THE fight for the 2019 FIA World Rally Championship reaches a critical point when the three main contenders tackle Wales Rally Great Britain, starting tonight.
PHOTO: Red Bull Content Pool
Competition between Ott Tänak, Sébastien Ogier and Thierry Neuville has narrowed sharply and each is targeting a strong result in Wales, aiming to break free at the top of the standings before the series finale at Kennards Hire Rally Australia in 42 days’ time.
An overdue victory for Ogier while his rivals faltered in the previous round in Turkey has ignited the drivers’ title chase with events remaining only in Great Britain and Spain and on the NSW Coffs Coast on 14-17 November.
Suddenly, Citroën’s French star is in second place and 17 points behind Toyota driver Tänak. Last year at this time he was third and 23 points behind, but then surged to claim his fifth Rally GB win and ultimately his six-straight championship at a nail-biting Australian showdown.
Ogier’s Turkish delight demoted Neuville to third, but the Belgian is just 30 points off the lead and well in contention to secure a maiden title.
With a total of 90 points on offer across the three remaining rounds, a decider at Rally Australia looks increasingly likely.
Tickets for Kennards Hire Rally Australia, priced from $29 to $119, are available now from TICKETEK.COM. Highlights of the Coffs Coast event will include two nights of the harbourside Destination New South Wales Super Special Stage and a free concert by legendary rock band Dragon exclusively for 4-day ticket-holders.
Scenting a seventh championship – a world title tally that would match Michael Schumacher’s in Formula 1 – Ogier is placed ideally to boost his chances in the notoriously wet, muddy and foggy Welsh forests.
“I’m determined to really go for it and have a say in the outcome, especially as the running order isn’t an issue for those starting at the front. It’s all about reading the changes in grip and dealing with the conditions,” the Citroën C3 said.
“This rally can offer a very big difference in conditions, which are challenging, and it’s so important that you need to stay calm.
“When you’re in the fog and struggling to see the road, you really have the feeling that you are going too slow. But in this moment your head is very important to keep cool. You must do the best with what you have and remember the others are going to struggle as well.”
Ogier admits this week has been one of the toughest to get to grips with.
“Early in the career you struggle to find the right rhythm and believe you need to drive at 120 percent to be fast. It’s maybe only later on, with more maturity, that you understand it’s not the way to win rallies,” he explained.
Tänak aims to bounce back after retiring his Toyota Yaris with an electrical problem in Turkey, ending a run of four wins from five rallies.
“The gap in the championship is closer now, but we have three rallies to go and we know we were fast on each of them last year. Now we just have to finish the job, starting in Wales,” he said.
Rally Australia 2017 winner Neuville says he’s ready for the challenge as he also strives to protect his Hyundai team’s position at the top of the manufacturers’ standings.
“The stages are quite flowing, very fast and we have some dark-light conditions too, which adds to the atmosphere. The itinerary is demanding with long days, but it’s what Wales is known for and I’m ready for the challenge,” he said.
Other notable contenders this weekend include 2017 GB winner Elfyn Evans, recovered from a back injury that sidelined him for three events, Kiwi Hayden Paddon, back in the WRC for the first time since finishing runner-up in Australia in 2018, 19-year-old Finn Kalle Rovanperä, who could lock up the WRC 2 Pro championship, and 2003 champion Petter Solberg, who will celebrate his retirement with 18-year-old son Oliver in a two-car Volkswagen team.
The rally starts in Liverpool on Thursday night and drivers face 22 special stages totalling 309.76km before Sunday afternoon’s finish in Llandudno.