise your game."
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford team principal Malcolm Wilson said:
"We've witnessed a very strong finish to the year for the Stobart team on their home event. This was a tough rally and after the problems on the first day, both crews have really got to grips with the conditions. I'm pleased to see Matthew and Scott improving on their home rally and it just demonstrates that his plan and approach is working; this is his best ever championship finish. Henning has done a solid job too and it caps off a great season for the squad."
Stobart Group CEO Andrew Tinkler said:
"It's been a great finish to the year for the Stobart team and we've seen some fantastic performances during the season. Matthew's progress has really impressed me during the year and the experience he's gaining is definitely paying dividends now; he's improving year on year and getting closer to the guys at the front. It's been a tough rally but they have done a good job and two top six finishes is a great way to round off the season."