WITH both FIA World Rally Championships decided, victory at the season finale Wales Rally GB this weekend is the last big prize on offer. For Citron driver Kris Meeke, there’s extra incentive t pull something special out of the bag.
No British driver has won the event since the late Richard Burns completed a hat-trick of triumphs in 2000, but with Meeke among this season’s front-runners, another home victory may not be on the cards.
Since joining Citroen at the start of this season, the 35-year-old Ulsterman has notched up four podiums and taken the fight to World Champion Sebastien Ogier on many occasions. It’s a performance that should earn him a full-time drive again in 2015.
“I’ve really enjoyed my first full season in the WRC and competing on Wales Rally GB will be the icing on the cake,” said Meeke, whose most recent attempt at the rally came in 2011, when he finished fourth at the wheel of a Mini Cooper JCW.
His 2012 appearance, driving a stage in a 500bhp Bentley Continental GT for the BBC’s Top Gear programme, doesn’t really count.
A lack of recent experience also won’t help, but Meeke can draw upon his history on British Championship events back to 2000. He can expect huge support from the locals.
“It’s the closest I get to a home rally in the WRC. I even took part in my first ever rally, the Bulldog, in these forests.
“So I know the region very well even though I have only competed in Wales Rally GB once in the last eight years. I love the atmosphere here, the tradition of the event, even the smell of the mud in the forests.
“It would be great to finish the season on a positive note. I know I’ll get plenty of support from the many fans who would love to see me win. I’m going to do my best to acquire as much experience as possible, but I think that a podium finish is a realistic goal.”
Wales Rally GB poses a big challenge to all WRC drivers thanks to its combination of complex forest stages and the Welsh weather.
The forests of north and mid-Wales are characterised by their fast, muddy, slippery nature and form some of the most technical and demanding stages of the WRC calendar.
The sucker punch is the winter weather, which can throw rain, fog and even snow into the mix, making conditions even more unpredictable and demanding.
Mud is an intrinsic part of Wales Rally GB and to do well here drivers need to be able to judge how slippery it is, and how much, if at all, they need to slow down. Mud-covered or not, road surface conditions hence grip levels vary enormously. For that reason it’s essential to have a good recce and pace notes.
“No other round is particularly similar to it,” explained Didier Clément, Citroen Racing’s DS3 chief engineer.
“It’s the rally where you can get the most rain and the most mud. The roads are therefore very specific. And the grip can change all the time.
“Sometimes, grip levels can be fine. But when the road surface features muddy, greasy stones, the grip can be virtually non-existent.”
As well as playing havoc with grip, and making the cars look like they have been pulled from a swamp, a build up of mud underneath will mess affect balance and handling. It is not unusual for teams to remove 100 kilograms of caked-on mud from each car at service.
Car set-up is another challenge in Wales. Teams must find the best compromise between a harder set-up, which will give drivers accuracy and the confidence to push at speed, and a setting that is soft enough to get the most grip from the tyres.
Most teams will come armed with a base set-up from a pre-event test, but with so many variables this is a rally they can never be completely ready for.