After 13 rallies in ten months, the FIA World Rally Championship arrives at its final destination in Cardiff this week. Four drivers left the penultimate round in Catalunya with a chance of lifting the 2003 drivers' title -- but only three will ...
After 13 rallies in ten months, the FIA World Rally Championship arrives at its final destination in Cardiff this week. Four drivers left the penultimate round in Catalunya with a chance of lifting the 2003 drivers' title -- but only three will fight it out in the Welsh forests. Peugeot's Richard Burns -- who led the standings from round three until round 12 -- was ruled out of Wales Rally Great Britain on medical grounds earlier this week. This leaves Citroen men Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz to battle it out with Subaru's Petter Solberg. One point separates the duelling trio, which means whoever finishes first will take the biggest prize on offer to rally drivers. In the manufacturers' standings, Citroen head Peugeot by five points -- with the Versailles-based team hoping to end Peugeot's three-year dominance. The third and final title which will be sorted out this week will be the FIA Junior World Rally Championship, which Frenchman Brice Tirabassi leads ahead of the seventh and final round.
The championships aside, there are plenty of other drivers aiming to end the season on a high. Ford's Markko Martin has demonstrated the speed of the Focus RS WRC03 on numerous events this year and will be hoping to repeat his Finland win, while outgoing world champion Marcus Gronholm hasn't taken the top step of the podium since Argentina in April.
Citroen Total (1st -- 147 points)
Technical: The three official Xsara WRCs will run in similar specification to the cars used on Rally Australia.
Sporting: Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz have accumulated the same number of points through the season, but Loeb leads the drivers' standings courtesy of his three wins to the Spaniard's one. Both drivers tested in mid-Wales last weekend, although the Frenchman was only driving for two hours, having completed the main part of his set-up work prior to the Tour of Corsica last month. Sainz's running time was spread over two days after the Xsara WRC suffered a mechanical fault. Sainz is a previous winner of this rally, but this is only the fourth time Loeb has tackled the rally. This year's Rally Great Britain will be Colin McRae's final outing in the Xsara, as the 1995 world champion's contract is up following the final round of the championship. McRae's early record on this event is formidable, but he has struggled to find that winning form in recent years.
Carlos Sainz said: "I've been in this position plenty of times before -- I'm just going to try and enjoy the rally. Obviously I will be going flat out to do what I can on the rally. My test when quite well -- it was good to get some time on Michelin tyres on this kind of road."
Sebastien Loeb said: "The recce for the rally went well. This is the fourth time I have done this rally, so for me the experience is not going to be a problem. The recce was good, but a lot depends on the weather -- it probably will rain at some point during the event, when it does it's really hard to judge the level of grip. You can be in the middle of a corner, find a patch of mud and then the car starts sliding."
Colin McRae said: "It's good to be back home for the last rally in the championship. Obviously I want to put on a good showing in front of my fans in what's going to be my last round for a while. It's important for me to get to the finish of this event so that I can help Citroen for the manufacturers' award."
Marlboro Peugeot Total (2nd -- 142 points)
Technical: Peugeot will field three official 206 WRCs for Marcus Gronholm, Harri Rovanpera and Freddy Loix. Gilles Panizzi will drive a factory-specification car run by Bozian Racing. The cars are in the same specification as they ran on the last gravel rally.
Sporting: Richard Burns was forced to withdraw from the event last Sunday on medical advice. The Briton fainted at the wheel of his car on the way to South Wales and was taken to hospital by Ambulance. He spent Sunday night in a Newport hospital before being transferred to a private clinic in Cardiff the following day to undergo further neurological tests. Marcus Gronholm and Harri Rovanpera both tested in Tyle forest last week, both running the 206 in similar set-up as on last year's Rally Great Britain. Gronholm arrives in Britain after a troubled rally in Catalunya. The Finn led Rally Australia -- the championship's last gravel event -- before sliding off the road on the second day. Rovanpera hasn't driven competitively in the WRC since Australia, where he finished seventh. Since the Perth event, however, the Finn has won the Costa Smeralda Rally in a privately-run 206. Loix drove the 206 in gravel trim for the first time yesterday afternoon in a private test. This will be his first outing for the French team and his first WRC drive since Australia -- which was his final rally for Hyundai.
Corrado Provera said: "This is a terrible way for Richard and Robert to end their year. They have worked hard all year and led the championship for most of it. I feel so sorry for them -- the main thing now is for Richard to get better."
Marcus Gronholm said: "This is a rally I enjoy because the stages are fast ands always really challenging. With the drivers' championship gone, it's important to score a good result for the manufacturers' award. I want to win this rally again." Harri Rovanpera said: "It seems like a long time since I was in the world championship, having missed the last three asphalt rounds. The test went well for me -- it's good to be back behind the wheel." Freddy Loix said: "Of course I am happy top be driving again, but at the same time this is not the way I wanted it to happen. Richard had a really important job to do for Peugeot this weekend, I'm sorry he wasn't able to do it. My test went well -- the main thing I wanted was to have a safe car to drive on the rally, with the set-up working well."
