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Photo: Jari-Matti Latvala tries his hand at ice hockey in Wolfsburg last weekend before tackling Wales Rally GB. 

(13/11/2013)  THE championship titles may have been decided, but there’s still a thrilling finale in prospect when the 2013 FIA World Rally Championship reaches its conclusion at Wales Rally GB, which starts tomorrow.

The 13th and final round offers drivers and teams one last opportunity to show what they’re capable of.

With the FIA titles settled over the past two rounds since Coates Hire Rally Australia in September, team orders are history and Wales Rally GB promises a classic, no-holds-barred, flat-out fight to the end of the season.

And while the ‘top guns’ will be fighting at the front, many Australian fans will be focused on the performance of their compatriot Molly Taylor, making her only WRC appearance of the season after recently winning the European Ladies Championship.

The British round has undergone a complete transformation with the aim of reinforcing its position as one of the most challenging events on the calendar.

Billed as the “Rally of Legends”, the event has shifted from a September slot to its traditional position as the concluding round of the season and has moved from long-term home Cardiff to a new base at Deeside in Flintshire, closer to the sport’s traditional heartlands in North Wales.

A new home enables this year’s route to feature forest gravel rally stages that are either totally new or haven’t been used in the WRC since the nineties. And having moved from summer to late autumn, the stages are likely to be made more challenging by the possibility of rain, fog, ice and even snow.

The rally starts on Thursday morning with road-order qualifying on a 3.11 km stage in Llandegla Forest. After an afternoon ceremonial start at Conwy Quay, the competitive tomorrow evening with the first of three challenging night stages in Snowdonia, Gwydyr, Penmachno and Clocaenog, none of which has featured on the rally route for more than 15 years.

Friday takes crews back on more familiar ground, tackling two runs through Hafren, Sweet Lamb and Myherin special stages either side of a remote service in Newtown.

Saturday’s stages are set further north, closer to Dolgellau, starting with two runs through Gartheiniog and Dyfi forests, the latter restored to its full 21.5kms length for the first time since 1998.

The route then returns to Deeside, first via another 21kms classic Welsh forest stage in Dyfnant and finally taking in the first of two new spectator stages set against the spectacular backdrop of Chirk Castle and run on asphalt.

Sunday’s itinerary en route to the grand finale on the dramatic all-asphalt Great Orme includes second runs through Dyfnant and Clocaenog forests – the latter being the official Power Stage – plus a first visit to Penllyn near Bala, another stage making a welcome return, this time for its first inclusion since 1991.

The route back to the ceremonial finish Llandudno also features the second of the reintroduced short spectator stages, this time set in the grounds of Kinmel Park.

After 22 Special Stages and 316kms of fiercely fought competition, the winning car will cross the finish ramp in Llandudno on Sunday afternoon.

Among the hot tips to win is Volkswagen’s Jari-Matti Latvala, who feels right at home on the fast and flowing Welsh gravel roads.

He made his WRC debut therein 2002 at the age of 17, and has tackled it every year since, winning at the wheel of a Fiesta RS WRC in 2011 and 2012.

This year he’ll be driving a Volkswagen Polo R and fresh from a rally-leading performance in Spain. Last minute mechanical problems cost him victory on that occasion, but after a celebration tour of Germany with Volkswagen, during which he made a star appearance at a Borussia Dortmund football match and lapped his Polo on ice before a German Ice Hockey League game, Latvala’s confidence is riding high.

The Finn’s closest challenger is likely to be his teammate Sebastien Ogier, who will no doubt be keen to round off his championship-winning season with another 25 points. Up to now victory in Wales has eluded the Frenchman, and his best result remains the 11th place he scored with Citroen in 2011.

Latvala’s former teammate Mikko Hirvonen is another of the event’s leading specialists and a fan of the high-speed gravel stages that resemble those in his native Finland.

Having competed Wales Rally GB 10 times – winning it with Ford in 2007 – Hirvonen would love to round off an otherwise disappointing season at Citroen with victory in his DS3 WRC.

On his last outing with Ford before he takes up his new position at Hyundai, Thierry Neuville is also one to watch. He’s tackled the rally only once before, finishing seventh in 2012 at the wheel of a Citroen DS3 WRC, so this will be his event debut in a Fiesta RS WRC as well as his M-Sport swansong.

Competing for the first time in a factory-spec Citroen DS3 WRC, former F1 driver and newly-crowned WRC2 champion Robert Kubica will be watched closely to see if he is able to challenge the established WRC stars.

Sydney-sider Molly Taylor and her British co-driver Seb Marshall will compete in their familiar Citroen DS3 R3, run by the Italian United Business team.

Taylor skipped a planned run in Coates Hire Rally Australia to focus on her European campaign, but will be free in Britain to show the mettle that has made her the world’s number one female rally driver.

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Chris Nixon

Chris Nixon is Media Manager for Kennards Hire Rally Australia.

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