After many years as a winter finale to the FIA World Rally Championship, the Wales Rally GB (16 - 19 September) is reborn next week as an end-of-summer event. The fog, mud, snow and ice which were so common during its mid-November date will be ...
After many years as a winter finale to the FIA World Rally Championship, the Wales Rally GB (16 - 19 September) is reborn next week as an end-of-summer event. The fog, mud, snow and ice which were so common during its mid-November date will be replaced by drier and faster conditions. Beginning on Thursday 16 September with a visit to the Super Special Stage in Cardiff, the gruelling three-day event is one of Britain's most popular sporting occasions.
Nonetheless, the famously unpredictable Welsh weather is still expected to bring a few surprises to competitors. While fog and ice are not likely hazards at this time of year, fluctuating temperatures, rain and bright sunshine are all factors to consider. As a result, road conditions may vary between hard-packed gravel and slippery mud to dry, abrasive, dusty tracks. Traditionally, the stages are fast and, if conditions are dry, average speeds are expected to be around five per cent quicker than last year's average of 108kph.
The rally will again be based in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, with all the action taking place in the mountainous forests of south Wales. However, the single service park will be located an hour further west in Swansea. The rally opens with a super special stage in the dockland area of Cardiff on Thursday evening. Friday is the longest day of the event with 183.31km of competition split between just six long stages, four of which are based in the notoriously tricky Brechfa Forest. The bulk of the second leg is based further north, close to the Epynt military ranges, and includes a brand new test. It finishes with a second pass over the super special stage. The final day includes two attempts at the classic Rhondda test in the Vale of Neath before ending with a third pass over the Cardiff super special. Drivers face 394.03km of competition in a total of 1328.07km.
Citroen's Sebastien Loeb goes into this weekend's UK round with a 30 point lead over his nearest rival and a theoretical chance to clinch the drivers' World Championship title, but with the move of the event from its traditional late November to mid-September, nothing can be taken for certain. Last year Sebastien Loeb steered his Citroën Xsara to second place in this event and gifted Citroën the World Rally Championship manufacturers' title in its debut WRC season, but lost out to Petter Solberg and his Subaru for the drivers' title. This year, the roles are almost reversed. To catch the Frenchman, Solberg would have to win the RAC Rally and the two following events with Loeb failing to score. But stranger things have happened in rallying.
Sebastien Loeb / Daniel Elena: So what sort of event will Loeb drive? Safe and sensible, or all out to on the top of the winner's podium again? "Like I am every time!" Says Loeb. "Perhaps more so! That's often how it is with rallies I enjoy. We will have to wait to see whether it is possible. Part of the rally will be played out on Monday, when we nominate our tyre choices. Following its date switch, this event is likely to be the most complicated gravel rally of the calendar on the tyre front. The conditions stand to vary from dry and hard to cold, damp, muddy or even pouring rain. To be sure of having the ideal tyre for each situation, we could nominate a bit of everything, from ultra-soft rubber to hard compounds. But in that case, we will only have a limited quantity of each and we will end up running short if the conditions are consistent. The alternative, riskier solution will be to go without certain products. In a word, what I don't like about this rally is that we could lose it on the Monday before the start!"
Carlos Sainz / Marc Marti: This will be the fifteenth time you start Britain's round of the WRC, an event you knew when its stages were secret. What do you think about this year's date change? Do you fear that the 'RAC', which had a very strong image and reputation, could become just another a rally? "It's true that I knew the RAC when it was secret. I liked that a lot. When the rally moved to the Cardiff region and we could recce the stages, it obviously became easier, especially given the proximity of the sea which meant there was no snow or ice as there used to be. Even so, the conditions were still treacherous, with fog, rain and mud. The date change means we may lose the delicate aspect of the event that the weather brought. It should be drier, although we don't know how much drier--"
Two weeks after Subaru claimed its 42nd WRC victory by winning the inaugural Rally Japan, the 2004 FIA World Rally Championship moves back to Europe for round twelve of the 16 event series, Wales Rally GB. The Subaru World Rally Team will enter two cars in Wales Rally GB, which will be driven by Petter Solberg (co-driven by Phil Mills) and Mikko Hirvonen (co-driven by Jarmo Lehtinen). Having won the event in 2002 and 2003, Petter Solberg will be aiming for his third Welsh victory this year to take a hat trick of Wales Rally GB wins. With only limited knowledge of the Welsh forest stages, Finnish driver Mikko Hirvonen will be drawing on his experience of other gravel rallies, such as Mexico and New Zealand. Competing at the wheel of his Subaru Impreza WRC2004, the young Finn will be aiming to secure more Championship points.
Petter Solberg / Phil Mills: Japan was really very, very good, let me tell you. It was a difficult rally to drive, very technical, but everything worked well for us and it was great to take the win. I'm looking ahead now and getting ready for Wales Rally GB. It will be interesting this year due to the date change, but it doesn't matter to me if it's dry or wet on the stages - I love it! It's my favourite rally of the year. It's absolutely the best rally in the world and I have such great memories of being there. I can't wait to get back."
