Exclusive: TG.com live from Wales Rally GB

Over the next few days, TopGear.com’s getting the closest it’s ever been to the moist, sideways world of the World Rally Championship.

Team Citroen has courageously agreed to let TopGear.com wordsmith and rally virgin, Matthew Jones (that’s me. Hello) behind the scenes as a Junior Beverage Fabricator at this year’s WRC finale – the Wales Rally GB. And, internet connection permitting, we’ll be posting as many live updates as is humanly possible from the weekend’s racing.

So, what’s so special about this year’s event? Many, many things. But don’t take it from us – earlier this week we sat down with seven-time WRC champ and Team Citroen driver, Sebastian Loeb, and asked him. He was in thoughtful mode:

“It’s very, very close between Mikko and I this year. I had quite a good lead on the championship but then I had a puncture in Germany, in Australia I crashed and in France I had an engine problem and we retired.”

And factory Ford Abu Dhabi driver, Mikko Hirvonen, is now just eight points behind Seb’s DS3 WRC in his Fiesta RS WRC. Consider that a win in Wales is worth 25 points and this is nowhere near a done deal.

“This rally’s always very tricky – you can never be confident here. I’m confident that I have the potential to do it, but anything can happen.”

If Seb does continue to confound our understanding of Big Skiddy Driving Skills and win this year, he’ll make history by winning his EIGHTH consecutive WRC. And providing we’re well behaved and don’t knock too many things over, we may get some more time with him, so please feel free to post questions in the box below – we’ll do out best to get them answered. That goes for Seb’s teammate, Sebastien Ogier, and the rest of the crew, too.

If you want any specific out-of-focus images or wobbly video, we’ll also happily oblige. Mud and rain permitting.

We’re looking forward to it – coverage will kick off on Friday morning, and we’ve got a full list of the ten things we’re most looking forward to right here.

So, any early-bird questions or requests, TopGear.comrades?

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UPDATE: 3.57pm on Thursday November 10, 2011

Over the weekend, you may notice that some racers and fans are wearing orange T-shirts. It’s in aid of the Richard Burns Foundation’s Paint it Orange campaign, which aims to improve the circumstances of people facing neurological injury and illness.

Burns, who was crowned World Rally Champion in 2001, lost his life in 2005 after a two-year battle with brain cancer.

Watch more here:

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UPDATE: 4.41pm on Thursday November 10, 2011

Without wanting to wish away this weekend, we’ve just stumbled upon this – a video of the 2012 Polo R WRC testing. It’ll be driven by legendary rallyist, Carlos Sainz, with an anti-lag system that sounds like it was developed by Alphonse Gabriel Capone.

We would do many unsavoury things to have a go in it. Now watch.

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UPDATE: 5.16pm on Thursday November 10, 2011

We’ve dug into the archives and found the video of Jeremy’s passenger ride with the great Richard Burns. There is double denim, colossal hair and crushed he-spheres.

Enjoy.

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UPDATE: 11:13am on Friday November 11, 2011

We have arrived! And what a morning. Though we’ve failed spectacularly to reach an actual stage (you’ll see why soon, TopGear.commers. It’s good. Promise) we’ve had our faces glued to the rally control radio. And it looks like Sebastian Loeb’s just widened his lead against Mikko Hirvonen.

The Finnish Ford driver lost nearly four minutes during an incident on the Dyfnant stage after a morning dogfighting with Citroen’s seven-time world champ. Loeb secured a 3.8-second lead over Hirvonen at the rally opener in Gertheiniog. Then Hirvonen reeled Seb’s lead into 1.3 seconds on Dyfi (pronounced Duvvie, according an elderly Welsh lady on my left) West, whittling it down to 0.4 seconds on Dyfi East.

On the next stage at Dyfnant (elderly Welsh lady’s just left – I’m guessing Divnant) Hirvonen stopped for a few minutes them limped over the finished line with a damaged car, down 3:52s and tumbling into 13th place. Good news for Seb. Bad news for Mikko.

More soon…

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UPDATE: 11:45am on Friday November 11, 2011

Seb on getting high…

Not that kind of high. The jumpy, rallyist sort of high.

When we chatted to Mr Loeb earlier this week, we asked him about his record-breaking 85-metre rally jump back in 2009 at the Rally of Turkey driving a Citroen C4 WRC.

“When we did the recce [at the Ballica stage], we were only going around 80km/h so we didn’t really try the jump. And I didn’t really think it was a big jump – I usually try to make it safe. If I’m not sure I don’t try.

