THE FIA World Rally Championship kicks off its penultimate round at Wales Rally GB tonight, with Frenchman Sébastien Ogier hoping to add a fifth drivers’ crown to his record but rivals intent on delaying a decider to the Australian finale next month.
Ogier comfortably leads the drivers’ standings after 11 rounds on three continents, but won’t clinch the title this weekend unless he can score at least seven more points than M-Sport teammate Ott Tänak, or eight more than Hyundai rival Thierry Neuville.
Having won the past four GB events, Ogier appears in a strong position and will want to avoid the prospect of a showdown on 16-19 November at Kennards Hire Rally Australia, where he’s said he would have to fight harder.
(Tickets for Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast are on sale now at ticketek.com, with a 2-for-1 offer on a $99 three-day, all-stages pass available until 31 October.)
He was referring to the running-order rules, which require the championship leader to start first on Fridays and effectively sweep the dry gravel roads for following rivals, who can go faster.
However, the rule could instead allow Ogier to build a crucial early advantage in his Ford Fiesta in Wales if the conditions are typically wet and muddy and following cars only churn up the surface.
“It’s one of the most challenging rallies of the year and there is a real art to judging the grip levels through the forests. It’s an event that takes a while to get to grips with – quite literally – but I have to say that I now feel at home on the Welsh stages,” he said.
He told Britain’s Autosport magazine: “I didn’t want to go to the last rally in Australia and still be fighting for the championship.
“The road cleaning is really bad on that rally and to go there and fight in those conditions, with the championship leader having to drive (in the worst conditions) at the front on the first day, it wouldn’t be so good.”
Tänak – heading to the Toyota team in 2018 – had nothing to say about his championship prospects while he, Ogier and third teammate Eflyn Evans focus on also delivering M-Sport a seemingly-inevitable manufacturers’ title this weekend.
But Hyundai i20 Coupe driver Neuville vowed to fight to the end after losing his momentum with score-less runs in the most recent rounds in Spain and Germany.
“We were dealt something of a harsh blow in Spain, but we are ready to fight back in Wales,” Neuville said.
“It is a unique event on the calendar, a rally where weather conditions can really dictate performance and confidence levels.
“Driving at high speed through the forest stages, sometimes in the dark, is just incredible. I intend to keep pushing right to the end of the championship.”
Steeped in history, Wales Rally GB is one of the most anticipated and celebrated WRC events. Rain, fog and even ice are all to be expected. Muddy conditions add a treacherous twist and ever-changing grip waits to trap the unwary.
Based at Deeside in northern Wales, the rally starts with an all-new stage at Tir Prince Raceway tonight (local time). Friday presents the classic stages of Myherin, Sweet Lamb and Hafren. A17-hour marathon on Saturday ends with two night stages, while five stages await on Sunday, bringing the total competitive distance to 304 kilometres.
Author: Chris Nixon