As you read this, some men in North Wales are driving small hatchbacks down dirt tracks as fast as they can possibly go. That’s right, Wales Rally GB is underway.
It’s the last round of this year’s World Rally Championship, and in time honoured tradition, it’s already been won by a Frenchman called Seb. However for the first time in almost a decade we’re not talking about Loeb, but Ogier. He drives for VW. That would seem to be a potent enough combination that the rest might as well give up and go home, but I beg to differ.
I saw him in the press conference yesterday and he looked a little nervy. He doesn’t have a great record at Rally GB, has never finished in the top ten, in fact. He may have the title sewn up, but he needs to prove himself here. Jari-Matti Latvala has won for Ford for the last two years on the trot, but this year Ford withdrew factory backing, leaving Malcolm Wilson’s M Sport outfit to fund a WRC campaign themselves. That doesn’t make things easy.
However, through the 3.11km qualifying stage at Llandegla yesterday, it was Ogier who was fastest, with Latvala back in fourth. The man everyone’s talking about was seventh. That’s Robert Kubica. Rallying ain’t just a hobby for him now – this year he’s won the naturally aspirated WRC-2 championship for Citroen, so as a thank you the team has shoved him into a full house WRC car. He looks relaxed, his season is over, this is a learning experience for him.
And Wales does take some learning. It’s such a fitting climax to the World Rally Championship because it’s so unpredictable. Elsewhere things are much more stable. In Corsica you’ll be on tight, sinuous tarmac, in Greece it’ll be hot and dusty, but here, with winter closing in, you never know what you’re going to get. Expect the unexpected is the best advice.
The answer yesterday as far as the weather went was hail, rain squalls and a good drop of wind. It’s meant to be more stable over the next few days, but even if it dries, Welsh mud is a law unto itself. It comes in a boundless variety of textures, colours and gloopiness, meaning that everyone in the pits is talking about not knowing where the grip is. It’s like it’s run off and hidden somewhere.
The spectators? Well, they’re just hoping for a spectacle, and though it would seem odd to say so in any other context, few places are as good at providing a spectacle as Wales in November.
To get things off to a gentle, safe start, the organisers ran three stages yesterday. At night. In Snowdonia. That’s as perilous as driving through Mordor with Gollum on the pace notes. Today the rally heads south, taking in two runs each through the iconic stages of Sweet Lamb, Hafren and Myherin, before heading back north over the weekend. 22 stages in all, 196 competitive miles, including three family-friendly RallyFest stages at Sweet Lamb today, Chirk Castle on Saturday and Kinmel Park on Sunday. The idea with these is to offer more than just bobble-hatting on a hillside. They promise Supercar displays, historic rally car line-ups, big screen live stage coverage, stuff for the kids and bespoke viewing areas that promise to give you a better view of the action. See WalesRallyGB.com for more.
Disappointing though it is to report, there aren’t any British hopes in the top flight. Mark Higgins, Elfyn Evans and Tom Cave are all in with good chances in WRC2, but TG’s favourite rallyist, Kris Meeke, the man who rampaged around Wales Rally GB in a Bentley with James May in the passenger seat last year and more recently tamed the mighty Pikes Peak Peugeot 208 T16, hasn’t got an entry at all. Shame.
But don’t despair, because further down the order amongst the national rally ranks you’ll find hosts of Brits eager to acquit themselves well in a delectable selection of machinery: old Escorts, Lancers, Imprezas, there’s even a Lotus Cortina, a clutch of Chevettes and a Porsche 911, while Race2Receovery are here with a bunch of Freelanders. There. Those who reckon WalesRallyGB is all about watching a Seb breeze to victory don’t know what they’re missing.
Before I sign off, though, a quick prediction for this most unpredictable of rallies. My top three come Sunday evening in Llandudno is Latvala (VW Polo), Thierry Neuville (Ford Fiesta), Ogier (VW Polo). Tell me I’m wrong. Because I will be.