“But in Turkey I was so sure it was just a crest. So I took it flat. We arrived at 200km/h and with that speed we… took off.

“When you’re jumping you just see the sky and wait for the landing. [During] this jump, I had to wait a very long time before I felt the landing. I was watching the sky, waiting and waiting. Then ‘bang’.

“It was quite a good jump.”

And if you ever wondered how to do get your car airborne, this is Loeb’s advice: “Just stay flat. Then hope you land correctly.” Sage.

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UPDATE: 12:04pm on Friday November 11, 2011

BREAKING:

Hirvonen’s retired after a branch went through his radiator. The championship’s Loeb’s (unless something disastrous happens…).

More soon

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UPDATE: 12:04pm on Friday November 11, 2011

It looks like Sebastian Loeb’s secured his eighth consecutive World Rally Championship after close rival, Mikko Hirvonen, had his dreams dashed by a big, sticky bit of Wales.

A rogue branch hit the Finn’s Ford Fiesta RS WRC radiator on the Dyfnant stage, which caused the car to overheat. He tried to return to service 100km away in Builth Wells, but the car only lasted 5km without water.

Ford Abu Dhabi is currently trying to fix it but mutterings around the camp suggest the engine’s irreparable.

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UPDATE: 5:03pm on Friday November 11, 2011

Apologies all, having massive problems with signal and have just been up in this:

And Loeb’s just returned to the Builth Wells service. More soon…

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UPDATE: 12:14am on Saturday November 12, 2011

First off, an apology. We have, once again, defined ambitious but rubbish. Wales has many wonderful things – a gloriously impenetrable dialect, a Rhod Gilbert, a lot of sheep. But it doesn’t have much of two things. Mobile reception and internet connectivity, and that’s meant updates have been a bit sporadic.

Anyway – some important news…

It’s ALL over. Loeb’s done it. He’s no longer a seven-time World Rally Champion. He’s just won his eighth consecutive title. EIGHTH! The Schumacher of rallying has just got better than, erm, Schumacher (he won a paltry seven F1 World Championships. And they weren’t consecutive).

So, what happened?

After a twig breached Hirvonen’s radiator, the damage caused by overheating to the Fiesta RS WRC’s was irreparable. Ford mechanics had a good crack at repairs so he was able to restart on day three, but Ford team chief, Malcolm Wilson, confirmed earlier today that he wouldn’t finish the event.

That said, his teammate, Jari-Matti Latvala (an incredibly satisfying name to say out loud) is just 1.1s behind Loeb for the Wales Rally, and he stands a fighting chance of taking the crown.

Reckon he can do it, internet?

Also, we have images. And video. Standby for both…

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UPDATE: 12:22am on Saturday November 12, 2011

So, it’s been an eventful day.  There are many pictures on the way, but for the time being have this: it was shot at stage 11 and features Matthew Wilson doing a big, skiddy drift in his Stobart Ford. You’ll never know how cold we got to capture this slightly rubbish footage:

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UPDATE: 12:58am on Saturday November 12, 2011

I spent most of yesterday having a deeply exfoliating inauguration into the world of rally spectating at stage 8 and 11.

Initially, I wasn’t quite sure whether I should drink the tea I’d made or tip it into my trousers. Then there was the gravel. A wave of it sputtered into my face after each blob of searing light and noise and carbon monoxide wobbled past. This, dear internet, is extreme spectating. I simply can’t recommend it enough.

But because you’re reading this, you probably weren’t there. So I’ve attempted to distil the experience for you via the medium of photography.

I have no idea what these lights are attached to.

DISCOVERED: the moistest men at Wales Rally GB.

This is the closest we got to capturing Seb. He’s fast. Very, very fast.

Kris Meeke tearing up stage 8.

Some spectators had interesting solutions to the vast distances between stages.

Shoe choice was an error.

Ostberg was wider than most on stage 8.

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UPDATE: 01:45am on Saturday November 12, 2011

This is Seb leaving the Builth Wells service with 30 seconds to go. About 20 minutes prior to the video being shot, the suspension, brakes, wheels and large chunks of bodywork were scattered across the park.

He left to drive to Cardiff for the park ferme, which is where the cars are locked up overnight and guarded by the FIA so the teams can’t perform any sneaky, late-night tinkery.

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UPDATE: 02:18pm on Saturday November 12, 2011

As we told you yesterday, Seb Loeb’s manged to beat the crepe out of Ford and Mini at the 2011 Wales Rally GB, winning his eight consecutive World Rally Championship. But this morning’s driving’s showed that the Frenchman’s not easing back.