555 Subaru World Rally Team (3rd -- 93 points)
Technical: The emphasis is on reliability for the Subaru team on this event. To that end, the team has elected not to run the anti-roll system which it used for the first time in Sanremo last month.
Sporting: Petter Solberg won last year's Rally Great Britain -- a similar result this time around would be good enough to secure him the championship. The Norwegian completed 350km of testing last Friday and Saturday. Last year's winner experimented with a variety of transmission and suspension set-ups and declared himself happy with the car after 12 hours of driving on the second of his two days. Solberg's last win on the championship in Corsica remains one of the talking points of the year, but the fifth place he achieved in Catalunya a week later kept him right in the hunt for the championship. This event will mark the end of Tommi Makinen's illustrious career in the WRC. The Finn -- who has four world titles -- has never won Rally Great Britain, and victory here would provide the perfect end to his time at the top of the sport.
Petter Solberg said: "This is such an exciting time in the championship. I know what I've got to do and -- though it won't be easy -- I'm going to be trying like hell to win this rally. I will drive absolutely flat out. Sebastien might not have done the rally so many times, but he's got the pace and Carlos has been around for a long time, he has huge experience of these situations."
Tommi Makinen said: "This will be quite a strange rally for me. I have so many different feelings about things right now, it's hard to put it into words. I hope I have a good event, I've done it here lots of times before -- I'll be attacking from the start and doing everything I can to help Petter."
Ford Motor Company (4th -- 89 points)
Technical: As usual Ford is fielding a Focus RS WRC03 apiece for Markko Martin and Francois Duval, while Mikko Hirvonen will use a 2002 specification Focus for the event.
Sporting: Ford re-arranged its pre-rally test to allow Markko Martin more time to have physiotherapy on his neck -- which he injured when he crashed on the final day of Corsica last month. Martin has not totally recovered and will retain the extra padding which was fitted to his seat belts for the last rally in Spain. Duval has yet to finish a Rally Great Britain, having started twice and failed to make it through three days on each occasion. Over the last three asphalt rallies, the Belgian has shown he has the pace to run right at the sharp end, he will be keen to continue that into this final rally of the year. After two rallies which he hadn't driven on before, Mikko Hirvonen is glad to be back on familiar territory -- having competed on Rally Great Britain last season, albeit without making it to the finish. Ford will be extra keen to get one of the three official cars into the points on this event to maintain its astonishing reliability record -- the team has scored points on every one of the proceeding 13 rallies.
Markko Martin said: "I really like the fast and flowing roads on this event. I came close to winning last year, and that's what I want this time around. The best anybody else can hope for is eight points -- I want ten. The only thing I don't like about Britain is the fog -- I have never really driven in it anywhere else. The fog can make it really hard work, especially when the stages are so quick. "
Francois Duval said: "The last few rallies have gone well for me, now I need to carry that on here. The most important thing for me is to make the finish of the event -- I need experience of this rally. While I haven't done all of the stages, from what I've seen the roads are very fast and enjoyable to drive."
Mikko Hirvonen said: "This has been an incredible year for me -- my first full one in the championship. I've been here before, so I know a little bit about what to expect. I want to drive flat out and see what happens."
Skoda Motorsport (5th -- 21 points)
Technical: The Skoda Fabias of Didier Auriol and Toni Gardemeister will run in similar specification to the previous gravel rallies in the championship.
Sporting: After a difficult time on the asphalt rallies, Gardemeister is looking forward to getting back onto the loose surface stages. The Finn's last outing on gravel -- in Australia -- was a memorable one: he won the Inmarsat Star of the Rally for driving the event with a broken bone in his wrist. Didier Auriol is not a big fan of this rally -- his best result is the fifth place he took in 1990.
Didier Auriol said: "This rally can be a really difficult one for me. If the conditions are good, then everything is fine, but when it gets foggy and the rain comes then it can be such a tough rally -- not one of my favourites. The car ran well in shakedown and our recce has been good, now we have to wait and see."
Toni Gardemeister said: "The roads this year are quite hard. I don't think there has been much rain recently, so the stages are going to be really fast. There's a layer of stones on the top of the road as well -- it's not like Australia or New Zealand, but it could make the roads quite difficult."
Frenchman Brice Tirabassi leads the FIA Junior World Rally Championship by seven points from Spain's Salvador Canellas. The Renault driver remains the favourite for the title and only his Suzuki rival can deny him the chance to follow in the footsteps of Sebastien Loeb and Daniel Sola. Last year's JWRC champion, Sola, is present on this event -- driving a privately-entered Citroen Xsara WRC.