THE closely-fought FIA World Rally Championship takes another step toward a likely showdown in Australia when the three title rivals line up for Wales Rally GB later today.
PHOTO: Sébastien Ogier believes he has to finish ahead of Thierry Neuville and Ott Tänak in Wales to stay in the 2018 title fight (Jaanus Ree/WRC Media pic)
The four-day classic is the 11th round in a 13-round season that finishes with Kennards Hire Rally Australia on the NSW Coffs Coast on 15-18 November.
The drivers’ world championship is on a knife edge, with just 24 points separating series leader Thierry Neuville, fast-finishing Ott Tänak and five-time champion Sébastien Ogier.
The title can’t be secured on Welsh soil this year, but the victory will be hotly contested. There will be plenty of chances to lose it if Wales serves up its traditionally treacherous rain, mud and fog and the result could prove pivotal.
“The past few editions of the event have been run in wet, rainy conditions but we are there a bit earlier this year so let’s see if the weather is kinder. Whatever happens, it will be a tricky rally, particularly on the second pass,” said Hyundai driver Neuville.
While Toyota’s Tänak is the man of the moment, coming off three straight wins in Finland, Germany and Turkey, four-time GB winner Ogier fears his campaign with M-Sport Ford will be over if he fails to beat the others this weekend. He slipped to third in the standings after making an uncharacteristic mistake in Turkey three weeks ago.
“It’s one of the most challenging rallies on the calendar and there is a real art to judging the grip through the forests,” said Ogier, who last week announced his switch to Citroën for 2019.
“The title fight could not be closer this year, but the team can rest assured that we will give our very best in pursuit of the strongest possible result to keep our championship hopes alive.”
Tänak will not have an easy task to turn his late-season momentum into a fourth win.
“In an ideal world, I would like to have dry conditions and fast roads, but everybody knows that you cannot expect anything when it comes to the weather in Wales,” he said.
“During our test it was raining quite a lot so we had a nice amount of mud, which was perfect for testing. We were able to do quite a lot of work to try and further develop the car and get more performance.
“Everything is possible now in the championship and I have a good feeling about what we can do in Britain.”
Although the Welsh forest stages encourage drivers to go hard, experience is needed to avoid getting caught by one of the countless changes in grip. The roads are greasy in places, kept damp by invariably heavy rain in the thick, gloomy forests.
Another challenge will be that crews will have to tackle the 150.24 kilometre-long leg on Saturday – the weekend’s longest day – without a proper service break, meaning any mistake or technical issue can quickly become fatal for their chances.
Wales Rally GB starts with a spectator stage on Thursday night (local time) and finishes on Sunday afternoon with two runs over an asphalt stage around the Great Orme coast road and on to the streets of Llandudno.