Preview: Championship battles coming down to the wire at Wales Rally GB
Five. Or should we say cinq. That’s the big number in Wales this week.
A fifth successive Dayinsure Wales Rally GB win for Sébastien Ogier will be enough for the Frenchman to seal a fifth straight FIA World Rally Championship title. Five and five.
But there’s more to this week than the chance for a chap called Sébastien to win the WRC title for the 14th year on the bounce – don’t forget that Loeb fella came before Ogier. Petter – the Solberg known as ‘Hollywood’ – was the last non-Sébastien name to clinch global rally glory in 2003.
When the world’s fastest rally cars descend on Deeside close to the English-Welsh border this week, there’s a very good chance of some home-spun success. A decade ago, Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport squad delivered Ford’s successive manufacturers’ title in the WRC.
Ten years on from that 2007 glory – and with the Blue Oval long since departed the series as a frontline manufacturer – beating rivals Toyota, Hyundai and Citroën would be a huge achievement for Wilson’s Cumbria-based firm. Rally GB offers manufacturers a maximum score of 43 points. Wilson needs his boys to bring him four. Four. Not five.
And with Ogier, Ott Tanak and local hero Elfyn Evans to chose from, four’s not exactly out of the question. Let’s think, when was the last time M-Sport failed to pick up points? Try Wales 2001.
As of the Rally of Spain earlier this month, M-Sport’s point-scoring record stretches for 221 successive rounds of the World Rally Championship. Surely…
“The job’s not done yet,” says Wilson with a wry smile. “Don’t you start talking about those numbers and asking me questions about those sort of things. I’ll talk to you on Sunday night in Wales.”
Wilson’s cautious approach is understandable. But no team knows Wales Rally GB the way Wilson and M-Sport know it. It’s their home round and a rally that they’ve seen in all conditions and from all angles.
But it’s the first time since 2001 (and that fateful and fearsome Colin McRae shunt that ruled the Scot out of a title battle ultimate won by Englishman Richard Burns) that M-Sport has come home with a driver’s eye on the prize.
Ogier’s position isn’t quite so clear cut as his employer’s title position. Seb still has work to do, the rest of us still have working out to do. If Ogier wins, it’s job done and the title’s his. Only Tanak and Hyundai’s Thierry Neuville can stop him. They are 37 and 38 points adrift respectively. Both have pretty much lobbed the towel in – as much as drivers ever do while there remains a numeric opportunity of glory – but both will be pushing like hell to stand in Ogier’s way in Wales.
“It feels quite strange to come to Wales without the title in my pocket,” says Ogier. “For the past four years I have arrived at this event without the pressure to worry about [the championship], but this year there is still the job to do.”
And Ogier admits Wales isn’t always the easiest place to come and do any kind of a job.
He started Rally GB for the first time in 2008. Having just won the Junior World Rally Championship title with Citroën, the French squad handed him a C4 WRC for his debut in the British woods.
Incredibly – and despite some of the most treacherously slippery and wintry conditions in the event’s history – Ogier was fastest on the first stage to run and led for the first morning. Then he crashed spectacularly the next day. Wales is anything but straightforward.
“I had some fear for this event,” he says. “When I first started driving here, I didn’t understand it. You need so much experience for these roads. The surface changes colour and you need to know what the change in colour means – it always means something for the level of grip you have.
“The other challenge here is the weather. It’s usually quite tough with bad visibility in the fog. And rain so hard you can’t see past the end of the bonnet.”
But with experience has come appreciation.
“I love this rally now,” Ogier says, “I love the long corners and flowing roads and when the sun shines, the beautiful country. It’s a good race. And an important one for us this week.”
Arguably, Wales is one he has the best chance of winning. As championship leader, Ogier will be first on the road on the opening day in Wales. That, according to his British rival, Citroën’s Kris Meeke, is a big help.
“Generally speaking, the grip gets worse the more cars pass through the stage,” says the Northern Irishman. “If the conditions are typical, we’ll see a kind of crust on top of the forest roads and that gives pretty good grip, but that crust gets broken after three or four cars, then the mud comes to top and the grips deteriorates. We’re quite a few cars back, so it’s going to be tough.
“This is a fantastic rally on fantastic roads with brilliant fans, it’s my home round of the championship and, of course, I would love to win it. But we have to be realistic about the conditions and they are likely to make it pretty difficult. It’s about the same for Elfyn, he’s a wee bit better off, a few cars ahead of us on the road, but it’s still not going to be easy.”
The cars will virtually pass the end of Evans’ driveway this week and the Welshman admits there’s something special about a home run.
“There’s a real buzz from driving in front of the home crowd,” says Evans. “We’ve been right around the world with this championship and we come here, so close to my home. It’s fantastic and my favourite stage of the season [Gartheiniog] is here. I can’t wait to get stuck in. Yes, Kris is right, it will be difficult for us, but we’ve got an amazing car and some amazing stages to drive it on.”
Dayinsure Wales Rally GB starts with a spectator stage at Tir Prince, near the north Welsh coast on Thursday (October 26). Based around a central service park in Deeside, the following three days comprise 21 stages and 190 flat-out miles through the forests of mid and north Wales.