In contrast to its heyday, when it used to cover upwards of 70 stages over the length and breadth of Britain, this year’s Wales Rally GB (the correct current nomenclature for what was the RAC Rally) was a mere stroll of 189 competitive miles. But that did not make it any less intense. Like the Le Mans 24 Hours, the character of the World Rally Championship has changed: the element of endurance is gone and now every stage is a sprint. If anything, this makes it even harder.
It was a fact acknowledged by Volkswagen’s Sébastien Ogier before the start, when he said that this was the first time he could focus on pure enjoyment, having wrapped up his second title on the previous round in Spain. “With the pressure of trying to win the championship, the fun maybe takes a back seat,” he said. “But here, it’s just going to be fun.”
Ogier drove like a man revelling in the slippery and inconsistent conditions, although the weather was unusually warm for this time of year. Spectators on Saturday’s Dyfi stage were even spotted removing their coats, an almost unprecedented phenomenon.
Ogier led from the first stage to the last, but on the opening day he was pushed to the very limit – or rather, the limit of his team-mates. The Frenchman had predicted that the biggest challenge would come from the other two Volkswagens of Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen. The latter was quickest in shakedown and gunning for his first victory on roads he knows well. But on the second stage of the rally Mikkelsen went off, damaging the suspension. Crews normally carry a basic spares package in the car, including suspension arms, to make essential repairs if they hit trouble. Hoping to save weight, Mikkelsen had left all the spares behind…
Latvala pursued Ogier throughout the first day, ending it only 6.6sec behind. On the first stage of the second day, though, it all started to unravel. Knowing he couldn’t afford to let his team-mate escape, Latvala pushed hard but slid into a ditch, from which it took spectators more than three minutes to extricate him. To make matters worse, the incident ripped the rear wing off Latvala’s Polo, which made the handling extremely unstable for the rest of the morning. “It was my fault,” admitted the Finn. “But with Sébastien like this, if you don’t push to the maximum, you don’t catch him.”
This set up an intense battle for second place, which eventually played itself out a full minute behind Ogier. Taking part in his very last rally with M-Sport before retiring, aged 34, Mikko Hirvonen eventually emerged as best of the rest. Throughout the event he battled with the Citroëns of Kris Meeke and Mads Ostberg, both of whom overhauled Hirvonen briefly, before falling victim to separate tyre-related dramas. Ostberg suffered a left-rear tyre delamination during the Aberhirnant stage, run in the dark on Saturday night, while Meeke’s problems were more self-inflicted.
He headed into the final day holding second but skidded into a ditch on Sunday morning, which cost him little time but damaged his tyres. Crucially, there was no service halt on the final day, so he had to hang on to that damaged set throughout and slipped from second to sixth.
Ostberg took the final podium place behind Hirvonen, so Citroën secured second place behind VW in the championship for manufacturers.
Hirvonen’s second place on the rally also ensured that he achieved his own target of ending the year as the best non-Volkswagen driver. It was the best possible farewell, crowned by setting a fastest stage time on the second day.
“I can’t think of a better way to end my career,” he said.
The WRC2 championship – which sits just below the main World Rally Car category – was clinched by former Dakar winner Nasser Al Attiyah, who finished sixth in class.
Jari Ketomaa won it, while Britain’s Matthew Wilson was third on his return to WRC competition for the first time in two years. He drove a Ford Fiesta in the same Michelin Pilot livery with which his father Malcolm sealed the 1994 British Rally Championship. Anthony Peacock