Rally hopeful, Jari-Matti Latvala, managed to reel in second place to within a second from the Citroen driver by the end of Friday, but made a mistake on today’s opening Hafran stage, losing him several seconds.The Finn, driving for Ford, overshot a corner and was forced to reverse. Conspired with Seb’s sterling performance on the Myherin stage, the Frenchman’s pulled his lead back to a very healthy 7.3 seconds.

Further down the field, Kimi Raikkonen’s twilight World Rally Championship hit a setback after he span his Ice 1 Citroen into a ditch at Hafren.Mini driver and Official Terrifier of James May, Kris Meeke, also ran into problems this morning after his engine mounts failed on the first stage of the day. He nursed the John Cooper Works WRC car home, which caused several more issues but remains sixth, a fraction behind Ford Stobart’s Matthew Wilson (he’s the chap in the video above).

Before we leave for Cardiff, we’ll be downloading some pictures from our mildly terrifying rally service experience.

Standby…

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UPDATE: 04:09pm on Saturday November 12, 2011

Chances are, you’ve seen an F1 pitstop on TV. The drivers pull into gilded, anti-bacterial garages while space age spannersmiths remove, adjust and replace with robotic precision, quite literally defining economy of movement.

A rally service is a little bit different. And Team Citroen were kind enough to give us ringside seats to last night’s 45-minute stop at Builth Wells.

First impressions were access. Joseph Public gets a lot of it. Unlike the totalitarian state of Ecclestonia, spectators are welcome to heckle, cheer and photograph just a few feet from the action, which – at Wales Rally GB – seems to be taking place under a £9.99 Argos gazebo in a building that smells like an uncleansed abattoir.

And it’s only when you get up close do you realise not only how much the cars have morphed from their road-going cousins, but the weapons-grade engineering of the componentry.

Suspension struts are the size of Nigella Lawson’s thighs and the calipers hanging from them dangle like enormous metallic centipedes crawling round the discs. Their sheer mass is amplified by the crowd’s reaction. A portly Frenchman wrangles with a set of rotors in preparation for Loeb’s arrival and everyone descends into low bubble of expletives. “F*** me, Derek – seen the size o’ them b****** disks?”

As more parts and tools get dragged towards the tarpaulined area where Seb’s car will park, I get the first robust inkling that the Citroen’s on its way – in the distant distance I can just make out the grinding engine note of the DS3, as can the service team who casually saunter into position.

The car pulls in and the mechanics fall on it like a pile of rocks. Before Seb’s undone his harness, the front end’s two feet in the air. By the time he’s opened the door and dangled out a tentative foot, the rear’s followed, the wheels are off and a rancorous Frenchman’s dislodging two large rocks from inside the back bumper. One falls directly onto his man-part region. And I mean DIRECTLY. But, save for a forgivable involuntary noise, his work continues unaffected and the rock remains wobbling in his crotch until a colleague cautiously removes it.

I stand on the periphery with the obvious dilemma of wanting to get involved but not wanting to break anything. I opt to focus on the latter, straining forward an extra inch and widening my eyes to absorb as much of it as possible.

As each large chunk of Citroen gets unclipped, the space between seconds on the countdown screen seems to reduce. Work intensifies and faces change from ruddy and composed to tousled and sweaty. Each mechanic’s knotted around one another, dealing with their own specific job. And this is fairly mellow job – there’s not much being more being replaced than you’d expect from a 30,000-mile service on a road car. God only knows what it’s like when the cars have major problems.

With ten minutes left on the clock, I’ve failed to involve myself in any way. It’s like trying to run across the M6 at rush hour – a space big enough to occupy in a meaningful way that won’t get you in serious trouble simply doesn’t present itself.

As I try and find a window, the action’s swings from removal to reassembly, and it’s kinetic fury in the pit. The Citroen’s engine fires and revs with the familiar KAP-KAP-KAP of anti-lag, and Loeb walks into view. The car slumps from its axle stands on his arrival.

There’s a minute left on the clock, but he pulls out of service anyway and the mechanics sigh collectively with exhaustion. Man-part/rock man’s standing in the corner, torso at 45 degrees from his legs with his hands on his knees as the crowd applaud Loeb’s departure.

Still slightly agape, I spot an opportunity to involve myself and seize it. I pass a man a bolt that’s rolled near my left shoe. He says ‘Merci’ then throws it in the bin. I’m satisfied with my contribution.