Mikko Hirvonen / Jarmo Lehtinen: "I think the change of date for this year's Wales Rally GB should make it pretty interesting. If it's dry, it will be a good rally for me I think. The stages will be really fast and flowing, which suits my driving style. It's easier to find a driving rhythm in those conditions and you can go for it. It's the team's home event, which makes it a bit special and Subaru has a very good record there. The team showed what the Subaru Impreza WRC2004 is capable of on gravel in Finland and I know I'm going to be in a good car - so I'm looking forward to it."
The fog, mud, snow and ice which were so common during its mid-November date will be replaced by drier and faster conditions, and are likely to offer a totally new challenge to BP-Ford World Rally Team drivers Markko Martin and Michael Park and team-mates Francois Duval and Stephane Prevot. While the BP-Ford drivers will be unused to the conditions, the British-based team's senior management has vast experience of year-round competition in the UK and will be able to offer plenty of advice. "Between us, we have competed on many rallies in Britain in vastly different conditions so we have good knowledge of how the forest roads react to changing weather. I think some people could be in for quite a surprise if it stays dry," explained team director Malcolm Wilson.
Markko Martin / Michael Park: "I think this year's event will be very, very fast," he said. "People say that it could be as quick as the Rally Finland, which is the fastest round of the year. I'm not sure about that because the roads in Wales are different to those there. They are harder and smoother in Finland and there are probably more tight bends in Wales but it will be a very fast rally, especially if the conditions are dry. "High speeds make the stages really challenging and a driver needs to be committed for every single second in Wales. There is no opportunity for respite. Logs and rocks close to the edge of the road add additional difficulties but it's an event I've always enjoyed and I think there could be a big battle for victory next weekend. One thing I won't miss about Wales in November is the fog. I hate driving in fog and hopefully Wales in the middle of September will be fog-free," he added.
Francios Duval / Philippe Droeven: Duval lies sixth in the drivers' championship. He has started the Rally GB three times before, twice in a Ford Puma Super 1600 and once in a Focus RS. His only finish was in the Focus RS in 2003 when the 23-year-old Belgian was fifth. He is a big supporter of the date change to mid-September. "I think it's a good decision," he said. "If the conditions are dry, and less unpredictable, then I will be happy. But in that case the conditions will be completely different for everyone. We're all used to slippery roads, mud and fog and I think the tracks will feel very different this year. "It's a nice rally to drive although the roads are quite technical and it's not an easy event. Last year I didn't drive well so I hope to do better this time. The rally has a strong entry but I think a top five result is possible. The BP-Ford team has good experience of this rally and that should help me with tyre selection in conditions that I'm not used to," he added.
Less than a fortnight after seeing both its cars finish in the points in the recent World Championship newcomer, Rally Japan, Peugeot Sport returns to a more traditional backdrop for Round 12 of the series. To Great Britain, to be precise, where its two drivers -- Harri Rovanpera and Marcus Gronholm -- will be looking to add a second victory to the record of 307 WRC after its win in Finland last August. These two specialists will be joined in Cardiff by the promising Swedish youngster Daniel Carlsson who trades the 206 WRC he has driven on a regular basis in this year's championship for the 307 WRC that he will be driving in anger for the very first time.
Marcus Gronholm / Timo Rautiainen: Marcus Gronholm knows this event particularly well. In addition to his success in 2001, he also finished second in 2000 to clinch his first world title. In 2002, the Peugeot driver had carved out a sizeable lead before rolling out of contention on SS10. Another 'off' eliminated him from the final results in 2003.
Harri Rovanpera / Risto Pietilainen: Harri Rovanpera also boasts significant experience of this event in which he won the 2-litre category in 1997 before finishing three times in the points (6th, 3rd and 2nd) in 1998, 1999 and 2001. His other top ten results were 10th in 2000 and 7th in 2002.
A third 307 WRC has been entered for Daniel Carlsson whose objectives will be different than those of his team-mates. After competing in selected rounds of this year's championship with a Bozian-run Peugeot 206 WRC (Sweden, New Zealand, Greece, Turkey, Finland, Germany), the promising Swede, who is to defend Peugeot's colours in 2005, will be looking to obtain the best result possible without excessive pressure on his shoulders.
Having missed Rally Japan at the beginning of September, Skoda Motorsport now faces four World Rally Championship events in six weeks, starting with Rally GB (September 16-19). Skoda Motorsport will enter three cars for the British event, driven as usual by Toni Gardemeister and Armin Schwarz along with Jani Paasonen who brought the Fabia WRC its best World Rally Championship result to date with sixth place on Rally Finland in August.
Armin Schwarz / Manfred Hiemer: (who won the non-championship Rally GB in 1996) "I always look forward to this event as it was where I made my WRC debut in 1988. However I will miss the really bad weather as I always felt that it made a real challenge at the end of the season because the conditions were always so difficult. If it is dry, as we expect, then it will be very fast. The Fabia WRC is ready for another gravel rally so I am very much hoping that we can get another good result."
Toni Gardemeister / Paavo Lukander:"Nobody really knows how the weather will affect this rally. It is always fast, even in the wet, but if you can find good grip then a dry rally will be even faster. The problem will be to choose the right tyres as the surface in Wales is always quite hard on them. At least I have some experience of dry roads there as I did the British Championship in 1999."
Jani Paasonen / Jani Vainikka: "I like this rally even though the one time I competed before, in 2002, I crashed at the same place as Marcus Gronholm and Tomasz Kuchar! The Fabia is fantastic and I really like driving it so I don't mind if the weather is wet or dry although I would prefer dry if possible."
- The time difference between Great Britain (GMT+1) and Continental Europe (GMT+2) is one hour, to be added to the times listed below to obtain Continental European time.
- Total length of the 2004 Wales Rally GB is 1,298.12 km, including 394.03 km divided into 19 stages (9 different).
- Cardiff remains the host city for the start and finish, as well as for the Cardiff Bay super-special which is scheduled three times. However, all this year's overnight halts will be at the Felindre service park, located some 75 km west of the Welsh capital and officially known as the Swansea Rally Centre for the occasion.
- Recce (two runs over each stage at a maximum speed of 80 kph) takes place over Tuesday September 14th (13:00 until 17:30) and Wednesday September 15th (07:30 until 18:00).
- As in 2003, the shakedown stage (Thursday September 16th, from 09:00 until 13:00) is in Penllergaer Forest, near Felindre. The stage itself (3.9 km) is new.
- Remote Tyre Fitting Zones (RTFZ) have been programmed in the course of Legs 1 and 2. Of a duration of 10 minutes each, these mini service parks permit tyres to be changed as well as work on the car so long as it complies with certain restrictions: a maximum of two mechanics per car, using only a jack, ramps, axle-stands, a wheel-brace, a torque wrench and ordinary water, plus any parts and tools carried in the rally car. The crew may also work on the car.
- The start ceremony will be held in Cardiff on the evening of Thursday September 16th (from 19:00) and is immediately followed by the first run at the super-special, after which cars will proceed to parc ferme at the Felindre service park.
- Leg 1 (Friday September 17th): 570.54 km, including 183.31 km divided into 7 stages. Starts from the Felindre Service park at 05:50; Service A (05h50, 10 minutes); 'Brechfa 1'/'Trawscoed 1'; RTFZ in the National Botanic Gardens of Wales (09:26, 10 minutes); 'Brechfa 2'/'Trawscoed 2'; Service B (12:50, 20 minutes); 'Rheola 1'; Service C (15:56, 20 minutes); 'Rheola 2'; Service D (18:59, 45 minutes). Cars enter parc ferme from 19:44 until 22:00.
- Leg 2 (Saturday September 18th): 458.49 km, including 120.72 km divided into 8 stages. Starts at 07:15; Service E (07:15, 10 minutes); 'Crychan 1'/'Epynt 1'/'Halfway 1'; RTFZ in Sennybridge (11:15, 10 minutes); 'Crychan 2':'Epynt 2'/'Halfway 2'; Service F (14:36, 20 minutes); 'Margam 1'/'Cardiff Super Special 2'; Service G (19:14, 45 minutes). Cars enter parc ferme from 20:59 until 22:30.
- Leg 3 (Sunday September 19th): 269.09 km, including 90 km divided into 4 stages. Starts at 06:30; Service H (06:30, 10 minutes); 'Rhondda 1'; Service I (09:08, 20 minutes) ; 'Rhondda 2'/'Margam 2 '/'Cardiff Super Special 3'. The rally finishes after the regroup that follows the super-special.
- Of the 9 stages used in 2004, five were run in 2003 (the Cardiff Super Special, 'Trawscoed', 'Rheola', 'Crychan', 'Halfway'). 'Brechfa' features 8 km that are new, making it identical to the test used in 2001. After being split into two parts last year for live TV purposes, Margam becomes a single stage again. The 2004 'Rhondda' test is a mix of the 2003 stage and 'Resolfen'. 'Epynt' is new.
- Tyres: two types of pattern are authorised per team. They were registered four weeks prior to the start. The individual driver quota (tyres identified by bar-codes and nominated on Monday September 13th) is 90 tyres in Great Britain, 45 of which may be used during the event.
In the past, unpredictable weather has made the event extremely hazardous. However, a two-week spell of fine weather in Britain has left the gravel forest roads in the mountains of south Wales in good condition. If it remains dry, as expected, drivers could find that this 12th round of the championship has changed from one of the trickiest in the 16-round series to one of the fastest. Some rain is possible.