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UPDATE: 04:09pm on Saturday November 12, 2011

Hold on a second – what’s all this? Just when we thought Loeb had got the Wales Rally GB sewn up, Jari-Matti Latvala thunders into the lead.

Latvala won each of this afternoon’s three stages, clawing a lead of 6.1 seconds just before the event reaches it final leg tomorrow.

More soon,  TopGear.commers.

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UPDATE: 09:52am on Sunday November 13, 2011

Loeb’s out of the Wales Rally GB!

The Frenchman had a crash at the Crychan road stage this morning after hitting another car travelling on the wrong side of the road. Thankfully, nobody was hurt during the incident.

This means that Jari-Matti Latvala’s driving to victory, followed by Mads Ostberg in his Stobart Ford.

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UPDATE: 11:03am on Sunday November 13, 2011

With the Loeb/Latvala resolved, we’ve been turning our attention a little further down the field to James May’s tormentor, Mini driver Kris Meeke – he might just be about to squeeze himself on his first WRC podium.

He’s 21.3 seconds adrift from Ford’s Henning Solberg but has been closing the gap over the weekend. He was 10 seconds quicker then Solberg’s Fiesta and third fastest overall at Special Stage 19 in his MINI John Cooper Works WRC.

If he manages to make third place, he’ll be the first Briton since Richard Burns on the podium at a round of the World Rally Championship.

Now watch Meeke at yesterday’s Sweet Lamb stage.

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UPDATE: 12:20am on Sunday November 13, 2011

I just overheard the following conversation at the spectators area in Cardiff (where we’ll posting live from the ceremonial finish) and thought that it artfully encapsulated what it’s like to watch the WRC without the internet or mobile phone reception.

Person a: “I think Loeb’s crashed.”

Person b: “Oh. Where?”

Person a: “No idea”

Person b: “Is Loeb with the car?”

Person a: “Couldn’t be sure”

Person b: “How’s Meeke looking?”

Person a: “Good, but that was a little while ago”.

Person b: “Tidy”

It has to be the only form of racing where people actually watching the event don’t find out who’s won until they’re washing the mud off their face at home several hours later. Love it.

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UPDATE: 01:15pm on Sunday November 13, 2011

BREAKING: Latvala’s won Rally GB!

More soon. In the meantime, here’s a macaroon with Sebastian Loeb’s face on.

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UPDATE: 01:18pm on Sunday November 13, 2011

It’s all over! Jari-Matti Latvala’s won the Wales Rally GB after a tense, moist weekend in the Welsh forests.

After Sebastien Loeb’s slightly odd collision with a car ended his rally this morning , Ford Abu Dhabi’s Finnish driver won the event by nearly four minutes.

He says: “It’s been a long time since I won – one and a half years. This is a great way to finish the season.”

Stobart Ford‘s Mads Ostberg took second place in his Focus RS WRC after a superb season of wheeling and a little bit of luck – Petter Solberg, his second-place rival, got a puncture in his Citroen DS3 on Friday and a broken fuel pipe on Saturday morning, which ended his race.

Sadly for British driver, Kris Meeke, it was Ostberg’s team-mate, Henning Solberg that secured third place. It’s his first time on the podium for more than two years.

Fourth was still a good result for Mini on home ground, though – well done, Kris.

Final ranking to follow…

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UPDATE: 01:19pm on Sunday November 13, 2011

Wales Rally GB: Final ranking

(Position/Driver/Team/Time)

1. Jari-Matti Latvala (Ford) 3h27m03.5s

2. Mads Ostberg (Stobart Ford) + 3m42.9s

3. Henning Solberg (Stobart Ford) + 7m05.1s

4.  Kris Meeke (Mini) + 7m12.3s

5.  Matthew Wilson (Stobart Ford) + 8m57.3s

6.  Ott Tanak (M-Sport Ford) + 9m27.1s

7.  Evgeny Novikov (Abu Dhabi Ford) + 9m47.7s

8.  Dennis Kuipers (FERM Ford) + 10m12.7s

9.  Ken Block (Monster Ford) + 16m01.2s

10. Armindo Araujo (Italia Mini) + 17m01.6s

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UPDATE: 01:21pm on Sunday November 13, 2011

Just waiting for Mr Loeb to pick up his eighth championship trophy, and Latvala to get his Rally GB prize…

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UPDATE: 02:15pm on Sunday November 13, 2011

It’s all over. Four days, 23 stages, one new world record and a very happy Frenchman.

I’ll leave you with this – Sebastien Loeb celebrating his eighth consecutive World Rally Championship.

‘Till 2012, rallyists.

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